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Jesus on How the Rich Get to Heaven (Mark 10:17-25)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus Teaches a Rich Man

Jesus Teaches a Rich Man

    17 And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? 18 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.
    19 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. 20 And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. 21 Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.
    22 And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.
    23 And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! 24 And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
    Compare: Matthew 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30

Jesus, Wealth, Power, and Heaven

This scene with Jesus and a rich young man is probably the most famous biblical passage that tends to be ignored by modern Christians. If this passage were actually heeded today, it is likely that Christianity and Christians would be very different. It is, however, an inconvenient teaching and so tends to be glossed over entirely.

The passage starts out with a young man addressing Jesus as “good,” which Jesus then rebukes him for. Why? Even if as he says “none are good by God,” then isn’t he God and therefore also good? Even if he isn’t God, why would he say that he isn’t good? This seems like a very Jewish sentiment which conflicts with the christology of the other gospels in which Jesus is portrayed as a sinless lamb, God incarnate. If Jesus is angry at being called “good,” how might he react if someone were to call him “sinless” or “perfect”?

The Jewishness of Jesus continues when he explains what person must do in order to have eternal life, namely keep the commandments. It was a traditional Jewish perspective that by keeping God’s laws, a person would remain “right” with God and be rewarded. It’s curious, though, that Jesus doesn’t actually list the Ten Commandments here. Instead we get six — one of which, “defraud not,” appears to be Jesus’ own creation. These don’t even parallel the seven rules in the Noachide Code (universal laws that are supposed to apply to everyone, Jew and non-Jew).

Apparently, all of that isn’t quite enough and so Jesus adds to it. Does he add that a person must “believe in him,” which is the traditional church answer to how a person can find eternal life? No, not quite — Jesus’ answer is both broader and more difficult. It is broader in that one is expected to “follow” Jesus, a task that can have a variety of meanings but which most Christians can at least plausibly argue that they try to do. The answer is more difficult in that a person must sell all they have first — something few, if any, modern Christians can plausibly claim that they do.

In fact, the selling of material wealth and property appears to not only be advisable, but actually critical — according to Jesus, there is no chance that a rich person can get into heaven. Rather than a sign of God’s blessing, material wealth is treated as a sign that someone isn’t heeding God’s will. The King James Version emphasizes this point by repeating it three times; in many other translations, though, the second, “Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God,” is reduced to “Children, how hard it is to enter into the kingdom of God.”

It’s not clear whether this means “rich” relative to one’s close neighbors or relative to anyone else in the world. If the former, then there are many Christians in the West who won’t go to heaven; if the latter, then there are few Christians in the West who will get to heaven. It is likely, though, that Jesus’ rejection of material wealth is closely tied to his rejection of earthly power — if a person has to be receptive to powerlessness to follow Jesus, it makes sense that they would have to abandon many of the trappings of power, like wealth and material goods.

In the only example of anyone refusing to follow Jesus, the young man went away grieved, apparently upset that he couldn’t become a follower on easier terms that would allow him to keep all of this “great possessions.” This doesn’t seem to be a problem which afflicts Christians today. In contemporary society, there is no apparent difficulty in “following” Jesus while still retaining all sorts of worldly goods.

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