[August 29, 2010] Last Sunday was about the relationships of marriage and family—household relationships—within the church. Today we continue with Mark’s (originally Matthew’s) interest in the household within the church, but this time the focus is on the household’s wealth. Though the culture of the Mediterranean—whether Jew or Gentile—was patriarchal, this subject is the same for us today: property is not just the affair of the individual but has very much to do with the values and lifestyle of the household.
We have noticed that in the subsections between Jesus’ prediction of His passion in Jerusalem and His riding into the city on Palm Sunday, Mark follows the same order as Matthew. Yet even as he does this, he is constantly referring to Luke’s version of the stories and seems to alternate between following Matthew’s wording and Luke’s wording for the same stories. He does the same here. He does it in such a way as to give the story his own “flavor,” often adding details that the others missed.
Tradition tells us that it was not really Mark doing this but the apostle Peter. He retold the Gospel before a Christian audience in Rome during the time of the emperor Nero’s persecution of the church. Peter probably had the Gospel according to Matthew largely memorized, but as he spoke, the scrolls of both Matthew and Luke must have been open before him. Peter’s words were recorded by scribes, and John Mark, the assistant of both Paul and Peter and the son of Mary the sister of Barnabas, took care of the scribal recordings, and after Peter’s death he prepared them for publication.
The Gospel according to Mark, as told by Peter, calls the church and the individual believer to persevere in faithfulness in the way of the cross, even under the most distressing of circumstances. This applies to the believers in their life together, and it applies to the homes in which the believers live and in which most of their life together with one another took place. The way of the cross is the way of the church, and the way of the church is the way of the household.
Our relationship to God is based on faith, not works. But primarily it is based on the faith of Christ, of which ours is a participation and reflection. The word “faith” in the Greek language of the New Testament, however, does not mean primarily our agreement with particular facts and beliefs about those facts. The word means both faith and faithfulness. It is personal, and refers to one’s relationship of trust, loyalty and commitment—fidelity—to a Person.
The “Someone” Who had Many Possessions (Mark 10:17-22)
In the story before us we are told of someone running up to Jesus and kneeling before him to ask a question. Jesus is “on the way,” Mark’s allusion to the “way of the cross.” In Matthew’s account the man asks, “What good thing shall I do to possess eternal life?” and Jesus answers, saying, “Why do you ask me about the good? The good is one. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The one good that Jesus is referring to is probably the Torah, alluding to such passages as Proverbs 3:35; 4:4; and 28:10 (“Keep my commandments and live”).
Luke, however, interprets the “good” to be God, and refers the man (in Luke’s gospel he is a ruler) to the oneness of God—“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” This would have been more poignant in the idolatrous Gentile environment of the Pauline mission. Mark follows Luke, probably for the same reason.
Jesus refers the man to the second table of the Ten Commandments, the commandments having to do with our neighbor (see Matthew 19:19), probably because these test the integrity of our fidelity to the first table and we are less prone to deceive ourselves. (Is this why Jesus also leaves out the last commandment on covetousness?)
Mark, however, adds a commandment that is not in Matthew and Luke and not one of the Ten: “Do not defraud.” This commandment—an extension of the command not to steal—applies to the acquisition of wealth. We possess many things, but do we know where it comes from? Does the coffee we drink exploit workers who harvested the coffee crop? Were our clothes made in sweat shops? If we buy such products, are we not sharing in the exploitation of the poor? There is so much distance between the production of goods and our final consumption of them that often we are unaware of our participation—even if we ourselves are poor!—in the exploitation of the poor by the rich.
When the man assures Jesus that he has faithfully kept the Torah since his youth, Jesus looks at him and—Mark alone adds this detail—loves him. This is the only time in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark when the text says that Jesus “loved” someone in particular. The only other place is in the Gospel according to John where John tells us Jesus loved Martha and her sister Mary (11:5) and the Beloved Disciple (13:23). John also reports that the disciples and others said He loved Lazarus (11:3, 36). Other than that, the gospels always speak of Jesus’ love in more general terms. Why here and here alone?
Jesus truly wants to help this seeker. He is one of the faithful of Israel. “One thing you lack.” In Matthew, Jesus says, “If you would be perfect …” meaning fully developed. It is not a question of salvation in the sense of the forgiveness of sins but of pleasing God and enjoying the “inheritance” of eternal life in the age-to-come, the age that precedes the “age of ages,” the eternal age. It is a question of being ready, and thus being prepared for or capable of this “reward.”
“Go off; sell whatever things you have, and give [the proceeds] to the poor—and [then] you shall have treasure in heaven—and come, follow Me.” Only when the person goes away sad and with a fallen face, are we told that he had many possessions (he was “exceedingly rich” according to Luke). From the exchange that follows between Jesus and His disciples, we should assume that this is a demand that Jesus places on all His disciples, not only on those who have many possessions and for whom it is particularly difficult. Peter says, “Behold, we have left all and followed You” (Mark 10:28).
The Cost of Trusting in Riches (10:23-31)
What Did Jesus Mean?
Throughout the centuries Christians have been tortured by this passage and have in turn tortured the interpretation of this passage to make it not say what it says. It is commonly thought that Jesus only wants this man to give up his possessions because his reliance on his wealth was an impediment to his following Jesus. But Jesus’ teaching concerning possessions is consistent throughout the gospels. “Every one of you who does not forsake all his own possessions cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33). The fact that Peter kept his home in Capernaum and his fishing boat does not take away from what Jesus demanded of them. In the early church many believers who possessed great wealth, such as Mark’s uncle Barnabas, gave it away—to the church for the church to distribute (Acts 4:37), though many kept their wealth and slaves (see 1 Timothy 6:2, 18). The local church distributed the wealth it received to the poor: the poor among themselves first and in other churches and the poor in the world.
In Mark 10:23 Jesus speaks of those “who have riches,” though in verse 24 He seems to mitigate this by speaking of those who “trust in riches” (a qualification that is not in the accounts of Matthew and Luke). But then in 25 He goes back to speaking simply of “a rich man” (any rich man, apparently). There are not two kinds of rich people, those who trust in riches and those who do not. All those “who have riches” also “trust in riches,” such being the nature of riches. One cannot have material wealth without coming under its power. The responsibility for wealth already puts you under its dominion.
Nevertheless, the example of Saint Francis seems extreme even by New Testament standards. He gave up everything, living literally according to the commands of Jesus. He was literally correct, but his example seems extreme in comparison to what the apostles and the early Christians in fact did. Later Franciscan struggled to understand what the commands of Jesus demanded of them. Jesus certainly demanded a lower standard of personal living because He clearly expected us to give away our excess to the unfortunate and poor—those who are unable to help themselves—not just spend it on ourselves. So in this sense, according to one’s conscience, Jesus expected a level of “voluntary poverty” or at least simplicity.
There is also the question of what it means to “possess” something. Is there a difference between using something and possessing it? I can use something and not possess it and I can possess something without using it. In fact, to possess something means that the right I have over something is the right to keep others from using it, even if I am not using it. I possess it when I can keep it in my closet and prevent you from using it, whether I use it or not. This, in fact, seems to be what we mean by material wealth—it is our exclusive right to use what we own. You can use it, but only if I permit you. To forsake all that we “possess” does not exclude our use of things, only our exclusive right to their use.
The Christian ideal seems to be a community of goods. “All those who believed had all things common; and they sold their properties and possessions and divided them to all, as anyone had need” (Acts 2:44-45). “Not even one said that any of his possessions was his own, but all things were common to them. For neither was anyone among them in need; for as many as were owners of lands or of houses sold them and brought the proceeds of the things which were sold and placed them at the feet of the apostles; and it was distributed to each, as anyone had need” (Acts 4:32, 34-35). This distribution shortly became the job of the deacons (Acts 6:1-6; Philippians 1:1).
What else can Jesus have meant in Mark 10:30 when He says that the disciple who has left all “shall receive a hundred times as much now at this time,” specifically, “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields,” unless He was referring to the community of believers, to the believers having all things in common? Whether we live in communes as the Hutterian Brethren do or remain in our homes within the secular community, it means that as believers we share whatever we have, in particular whatever we are not using. Jesus adds, “with persecution” (not recorded in Matthew and Luke), to make it clear that we will have “a hundred times as much” within the persecuted community, not simply as a reward in the age-to-come.
The Loss of Our Enjoyment during the Age to Come
The man asked about the “inheritance” of eternal life, which is not the same as the eternal life which dwells in everyone now who believes “into” Jesus. In the Gospel according to John Jesus promises the gift of the divine life through the Holy Spirit to everyone who believes into Him, and everyone who believes has eternal life now. The “inheritance” of eternal life seems to be a different matter. It seems to speak of the enjoyment of what is ours in the age to come (Mark 10:30), the age proceeding the eternal age.
Jesus equates this with being “perfect” (Matthew 19:21), “entering into the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23-25) and with being “saved” (10:26). In 1 Corinthians 15:23-28 Paul carefully distinguishes between the age to come, when Christ reigns to put all His enemies under His feet and to abolish all rule and all authority and power (the age of the “kingdom,” or more correctly, “kingship”), and “the end, when He delivers up the kingdom to His God and Father,” “that God may be all in all” (meaning, the eternal age). We can enter the kingdom and reign with Christ if we know the salvation of our souls at His coming (see Mark 8:35; Hebrews 10:39; 1 Peter 1:9; James 1:21). We do not know the salvation of our souls until then, though we may have the assurance of redemption and the forgiveness of our sins now (see Ephesians 1:7).
In other words, unless a rich person diverts himself of his wealth, he is in danger of “losing his soul” and not entering the kingdom, even if the Holy Spirit indwells him and he has the assurance of the forgiveness of sins. “He shall suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15); that is, he will be subject to the remedial judgment of Christ until his soul is saved.
Jesus calls us to forsake all else “for My sake and for the Gospel’s sake.” Jesus does not ask for a partial commitment, no matter how enthusiastic or intense. He wants the commitment of our entire life, even the life of our household and its property. When a person believes, they should try to bring their household with them, but in no case may they allow the members of their household to prevent their following Christ. “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields …” We are asked to choose between them. The demand of Christ is so absolute that we must forsake all others, and all our possessions, to follow Him. Moses puts a choice before the people: you can either choose death or life, one or the other. Choose life, he tells them. Jesus says the same to us. He is not satisfied with halfway believers.
How Is It Possible?
If you have ever attempted to be as total in your commitment as Jesus asks, you know that it is humanly impossible. “With men it is impossible” (Mark 10:27). The salvation at the judgment seat of Christ of which Jesus speaks is impossible on our own.
That does not mean, however, that it is not still expected of us! It is “not [impossible] with God, for all things are possible with God.” This is what Jesus said to the father in Mark 9:23, “All things are possible to him who believes.” Faith is proved, and perfected, by its works, and the believer is justified by them (James 2:21-24), not in the sense of when she first believed (when Abraham “believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness”) but in the sense of when she perfects her faith (corresponding to when Abraham later offered up Isaac).
We can live the Christian life, the life Jesus demands of us, only by faith, on the ground of redemption and forgiveness—not in order to earn redemption or forgiveness (which is impossible). For it is only by the grace of God acting within us through the Holy Spirit that we have any hope of following Christ in the way that He demands.
So we continue together and pray, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), not lowering the standard but encouraging one another.
The Aim of Christian Community
Wealth, not just the possession of it but our trust in it that it will “save” us, has a power over our lives. We say that we do not possess wealth but it possesses us. This is true, but we usually do not recognize that it has—and is—a spiritual power over us. The powers of the world are actual, and through them the world keeps us enslaved. Once we see the connection between wealth and idolatry, that the power behind wealth is a god, then we will see the importance of coming out from under its grasp.
“Wealth,” however, has acquired a “totalitarian” size in our time—our entire society is mercantile or commercial, centered on material production and consumption, and it threatens to engulf all our values. The domination of “wealth” is the domination that our materialist culture has over our lives, whether we are wealthy or poor. All of our media and our entire educational system support it.
The purpose of Christian community is to enable our freedom from the “world” (and our soul’s entrenchment in it) in spirit. The soul is fallen by its entrenchment in the world. Our problem is collective. The first step of our freedom from the world is baptism. Baptism, for the believer, does something in itself in terms of setting us apart from the world. But it must be followed by a new life in community. The community of goods that I spoke of before is the practice that frees us from the power of wealth. We do not possess what we own but share it with one another. Most of us are not truly willing to do this, but if we were, as long as we practiced it in liberty and not in an authoritarian way (as in a sect), it would have a profound affect on our spiritual development. It would set us free to shoot up like a spring flower.
The Sabbath and the Lord’s Day
There is something we can do before we get to this point. Israel has a practice—and the church has always maintained the same practice to a far lesser extent—that helps in relation to our attachment to things. This is the practice of letting go of our busy-ness in order to observe the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day. This is particularly true in relation to the Sabbath, in which we quit trying to finish our work. We let it go and forget it for one day, a day in which we remain only in the present in the Presence of God. Our compulsive need to work and keep busy, to strive, compete, and produce, is a manifestation of the power that our material society has over us.
We are too busy to gather together to remember the Lord. What does that tell us? Is it really true that we cannot let it all go? We think it is, yet our Jewish neighbors maintain their families and jobs—and do it well!—while keeping the Sabbath. Why are they able to do it and we are not? They do do it, even in our society, and have done so for centuries under the most diverse and stressing of conditions. Yet we make excuses for ourselves. Think about Mark 10:27.
The Meaning of the Sabbath and the Christian’s Lord’s Day Observance
In other religions places in space are holy. In Judaism the idea shifted from space to time, from holy places to holy time. Increasingly things no longer make time significance, but rather time makes things significant. What is important is no longer holy things but holy moments. In their exilic existence, Israel had to learn to let go even of the Temple. What takes its place are special times set aside for God. It is interesting that in the creation story, God continually speaks of what He has made as being “good,” but the first time the word “holy” is used in the Bible is when God creates the Sabbath: “And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it” (Genesis 2:3).
In our fallen world, things dominate us for six days, but the seventh day is set apart from things as “holy”: time that we do nothing but be in the presence of God.
The first meaning of the Sabbath is that we cease from work. On the sixth day Moses told the people to gather twice as much food as usual and to put part of it aside for the next day and to stay out of the fields on that day. Exodus 16:22-30.
The second meaning is not only that we cease from work but that we take time out for physical and mental rejuvenation (Exodus 23:12).
The third meaning is to use the day to remember our liberation from slavery and be grateful—to celebrate our liberation (Deuteronomy 5:12, 15).
The fourth meaning is to dwell on God’s promises for the future and to celebrate our hope (Jeremiah 17:24-25).
The fifth meaning is to come together for communal worship (Leviticus 23:3-4).
When we move into the gospels, we find Jesus reaffirming the meaning of the Sabbath and correcting certain Jews who sometimes paid more attention to rules to the detriment of the day’s meaning.
Then in the days of the apostles, our own days, we see an emphasis on the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day. It is the day of resurrection, and John’s gospel makes a point of the resurrected Jesus manifesting Himself to the gathered disciples on the first day of the week. Jewish believers still kept the Sabbath but on the following day they joined with Gentile believers to remember the Lord at the Table. It is the Day that the Lord has made: Let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24).
The two days did not become one in the New Testament, perhaps because the apostles still hoped that Israel would embrace the Messiah. However, as the synagogue and church separated from each other, the Lord’s Day took on the meanings of the Sabbath for the Gentile believers. Most of the meaning of the Sabbath was already replicated by the Lord’s Day. Only the aspect of rest is unmentioned. Eventually the church incorporated this aspect as well.
In Genesis, we see that Adam’s first day is the seventh day from the Lord’s perspective. Likewise, the Second Man’s first day becomes Sabbath. Perhaps this is a way of merging the two.
The church would do well to revive the Sabbath, or rather, to adopt and adapt the practice from the Jews—lighting candles and welcoming the “Bride” (as would a Bridegroom) on Saturday evening in preparation for Sunday, and then use the new day to convocate and celebrate, and play and rest (no work!), to rejuvenate. For me it is also a day to get back in touch with nature and everything wild (and unimproved and untrammeled) and to appreciate creation (what is fresh from the hand of God) and our created-ness with all nature.
The Loss of the Lord’s Sabbath among the People of God
Our society attempts to take the Lord’s Day away from us. But before we blame others, we must blame ourselves for not honoring the Lord in this way. We are so busy, we rush to church and give the Lord an hour or two of our time and rush home to resume our busyness. This is wrong. This is not at all the celebration of the Lord’s Day. The entire day should be set aside.
We allow ourselves to be preoccupied continuously without interruption. Our Sundays are filled with unfinished tasks that we are trying to get done and preparations for Monday. We deceive ourselves because we do not recognize that our work can never be finished. There will always be more to do.
On the Lord’s Day we need to cease from our work and even the thought of work. We need to come into the present moment and rest in the presence of God. We need to rejuvenate with play spontaneity and stop doing anything that “accomplishes” (produces) anything, that gets something done. We need to recover the meaning of the Sabbath by paying attention to the Jews.
Regaining Our Liberty from Material Dominion
By doing this we will come a long way towards loosening the grip that the demands of our commercial society has on us. Rather than everything being about production and consumption, we will discover that life is really about other things. We will realign ourselves with other values, with the values we claim to have or at least want to have. How can we do this when we never stop working like slaves to demands.
An Appeal to the Saints
God commands us to STOP. If we would stop what we are doing and set aside an entire day just to be present in the Presence of God, to come together to be present with others and to celebrate and rejoice in nothing but what God means to us, and to go home and rest and relax, to go for a walk and enjoy nature, or to do any other spontaneous, “pointless,” and playful things—what a difference it would make to us!
We have a million reasons for why we cannot do this, but in presenting this command we are not unprecedented. Israel has long been doing this. Of course we all live different lives, but in general, in order to set Sunday aside we need to begin preparation on Friday. Then we need to use our Saturdays for all our unfinished business and to prepare for what we will need on Sunday, and to use Saturday evening to set our mind at ease and in the right frame.
If we would do this—and we need to discuss this at much more length—it would do much to not only revive our spirits, souls and bodies but also the life of the church.