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Jesus on Who Can Be Saved (Mark 10:26-31)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus Teaches a Rich Man

Jesus Teaches a Rich Man

    26 And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved? 27 And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible. 28 Then Peter began to say unto him, Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee.
    29 And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, 30 But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life. 31 But many that are first shall be last; and the last first.

Jesus, God, and Salvation

After hearing that it is impossible for rich people to get into heaven, Jesus’ disciples were frankly astonished — and with good reason. Rich people have always been important patrons of religion, making great shows of their piety and supporting all sorts of religious causes. Prosperity has also traditionally been treated as a sign of God’s favor. If the rich and powerful could not get into heaven, then how can anyone else manage it?

According to Jesus, salvation can’t come about through human efforts — it can only come about through the efforts of God. This doctrine has played an important role in the development of ideas of predestination in Christianity. According to Calvinism, people are only saved if God chooses them — and if not, they they are doomed to go to hell.

Curiously, Jesus asserts here that “with God all things are possible” — a famous and now common saying, but one which conflicts with earlier situations where Jesus was unable to do any “mighty work” because of people’s unbelief (Mark 6:5). So, is anything possible with God or not? If so, then Jesus should have been able to perform miracles despite people’s skepticism; if not, then Jesus must be wrong here.

More interesting and more disturbing, however, is Jesus’ encouragement that people leave behind family, spouse, children, and lands in order to follow him. This would have been very radical for the family-oriented Jews, but it is entirely consistent with how cult leaders operate: separate a person from everything and everyone they hold dear in order to reshape their thinking.

This sort of attitude probably would have been consistent with the experiences of the early Christian communities of which Mark would have been a member. Conversion to Christianity often meant breaking with friends and family. Giving up pagan beliefs would have meant giving up one of the things which tied people together as part of the political community. In place of all this Christianity offered new, charismatic bonds of radical and eschatological beliefs.

This isn’t consistent with the sorts of “family values” that the Christian Right in America tries to promote. When they talk about “family values,” this isn’t one of the passages they are likely to bring up — either the part about giving up all wealth or the part about leaving one’s family. In fact, Christian Right organizations often fight against cult-like religious groups that do demand such things from adherents.

Perhaps a bit more consistent with American Christianity is Jesus’ claim that those who give up all to follow him will have their sacrifice repaid a hundredfold. In context, this sounds like a form of bribery: follow me and you’ll be richly rewarded. It seems inconsistent with Jesus’ message that the rich cannot easily achieve heaven.

Many Christians in America today, however, have taken the claim to heart. There are televangelists who tell people that they should invest their money with the televangelists and those who sacrifice the most (i.e., send in the most money) will receive the greatest rewards from Jesus. Many regard this as an especially low form of exploitation, but it is not inconsistent with the words Mark uses here.

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