Economic Issues (Mark 10-12)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Jesus’ encounter with a rich man who asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” constitutes one of the few passages in Mark that speaks directly to economic activity. The man’s question leads Jesus to list (Mark 10:18) the six most socially oriented commandments in the Decalogue. Interestingly, “Do not covet” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21) is presented with a definite commercial twist as “Do not defraud.” The rich man says that he has “kept all of these since my youth” (Mark 10:20). But Jesus states that the one thing he lacks is treasure in heaven, obtained by sacrificing his earthly wealth and following the vagrant from Galilee. This presents an obstacle that the rich man cannot pass. It seems that he loves the comforts and security afforded by his possessions too much. Mark 10:22 emphasizes the affective dimension of the situation—“When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.” The young man is emotionally disturbed by Jesus’ teaching, indicating an openness to its truth, but he is not able to follow through. His emotional attachment to his wealth and status overrules his willingness to heed the words of Jesus.
Applying this to work today requires real sensitivity and honesty with regard to our own instincts and values. Wealth is sometimes a result of work—ours or someone else’s—but work itself can also be an emotional obstacle to following Jesus. If we have privileged positions—as the rich man did—managing our careers may become more important than serving others, doing good work, or even making time for family, civic, and spiritual life. It may hinder us from opening ourselves to an unexpected calling from God. Our wealth and privilege may make us arrogant or insensitive to the people around us. These difficulties are not unique to people of wealth and privilege, of course. Yes, Jesus’ encounter with the rich man highlights that it is hard to motivate yourself to change the world if you are already on top of the heap. Before those of us of modest means and status in the Western world let ourselves off the hook, let us ask whether, by world standards, we also have become complacent because of our (relative) wealth and status.
Before we leave this episode, one crucial aspect remains. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus’ purpose is not to shame or browbeat the young man, but to love him. He calls him to leave his possessions first of all for his own benefit, saying, “You will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” We are the ones who suffer when we let wealth or work cut us off from other people and remove us from relationship with God. The solution is not to try harder to be good, but to accept God’s love; that is, to follow Christ. If we do this, we learn that we can trust God for the things we really need in life, and we don’t need to hold on to our possessions and positions for security.
A distinctive aspect to Mark’s rendering of the story is its juxtaposition with the account of the little children being brought to Jesus, and the subsequent statement that the kingdom is to be received like such infants (Mark 10:13-16). What links the two passages is probably not the issue of security, or relying on financial resources rather than on God. Rather, the point of contact is the issue of status. In ancient Mediterranean society, children were without status, or at least were of a low status. They possessed none of the properties by which status was judged. Crucially, they owned nothing. The rich young man, by contrast, has an abundance of status symbols (Mark 10:22) and he owns much. (In Luke’s account, he is explicitly called a “ruler,” Luke 18:18.) The rich young man may miss entering the kingdom of God as much because of his slavery to status as because of his slavery to wealth per se.
In today’s workplaces, status and wealth may or may not go hand in hand. For those who grow in both wealth and status through their work, this is a double caution. Even if we manage to use wealth in a godly manner, it may prove much harder to escape the trap of slavery to status. Recently a group of billionaires received much publicity for pledging to give away at least half of their wealth. Their generosity is astounding, and in no way do we wish to criticize any of the pledgers. Yet we might wonder, with the value of giving so recognized, why not give away much more than half? Half a billion dollars still exceeds by far any amount needed for a very comfortable life. Is it possible that the status of remaining a billionaire (or at least a half-billionaire) is an impediment to devoting an entire fortune to the purposes that are so clearly important to a donor? Is it any different for workers of more modest means? Does regard for status keep us from devoting more of our time, talent, and treasure to the things we recognize as truly important?
The same question can be asked of people whose status does not correlate with wealth. Academics, politicians, pastors, artists, and many others may gain great status through their work without necessarily making a lot of money. Status may arise from working, say, at a particular university or remaining the toast of a certain circle. Can that status become a form of slavery that keeps us from jeopardizing our position by taking an unpopular stance or moving on to more fruitful work elsewhere?
How painful might it be to put our work-related status at risk — even a little bit — in order to serve another person, diminish an injustice, maintain your moral integrity, or see yourself in God’s eyes? Jesus had all this status and even more. Perhaps that’s why he worked so hard to set aside his status through daily prayer to his “father” and by putting himself constantly in disreputable company.
The subsequent words of Jesus (Mark 10:23-25) elaborate the significance of the encounter, as Jesus stresses the difficulty faced by the wealthy in entering the kingdom. The young man’s reaction illustrates the attachment the rich have to their wealth and to the status that goes with it; significantly, the disciples themselves are “perplexed” by Jesus’ statements about the wealthy. It is perhaps noteworthy that when he repeats his statement in Mark 10:24, he addresses the disciples as “children,” declaring them unburdened by status. They have already been unburdened by wealth as a result of following him.
Jesus’ analogy of the camel and the eye of the needle (Mark 10:25) probably has nothing to do with a small gate in Jerusalem, but could be a pun on the similarity of the Greek word for a camel (kamelos) and that for a heavy rope (kamilos). The deliberately absurd image simply emphasizes the impossibility of the rich being saved without divine help. This applies to the poor as well, for otherwise “who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). The promise of such divine help is spelled out in Mark 10:27, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” This keeps the passage (and hopefully us, as readers) from descending into a simple cynicism toward the rich.
This leads Peter to defend the disciples’ attitudes and history of self-denial. They have “left everything” to follow Jesus. Jesus’ reply affirms the heavenly reward that awaits all those who make such sacrifices. Again, the things left by such people (“house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields”) potentially have connotations of status and not merely material abundance. In fact, Mark 10:31 pulls the whole account together with a forceful emphasis on status—“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Up until this point, the account could reflect either a love for things in and of themselves, or for the status that those things provide. This last statement, though, places the emphasis firmly upon the issue of status. Soon after, Jesus declares this in explicit workplace terms. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:44). A slave, after all, is simply a worker with no status, not even the status of owning their own ability to work. The proper status of Jesus’ followers is that of a child or slave — no status at all. Even if we hold high positions or bear authority, we are to regard the position and authority as belonging to God, not ourselves. We are simply God’s slaves, representing him but not assuming the status that belongs to him alone.
The incident where Jesus drives out the vendors and money changers from the temple has mercantile overtones. There is a debate over the precise significance of this action, both in terms of the individual Gospel accounts and in terms of the Historical Jesus tradition. Certainly, Jesus aggressively drives out those who are engaging in trade in the temple courts, whether selling clean animals and birds for sacrifice or exchanging appropriate coinage for temple offerings. It has been suggested that this is a protest over the extortionate rates being charged by those involved in the trade, and thus the abuse of the poor as they come to make offerings. Alternatively, it has been seen as a rejection of the annual half-shekel temple tax. Finally, it has been interpreted as a prophetic sign act, disrupting the processes of the temple as a foreshadowing of its coming destruction.
Assuming we equate the temple to the church in today’s environment, the incident is mostly outside our scope, which is non-church-related work. We can note, though, that the incident does cast a dim light on those would attempt to use the church to secure workplace advantages for themselves. To join or use a church in order to gain a favoured business position is both commercially damaging for the community and spiritually damaging for the individual. By no means do we mean that churches and their members should avoid helping each other become better workers. But if the church becomes a commercial tool, its integrity is damaged and its witness clouded.
The issue of taxation has arisen obliquely already, in terms of the call narrative of Levi (Mark 2:13-17, see above). This section treats the matter a little more directly, although the meaning of the passage is still debatable in terms of its logic. It is interesting that the whole incident described here essentially represents a trap. If Jesus affirms Roman taxation, he will offend his followers. If he rejects it, he will face charges of treason. Because the incident hinges on such particular circumstances, we should be cautious about applying the passage to dissimilar contemporary situations.
The response of Jesus to the trap revolves around the concepts of image and ownership. Examining the common denarius coin (essentially, a day’s wage), Jesus asks whose “image” (or even “icon”) is upon the coin. The point of the question is probably to allude deliberately to Genesis 1:26-27 (humans made in the image of God) in order to create a contrast. Coins bear the image of the emperor, but humans bear the image of God. Give to the emperor what is his (money), but give to God what is his (our very lives). The core element, that humans bear the imago Dei, is unstated, but it is surely implied by the parallelism built into the logic of the argument.
In using such argumentation, Jesus subordinates the taxation issue to the greater demand of God upon our lives, but he does not thereby deny the validity of taxation, even that of the potentially abusive Roman system. Nor does he deny that money belongs to God. If money belongs to Caesar, it belongs even more to God because Caesar himself is under God’s authority (Romans 13:1-17; 1 Peter 2:13-14). This passage is no warrant for the often expressed fallacy that business is business and religion is religion. But, as we have seen, God recognizes no sacred-secular divide. You cannot pretend to follow Christ by acting as if he cares nothing about your work. Jesus is not proclaiming license to do as you please at work, but peace about the things you cannot control. You can control whether you defraud others in your work (Mark 10:18), so don’t do it. You cannot control whether you have to pay taxes (Mark 12:17), so pay them. In this passage, Jesus doesn’t say what your obligation might be if you can control (or influence) your taxes, for example, if you are a Roman senator or a voter in a twenty-first-century democracy.
Seeing that Jesus is skilled at interpreting scripture, a scribe asks him a question that was already under contention among Jewish leaders. “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answers with two linked commandments that would be well known to his listeners. The first is a declaration to the Jewish people from Deuteronomy 6:5 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Then in the same breath Jesus adds, “The second is this,” and he quotes Leviticus 19:18 ”You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (See the TOW Bible Commentary on Leviticus 19:17-18.) If you love God, you will love your neighbor. For more on the link between these two commandments see “The Great Commandment is a Great Framework” (Matthew 22:34-40) and “The Good Samaritan at Work--Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself” (Luke 10:25-37).
Jesus’ wise answer gives us some insight into God’s priorities. If there are just two tasks God wants us to concentrate on more than any other they are loving God and loving those around us. It is worth mentioning that by saying, “as yourself,” Jesus also expects us to love ourselves.
Thankfully, work can be one of the primary ways we respond to the Great Commandment. Yet many people fail to recognize that our work can be a way of loving others. Many jobs give Christians an opportunity to fulfill the basic needs of another person. Take health care, for example. A doctor who writes a prescription, a pharmacist who fills that prescription, and the person who stocks the shelves at CVS all play a role in delivering necessary health services to their neighbors. Further up and down the supply chain we see the invaluable work of scientists who test the effectiveness of medical interventions, construction workers who maintain the roads along which medication travels, and case workers who process health insurance claims, all participating in loving their neighbors by meeting their basic human needs.
But human needs do not only extend to healthcare. People also need food, shelter, laughter, and connection to meaning greater than themselves. So farmers and restaurant workers, home builders and home insurers, comedians and children, and philosophers and pastors all have a way to love others through their daily work, simply by doing their work well. Every time you cross a street, you depend on the love shown you by the mechanics who did the most recent brake jobs on every car hurtling toward the intersection.
Through work we meet our financial needs and those of our family. Since God commands each person to love ourselves, this is another way that work fulfills the Great Commandment.
Lastly, we might ask how we can love God through our work. One way is to love God consciously while doing our work, in a fashion made famous by sages such as Brother Lawrence. But if continuous mindfulness is not our particular gift, we can love God by doing something that God wants done. The broader story of the redemption that Jesus offers gives us a picture of what God wants done in the marketplace. Many industries or workplaces have problems that call for redemption. A Christian worker can do something God wants done by modeling forgiveness, compassion, and integrity.
However we work, it is important to remember the order of the two parts of the Great Commandment. Loving God comes first, loving neighbor second. As Dorothy Sayers notes, “The second commandment depends upon the first, and without the first, it is a delusion and a snare…. If we put our neighbor first, we are putting man above God, and that is what we have been doing ever since we began to worship humanity and make man the measure of all things….There is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community, and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work.”
Practically speaking, this means that we love our neighbor by doing true work, that is, work as God would have us do it. This may or may not be how our neighbor—customer, client, co-worker, supplier, etc, —would have us do it. For example our co-workers might want us to serve them by doing their work for them, but God would probably have us serve them by helping them do it themselves. Or a customer might want us to provide the product with the lowest price, whereas God might want us to educate the customer why a higher-priced item is better for the customer, the environment or the community. The first half of the Great Commandment plants our feet in the solid ground of God’s purposes. We are to work for others as servants of God, not as people-pleasers.
Upon hearing Jesus’ answer to his question, the scribe concurs that Jesus is right in his priorities. Loving God and loving people are indeed more important than specific commandments required by the Jewish law. Jesus responds that his questioner is “not far from the kingdom of God.” Similarly, when we hold our own actions up to the standard of the Great Commandment, when we love God completely and care for others with the same care we show ourselves, we bring the kingdom of God to our places of work.