30 years in and Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (1988) is more relevant than ever. This week’s commentary homes in on Mark 10:17-31.
Mark’s wry joke about the camel and the needle in particular has received ingenious “manipulation at the hands of bourgeois conscience-tranquilizing exegetes” (Jose Miranda). The famous medieval assertion that the “eye of the needle” referred to a certain small gate in ancient Jerusalem through which camels could enter only on their knees (!) is only one of the more obvious ways devised to rob this metaphor of its class-critical power. The proposition is plainly an impossible one. Bailey points out that the Babylonian Talmud records a similar hyperbole–an elephant going through the eye of a needle–and comments that “the elephant was the largest animal in Mesopotamia and the camel the largest in Palestine.” Mark’s stinging sarcasm is perhaps more recognizable in Frederick Buechner’s contemporary paraphrase: for wealthy North Americans it is harder to enter the kingdom “than for Nelson Rockefeller to get through the night deposit slot of the First National City Bank!”
Mark has again used a statement about “entering the kingdom of God” to reinforce his alternative ideology: solidarity with “the least” is extended from the family system to the economic system. The disciples’ incredulity (10:26) shows that it is not at all clear to them that anyone can be saved if not the pious at the top of the social ladder. This assumption would have been based upon the dominant ideology, which indicated that wealth = blessing from God. It is this that Jesus repudiates, contending instead that the only way to salvation for the rich is by the redistribution of their wealth–that is, the eradication of class oppression. The way in which this ideology legitimates the symbolic order will later (12:41-44) come under direct attack, in a temple episode that similarly juxtaposes the rich with the poor.
Once again, the social world has been turned upside down in Markan narrative–but can this status reversal ever actually be realized? For the first time Jesus addresses this terrible question, which has loomed throughout the story. His answer: “What is humanly impossible is not for the God for whom all things are possible” (10:27). Again, this saying anticipates Jesus’ direct confrontation with the political economy of the Jerusalem temple, which exploits the poor; for after calling for its overthrow, Jesus will once again remind his disciples of the “possible impossible” promised by this God (11:23).