First reading: Wisdom 7:7-11
Responsorial Psalm: 89(90):12-17
Second reading: Hebrews 4:12-13
Gospel: Mark 10:17-30
Link to readings.
All three readings this week come together around a radical view of Christian life. The First Reading, from Wisdom 7:7-11, is clearly meant to set off the Gospel which tells of a rich man who found Jesus’ call to discipleship too radical. The brief Second Reading, from Hebrews 4:12-13, also makes its contribution, speaking of the way in which the word of God can lay open the depths of a person.
This is certainly what happens in the case of the rich man told in the Gospel, Mark 10:17-30. (Note that in Mark, as in Luke, in contrast to Matthew, he is not said to be a rich young man – though that is perhaps implicit since he is clearly a person who has his life before him.) The episode provides a further example of how the following of Jesus requires detachment from what the world values highly: in this case, the security and other advantages provided by wealth.
The man does want to inherit eternal life. He comes to Jesus as to a teacher (‘Good Master’) whose wisdom is already well known. Jesus deflects the appellation ‘Good’ away from himself and on to God alone. God is the author and giver of life. Questions about ‘life’ must be considered strictly in relation to what God has laid down and this, in first instance at least, is to be found in the commandments of the Torah, several of which – all ones dealing with duties to one’s neighbour – Jesus lists.
TREASURE IN HEAVEN
When the man responds that he has kept all these from his youth, the interaction moves to a new plane. Jesus, we are told, ‘looked steadily at him and loved him’ (v 21a). How the love was evident we are not told – possibly in the nature of Jesus’ gaze on the man, possibly in some gesture of affection such as an embrace. What the report of Jesus’ reaction does establish, however, is that the discussion, from being a rather theoretical one about the requirements of the Torah, is now placed within a context of personal relationship, with the initiative from Jesus’ side. The series of instructions that follow next (‘You lack one thing: Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’ [vv. 21b]) do not stand by themselves but flow entirely from the relationship now offered. The sense of being chosen (‘looked upon’) and ‘loved’ by Jesus should communicate the freedom from attachment to wealth that following him will require.
Most Jews in Jesus’ day regarded wealth as a blessing and as an opportunity for doing good. In an insecure world wealth is the most obvious form of security for the future. For Jesus the only real source of security is to have ‘wealth’ not in an earthly bank, but in a heavenly one (‘treasure in heaven’). And the only way to deposit that treasure in that heavenly bank is to give it here and now to the poor. Where earthly banks can easily fail, the heavenly one has a divine guarantee. Everything comes back then to the man’s being prepared to share something of Jesus’ radical trust in God.
The man declines the invitation. The prospect of love and companionship with Jesus is not strong enough to break attachment to his great wealth. The fact, though, that he goes away ‘sad’ shows that he knows he is declining something that would have given him the fulfilment for which, at the deepest part of his person, it seems he was longing.
Jesus respects the man’s freedom and lets him go. But he does make a comment of more general application: the difficulty riches cause for entrance into the ‘Kingdom of God’ (not really different here from gaining ‘eternal life’). To reinforce the point in an arresting, even humorous way he adds what may be a proverbial statement: the difficulty of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. (Attempts to explain the image in a moralising kind of way have never been persuasive.) When the disciples point out that this makes salvation impossible, Jesus responds that this is to look only at human capacity, not at the power of God, which stands behind the whole life and mission of Jesus. In the context of the love and companionship he creates (and to which he called the rich man) such freedom from attachment to wealth becomes possible – as Peter’s following comment does in fact point out.
Jesus hardly required literal abandonment of possessions from all his followers. However, all are called to a freedom from the kind of attachment to wealth that shows distrust of the God proclaimed by Jesus: One who can be trusted absolutely to bestow (eternal) life on those who follow Jesus’ way.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media