In Mark 10:17-21 we are witnesses to a remarkable encounter. A man has met Jesus on the road and has an important question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The man seems sincere, certainly polite. His address—“Good Teacher”—pays proper deference to Jesus. And unlike some of the scribes and Pharisees who tried to trap Jesus with trick questions, this man’s question is straightforward.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus turns quickly to rebuke the man: “Why do you call me good? No one is good. God alone is good.”
At first, this strikes us as strange, even a bit harsh. Surely the man was just showing respect.
“Nobody is good,” Jesus insists. “God alone is good.”
For the polite, sincere, pious man, Jesus’s rebuke is not easy to hear. He simply cannot accept it. He blurts out in protest: “But Teacher, I have kept all the commandments since I was a young boy.”
There is a strong sense of security in seeing oneself as good. The man is deeply attached to the idea of his own holiness, and it feels risky to accept Jesus’ teaching.
After all, who is he without the list of commandments that he’s worked his whole life to keep?
Who are we without our goodness?
Do we, the churches of Mennonite Church USA, believe that God alone is good? If so, what does that mean for our current denominational dialogue? Is this belief reflected in our disagreements—or do we seek moral high ground over and against one another? Do we confess God’s holiness, or do we insist on our own holiness—and the corresponding unholiness of other people?
Our encounter continues with verse 21: “Jesus, looking at the man, loved him and said, ‘Get up!’ ”
Most of our English translations here say, “Go.” But a much better way to translate that is “Get up!” The Greek word occurs several times in Mark’s Gospel, and it is a healing verb.
In chapter one, when Jesus heals a leper, he says, “Get up, and show yourself to the priest.”
In chapter two, when Jesus heals a paralyzed man, he says, “Get up, take your mat and go home.”
In chapter five, when Jesus heals a demon-possessed man, he says, “Get up, tell your friends what the Lord has done.”
Or again in chapter five, when Jesus heals a woman suffering from a severe hemorrhage, he says, “Get up!”
And here in chapter 10, the exact same word is used: “Jesus, looking at the man, loved him and said, “Get up!”
Jesus loves this man far too much to leave him alone with his self-deception. Jesus intends to heal this man from the sickness of self-righteousness.
Get up! Be healed! But how?
“Sell all that you own, give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me. … For the man had many possessions.”
Aha, so this is a rich man—which means this is a powerful man. Now things are coming more into focus. Now we can see why Jesus was so insistent upon the confession that “God alone is good.”
Because any time you have moral discourse, any place you find the good separated from the bad, you also find the temptation to reward the good and punish the bad. Indeed, the bad ones must be identified and removed, precisely by and for the sake of the good ones.
Claims to moral goodness become excuses to exercise power over other people.
Prisons in the United States testify to this very fact. The blood of foreign enemies cries out from the ground to show what happens when the self-righteous impulse becomes institutionalized.
And the blood of Jesus—the one identified as unrighteous by powerful religious men—Jesus’ blood testifies to the violent power of the self-righteous impulse.
Two thousand years ago, the body of Christ was broken by and for good people. Today, the body of Christ is broken—divided—by and for good people.
Wealth is another way power is exercised over bodies. In fact, wealth is not just a means of exercising power but is itself power. Wealth is a system of power.
In the popular imagination, wealth and goodness are produced by one another; indeed, they are the same. Isn’t it so? In the United States, aren’t the wealthy—more or less—the honored? And as this country continues to exalt the goodness of the rich man, doesn’t it also willingly surrender power into that man’s hands?
Are we not witnessing an increasing dependence on wealthy men for work, for housing, even for food? And aren’t we witnessing an increasing dependence on wealthy men for donations to civic projects, nonprofit organizations, even schools?
And don’t we ultimately tolerate this concentration of wealth and power because we trust the goodness of these men?
On the flip side, isn’t poverty just what you get when you make bad choices in America? And isn’t jail time just what you get when you make bad choices in America?
You cannot have the concentration of power without wealth and goodness.
And so Jesus takes his axe right to the roots of these two trees with one simple confession: “God alone is good,” and one simple command: “Sell all you have, give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”
Note well, the sequence of Jesus’s command: “Sell all you have, give the money to the poor, come and follow me.”
The man is not called to commit himself to the long road of discipleship—at the end of which he might finally get around to surrendering his power and redistributing his money.
He is called to surrender his money, possessions and power first, as a precondition of discipleship. “Sell all you have, give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.”
Here is the rich man’s salvation. Alleluia, and thanks be to God. Here is Jesus’ generous invitation. Here is God’s grace. Here is the good news.
For this man, how could it be any other way? If salvation is—as U.S. Evangelicals have rightly said for decades—a “relationship with Jesus,” then how is salvation possible, except in this way?
Are we really to believe that a wealthy, self-righteous, powerful man will be able to enter into the right kind of relationship with Jesus:
• the peasant from a nowhere town in Galilee,
• son of a manual laborer,
• homeless, troublemaking riff-raff,
• jailed as a criminal; killed to protect good people?
Is something like a genuine relationship, a true friendship between these two men, even possible?
Or won’t the rich man basically enter into relationship with Jesus in the same way he relates to everyone else—that is, as the boss? As the respected one? In control?
Not maliciously of course. Not because he explicitly intends to control Jesus, but because that’s the only way he knows how to live. That’s his socially wired default setting. That is who the man has been taught to be—the boss, the one in control of relationships.
And it is this way of being in the world that makes salvation almost impossible. It is this learned way of being in the world that makes it almost impossible to call Jesus “friend”—let alone Lord.
Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone like this young man to enter the kingdom of God.
This again is not easy to hear. It is not easy to believe. I suspect that many of us simply don’t believe it—just as the disciples could not believe it.
Verse 26: “They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ ”
“Jesus,” they ask, “if this guy can’t be saved, then who can?” This man is no thief; he’s no criminal. He’s a good man. Do you really expect him to surrender his wealth and power?”
Jesus looked at them and promised in the fullness of his grace: “Yes. With God, this and all things are possible.”
Back in June, the churches of the Central District Conference gathered for our annual meeting. Our conference theme was “Transformed Through Text and Table.”
As I reflect on this theme in light of the passage from Mark 10, I am convinced that “Transformed Through Text and Table” is really a shorthand way of saying that we are:
• transformed through the people with whom we read the text;
• transformed through the people with whom we share the table.
We are not simply transformed through the biblical text, as if all I need is me and my Bible. That’s the fundamentalist error.
Likewise, we are not simply transformed through the table, as if all I need is me and my sacrament. That’s the high church error.
Rather, if I would be transformed, I must read the text and share the table with the right people. And that is precisely why Jesus, in Mark 10, attempts to separate a powerful man from his wealth and self-righteousness. For in making people equals, he restores to them the possibility of true friendship.
To quote the prophet Isaiah, Jesus raises up every valley and brings low every mountain. Or as the Apostle Paul says in the letter to the Ephesians, Jesus breaks down every dividing wall in his flesh.
This is good news—especially for people who have lived on the wrong end of power disparity for a long, long time.
Matthew Morin worships with Milwaukee Mennonite Church. This piece is excerpted from a sermon he gave at the 2014 Central District Conference gathering.
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