Mark’s travelogue describes the journey of Jesus from Galilee (9:33) to Perea (10:1) to Jericho (10:46) to Bethany (11:1) and finally to Jerusalem (11:11). But this movement is more than geographical. The theme that runs through this journey to death is servanthood (9:35; 10:44-45) and the call to assume the role of the “last” rather than the first (9:35; 10:31, 44). Jesus, through whom the power of the kingdom of God was revealed, will become like a powerless child. The King will become a servant; the first will become last.
The story of the “rich young ruler” (a composite description derived from Mark, Matthew and Luke) is so familiar that it is difficult to hear it afresh. Its power and punch is often lost in that familiarity.
TWe recover it if we hear the story in the context of Mark’s travelogue. More specifically, the narrative places this rich man-Jesus dialogue between themes of “becoming like a little child” and Jesus’ own suffering servanthood. For the sake of the kingdom of God, Jesus becomes a powerless servant. The first became last. He asks the same of the “rich young ruler.” And there’s the rub— him and for us.
It is apparent that the eager young man did not expect such a radical call to discipleship. He runs to Jesus, falls as a supplicant at his knees and shows him great respect as a prominent rabbi, calling him “good teacher.” His life, at least externally and in his own mind, was a model of obedience. He had kept the Torah from his youth. He hoped for some wisdom from Jesus about eternal life and anticipated that he would follow through on whatever Jesus demanded. But he did not expect to hear what he heard.
Jesus’ interaction with the rich man is not manipulative as if he only wants to prove a point with his disciples. Jesus “loved” him. His invitation to “follow” was neither perfunctory nor shallow. Jesus called him to a life of discipleship.
But something is amiss. Perhaps Jesus recognizes this from the start. When the rich man addressed him as “good,” Jesus reminded him that only God is “good.” This is not so much a rejection of a divine appellation or a rebuke of the phrase “good teacher” as it is a recognition that all goodness derives from God rather than from our own efforts. Goodness is a divine gift.
The pious rich man is little different from the rest of us. We often locate goodness in externals, in the commandments, or in our long-term devotion. We often deceive ourselves into thinking that we measure up to some degree even if we recognize that we may yet lack something (as even the rich man believed and consequently came to Jesus seeking whatever that was). We often become religious addicts feeding on our measurable performances and seeking the approval of others, particularly God’s.
Perhaps the rich man, like us, is seeking approval; perhaps he is seeking to measure up and wanted to make sure he had his bases covered. He, like we often are, is a pious seeker. But he is bitterly disappointed—perhaps shocked is a better translation—by Jesus’ demand.
Like most of us, he did not really know himself. He did not know his first love. He thought it was God but he learned that he really loved his wealth more. He could not embrace the call to radical discipleship. He could not become last after having been first for so long. He could not give away his wealth in order to become a servant to the poor. In the words of the previous text (10:15), he could not receive the kingdom from the position of powerlessness like a little child. He wanted to achieve the kingdom from the status of wealth and power. He could not let go (become like a child) in order to enter the kingdom of God, that is, to join the journey of a disciple which led to Jerusalem.
As in so many other circumstances in Mark, Jesus turns to his disciples and uses this heartbreaking situation as a teaching moment. Entering the kingdom of God is difficult; indeed, it is impossible (which is the point of the camel/needle hyperbole—and Jesus so describes it in 10:27). This is not only true of the rich (10:23) but of everyone (10:24).
People don’t move from first to last. The rich man illustrates this and he is not the only one. The disciples themselves find it difficult, if not impossible, to receive the kingdom as a little child, as one of the powerless.
The disciples are shocked. They have every expectation of entering the kingdom. Moreover, they expected to rule within the kingdom as some of the greatest in it. They expected to be first rather than last. Now they hear that even entering the kingdom is dubious since if the rich—those blessed by God—cannot enter then surely their prospects are limited. “Who can be saved?” they ask.
Entering the kingdom is impossible, Jesus responds, but nothing is impossible for God. From a human standpoint, becoming like a little child is difficult but God can empower this. God can save. God can give entrance to the kingdom. God can empower our servanthood.
Peter, as normal in Mark, cannot remain silent. He finds all this quite disturbing. He has turned his world upside down to follow Jesus and now Jesus tells him that entering the kingdom is impossible. We can hear the frustration in Peter’s words, “We have left everything to follow you.” We did what the rich man would not. We chose radical discipleship. And now we hear that entrance into the kingdom is impossible. One can almost hear the hidden question, “Where’s our profit? What’s in it for us?”
Discipleship does profit, but it is not the kind of profit envisioned by Peter or the rich man. Whatever we leave behind we gain. While we may leave mother or father or wife or children or siblings, we gain a hundredfold in the community of disciples. This is what Jesus did. He left his mother, brothers and sisters but gained a family of disciples, a community of kingdom people (Mark 6:34-35). Loss becomes gain in the kingdom of God both in the present and in eternal life.
However, this profit is no bed of roses. Radical discipleship will invite hostility (persecutions), suspicion, and mockers (Mark 13:9-13). It is a journey to a cross. It is to assume a last position, but the last will become first. The cross will become an empty tomb.
We are all the rich man in this story. We don’t know really know our first loves until tested and we are often shocked to learn that we are not as pious as we thought we were.
We are all Peter. We want to know what profit our discipleship yields. We want tangible results. We fear losing everything for nothing.
And Jesus loves us, calls us and encourages us. “Follow me,” he says. Will we? Dare we?