The Rich Young Man and Attitudes to Wealth and Status (Mark 10:17-31)
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.
Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, A Social-Scientific Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 238. “Children had little status within the community or family. A minor child was on a par with a slave and only after reaching maturity was he/she a free person who could inherit the family estate. The term ‘child/children’ could also be used as a serious insult (see Matthew 11:16-17).”
Stephanie Strom, “Pledge to Give Away Half Gains Billionaire Adherents,” New York Times, August 4, 2010.
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.
This is simply a myth that has circulated in popular Christian circles. William Barclay popularized it in his Daily Study Bible Commentary; see William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 253. It is unclear what the origins of this myth are, but no such gate has ever been found, in Jerusalem or elsewhere.