About the Contributor
Adjunct Professor of Bible,
Southern Nazarene University, Independent Wesleyan Biblical Scholar
We find today’s story in the context of Mark’s disruptive teachings on social relations, both communal and familial. Just before this story, Jesus lifts up the most dependent and unproductive members of society, the children. He says, these are to whom the Kingdom of God belongs (v. 14b). This declaration has a similar ring to his statement at the end of our story today: “Those who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (v.31). This common theme within the radical social teachings of Jesus stresses the need for healing from economic power, class and privilege. In fact, this familiar synoptic story structurally parallels Mark’s healing narratives (ie. Mark 8:22-26). Could Mark be seeking to draw a connection between these sicknesses and a narrative of economic scarcity? Perhaps Jesus’ invitation here is a call to those who find themselves [ourselves] in places of economic power and privilege. The invitation is to be healed of the sickness of accumulation and our participation in the predatory economic systems from which we benefit.
Mark’s account can be broken down into two distinct parts: Jesus’ conversation with the rich man and Jesus’ conversation with the disciples. The man in the story is often referred to as the “Rich Young Ruler,” though Mark’s character is neither young nor a ruler in this synoptic account. In fact, we don’t even know he is a rich landowner (the man’s “many possessions” is best understood as land ownership) until he turns away from Jesus’ call of discipleship.
The man runs up to Jesus and cries, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The phrase “eternal life” here is not referring to a disembodied afterlife, as is often misunderstood. Rather, the Greek phrase zoein aionian is better translated “Life of the Ages” or “life in the Kingdom of God.”
As would be custom, Jesus listened to the man and referred him back to the basics – the teachings of the Decalogue. Except here, there is one interesting addition specific to Mark’s account: “Do not defraud.” With this addition, Jesus is calling out the specific act of economic exploitation of this land owner; “landowners represented the most politically powerful social stratum…As far as Mark is concerned, the man’s wealth has been gained by ‘defrauding’ the poor – he was not ‘blameless’ at all – for which he must make restitution. For Mark, the law is kept only through concreate asks of justice, not the facade of piety.”
The rich landowner benefitted from the predatory economic structures that kept the wealthy in power and exploited the poor. Thus, Jesus’ response to “sell all you have and give it to the poor… and come, follow me” is not simply a response to this man’s private problem with materialism keeping him from Heaven. It is rather a convicting call to participate in the salvific healing potential of the Kingdom of God that was breaking in through the person of Jesus through the redistribution of ill-gotten wealth and the eradication of class oppression. The Kingdom of God is found in the desertion of the predatory economic structures by joining Jesus in solidarity with those who suffer under it.
After the landowner walks away from the Jesus’ call to discipleship, the disciples turn to Jesus dumbfounded. Their assumption was based on the dominant ideology of the time that wealth, excess and success demonstrate God’s favor or blessing. But Jesus denounces this narrative immediately and returns his followers back to the salvific, healing potential of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus has a habit of calling people from the security of their vocation, be it a landowner or fisherman. He calls them, and us, from the certainty of the predatory economic structures that have benefitted and defined us for so long. Jesus is constructing a new social order that calls those with economic power toward radical community action where the last are first and the first are last in a pursuit of healing for all – healing of economical exploitation and of being exploited.The only way the salvific potential of eternal life can be unlocked is by the participation of the Kingdom of God now through the redistribution of wealth and the denouncing of the narrative of excess demonstrating blessing.
 Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark (New York: St. Martins, 1963), 430.
 Myers, Ched, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), 274.
 Mclearn, Brian, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2009), 100.