What to Do with a Camel's Inheritance
Gospel: Mark 10:17-30
15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
19You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ 20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘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.’
22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
28 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 29Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
Being a camel. What can one say? asks my UCA colleague Peter Lockhart. He's right. The clear meaning of the text is that neither camels nor ships' hawsers1 can get through the eye of a needle. We cannot make it happen. And as he shows, we are undeniably camels.
The reading this week reflects a perceptual divide which has lasted from well before the time of Jesus until now. The disciples understood riches to be a sign of God's blessing, the view found in "Deuteronomy, which encouraged the idea that those who are godly are blessed with wealth, and those who are not blessed with wealth must not be godly." (Brehm) For example: "But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today." (Deut. 8:18)
This is why the disciples are so astonished by Jesus' statement that it is "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God," and wonder who can be saved. Jesus leaves no wiggle room here: "‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!" To call them children is to make an absolute claim to authority. When he Jesus calls them children, he
...is not talking about innocence. The innocence of children is a modern idea which it is unlikely Jesus would have recognised or understood.
The child in antiquity was radically dependent upon the [father of the household.] The father decided whether the child would even be accepted into the family. Technically a father could say, “Too ugly. Not one of mine! We’re not keeping it.” Children belonged to their father and remained subject to his authority even as adults. The saying "to receive the kingdom like a child," refers to the absolute dependence of a child on its father for any status, for any inheritance, and even for life itself. (Paraphrase of Pheme Perkins quoted here.)
Jesus' understanding of wealth is much closer to that outlined by Malina and Rohrbaugh, and far from Deuteronomy.
Essential to understanding poverty is the notion of "limited good." In modern economies, we make the assumption that goods are, in principle, in unlimited supply. If a shortage exists, we can produce more. If one person gets more of something, it does not automatically mean someone else gets less, it may just mean the factory worked overtime and more became available. But in ancient Palestine, the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well - literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else.... [a]n honorable man would thus be interested only in what was rightfully his and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another's. Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person (Jerome, In Hieremiam 2.5.2; Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, LXXIV, 61). Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud. The notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron.
This may account for Jesus listing 'do not defraud' as one of the commandments, even though it is not in the list of the ten. Malina and Rohrbaugh conclude
To be labeled "rich" was therefore a social and moral statement as much as an economic one. It meant having the power or capacity to take from someone weaker what was rightfully [theirs]. Being rich was synonymous with being greedy. (Malina and Rohrbaugh in the section Rich, Poor, and Limited Good, 5:3 of Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels which I quote here. I have added the bold emphases.)
As Westerners, we are absolutely enmeshed in riches; we are born into a family of robbers. I say in the same article
Our problem has been to seek to overcome "the limited good" by material production. But ultimately, this has still been theft; to begin with, it steals from the factory workers— industrial history is a cycle of the workers gaining rights, and some humanity, and then the industrialists "off-shoring" to a place of lower rights expectations— theft. And material production has, in the end, sought to steal from the biosphere. This theft is turning into a disaster. Because we have been anything but lukewarm in our greed, earth may spit us out. (Rev 3)
It is not merely the industrialists. It is us; we buy the iPads. I make my own bread to avoid an allergy problem, but the gas for the stove, and wheat for the flour, and the making of the flour, are all part of the same industrial system which is taking more from Earth than it can bear. We can't get out of this system, even if we want to, and mostly, we don’t want to get out of it.
Daniel Clendenin writes "a beggar asked me for help in the Costco parking lot. I turned him away, and as I did, I felt my heart shrivel a little. A few days later I was grateful for a do-over at the farmer's market." Instantly, I remembered a girl sitting shivering on the concrete of the wind tunnel of Grenfell Street; I walked past. I remembered how often I 'forget' to carry cash for the poor who approach me. This camel is guilty as charged; I left Jesus sitting in the street, shaking with cold. (Matt 25)
We are afraid to help the poor by becoming poor, so that they may share in what we have, for one reason: we are afraid to die. Richard Beck says "you might claim that you don't fear death, but once you start loving others you'll quickly find out that you do." To let go of our possessions is to become vulnerable. In another post Beck says
Love is the allocation of our dying.
Life is a finite resource always slipping away. Every minute that passes is a passing of life, a movement toward death. Every moment we are being expended and used up.
But we have some choices in how we are expended. We can allocate our dying. We can specify the times and places of our dying.
My point here is that, because life is a finite resource, giving ourselves to others is a very real sort of sacrifice.
He could add that not to love is to steal life from others in order that I may live a little longer.
I think we are too quick if we condemn the man with many possessions. Someone has pointed out how similar the text is to other healing stories. For example:
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ (Mark 1:40-44)
In our story, Jesus touches the one thing the rich man needs: "You lack one thing." Healing will come if the man sells all he has and gives to the poor; he will have treasure in heaven— does the ordering of the words imply he cannot follow Jesus until he does this— then come follow me.
So the man went away sorrowing. Why do we assume, as he went away as Jesus commanded him, that he did not follow Jesus instruction? It's not as if he were the only one who was shocked and amazed at what Jesus had said.
Years later, someone asked Peter, "Isn't that the wealthy bloke Jesus told to sell everything?"
"Yes, he's part of us."
"He still looks like a rich man to me. How can you let him stay?"
"Well, at the time I began to say to Jesus that we had left everything to follow him, and he gave me a sad kind of look… I found out a few weeks later that I hadn't given everything at all, and that I wasn't able to, either. But I am being made whole, despite myself."
I remember the first time I read this story I was seven years old, reading Mark’s Gospel in bed. When I got to verse 25, I was so alarmed that I slammed the Bible shut, jumped out of bed, and went running down the hall. I shook my mother out of a sound sleep. "Mom," I whispered urgently, "Jesus says that rich people don’t go to heaven!"
"We are not rich. Go back to bed," came my mother’s response.
I knew better. I knew I had all I needed plus plenty more... the little girl inside me knew that these words of Jesus were clear and hard and scary. (Stacey Elizabeth Simpson)
Her shock at this early grace reminded me that, at about eight, I had a somewhat similar experience. It was as though all the wind chasing vanity of Ecclesiastes had been dropped whole into my consciousness. Suddenly, I could see no point to life—why, what for? And I could find no answer to why? I was too young to have words for my fear beyond expressing that there should be something more to life. And every rich thing I obtained proved to be a vanity; empty. I learned the truth someone expressed about Aussie men: Our sheds are full of things which promised us life and failed to deliver. Only death was certain. But the only shield from death was the distraction of more things, or a different kind of possession: some kind of guarantee of salvation2; a faux certainty— a pretence— about my salvation which I was smart enough to know I could not have. All there is… is trust in God's goodness and love.
The man with many possessions is shocked because Jesus has just confirmed what he always suspected— possessions are nothing. He has been told to go home and put his affairs in order as surely as if he had been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Indeed, the central chapters of Mark are written in the context of the coming death of Jesus, with disciples being asked to follow him; "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." (Mark 8:35)
It is no wonder, then, that while "they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid." (Mark 10:32) All this camel can say about this is that the more stuff I carry, the harder it is to follow, and the harder it is to trust. And the more I shed— even the little I manage shed— the more I glimpse and can trust that life is not all hevel.3
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
- Some textual variants assume camel was a spelling error for a ship's cable. See the Wikipedia article here, or Metzger's A Textual Commentary... on Mark 10:25, which refers the reader to the comment on Luke 18:25 (pp169) Metzger says this was an attempt to "soften the rigour" of the saying; I reckon it makes the meaning all the more clear!
- I have not discussed the common misunderstanding we have about the meaning of "eternal life." I have assumed the exegesis of NT Wright in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, pp44-46 here quoted by Paul Nuechterlein.
In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios [ life eternal ] appears … it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions”… : the “present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” … But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.
If we reframe our thinking within this setting, the phrase zoe aionios will refer to “the life of the age,” in other words, “the life of the age to come.” When in Luke the rich young ruler asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (18:18, NRSV), he isn’t asking how to go to heaven when he dies. He is asking about the new world that God is going to usher in, the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people. And he is asking, in particular, how he can be sure that when God does all this, he will be part of those who inherit the new world, who share its life. This is why, in my own new translation of the New Testament, Luke 18:18 reads, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit the life of the age to come?”