Jesus and the Rich Man Part 1

Mark 10:17-31 tells the story of the Rich Man and Christ’s teaching on wealth. The story begins with the transitional phrase, “As He was setting out on a journey…” (Mk 10:17). This acts as a separating phrase that distinguishes this passage from the one that came before it. In the chosen passage, we see two conversations take place. The first is between Christ and the Rich Man (Mk 10:17-22), and the second is between Christ and His disciples about wealth (Mark 10:23-30). Both of these conversations are held together because the second conversation is a direct response to the events of the first. Together they form a complete story about Jesus and His teachings on wealth. The structure of the passage is that of three parts with a conclusion: “Jesus and the rich man,” (Mark 10-17-22) “Jesus and the disciples,” (Mark 10:23-27) “Jesus and Peter,” (Mark 10:28-30), and the conclusion (Mark 10:31)

As Jesus is setting out on His journey, “a man ran up, knelt down before him and asked Him ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Mk 10:17). The only other place in Mark where people “run” up to greet Jesus is when an amazed crowd runs up to Him (Mk 9:15). This verb may be used to show the effect that Jesus had on the people of his day. The only other time in Mark’s Gospel that someone kneels before Jesus is the leper (Mk 1:40). In both passages, it shows great reverance fr the Lord. We can therefore see that at the beginning of the story, the rich man comes to Jesus with an intense sincerity of heart. He is truly looking for the answer to his question. This is contrasted to Jesus’ enemies who would often ask him questions to trap him (Mk 11:27-33; 12:13-27).

Although sometimes this story is known as “The Rich Young Man,” there is no reference to the man’s age in Mark’s Gospel. It is only in the parallel story in Matthew that we are told that He is a young man, and that is a detail that is only given towards the end of his conversation with Christ. (Mt 19:20) Luke gives us the detail that the rich man is a “ruler” (Lk 18:18). However, it is clear from all three Gospels that he is wealthy because he has “many possessions”. This rich man uses the specific verb “inherit” regarding eternal life. This is similar to apocryphal writings like 1 Enoch 40:9, “who is in charge of the repentance to hope of those who inherit everlasting life.” There is also Sibylline Oracles lines 46-47 that state, “But those that honor the true eternal God inherit life.” With this background, the “question of the man who runs up to Jesus presupposes expectations of this kind.” The phrase “eternal life” was one that was common as an understanding of what would occur in the Messianic Era. This would imply that the man sees Jesus as the Messiah.

Jesus’ response is, “‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’” (Mk 10:18). Jesus is reminding the man that God is the source of all goodness and that any goodness that we have in this world is from God alone. This is not a repudiation of His own divinity, as if by saying this, that it is wrong to call Him good because Christ is not God. The Church Father Origen references this passage and states that Jesus “is not of a different goodness… because He proceeds from no other source but from that primal goodness…”

Christ then points the man to the Scriptures. Jesus then proceeds to paraphrase the commandments. “‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.’” (Mk 10:19) It should be noted that these are not all of the commandments, nor are they in the order in which they are traditionally listed. Of note is “you shall not defraud.” This is perhaps a paraphrasing of the commandments against coveting. It may also be a reference to the words of the Prophet Malachi 3:5: I will draw near to you for judgment, and I will be swift to bear witness against sorcerers, adulterers, and perjurers, those who deprive a laborer of wages, oppress a widow or an orphan, or turn aside a resident alien,without fearing me, says the LORD of hosts.

This injunction against defrauding is followed by the command to honor your parents. It is possible that these two commandments are placed together because of an earlier statement by Christ regarding the duty of children towards their parents:

For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother shall die.’ Yet you say, ‘If a person says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is qorban”’ (meaning, dedicated to God),you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things.” (Mk 7:10-13)

Here, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for allowing children to essentially “defraud” their parents with a loophole: if they declare that they will give their support to God instead of their parents, then they no longer are obligated to financially support their parents. Jesus sees this as “nullify[ing] the Word of God.” It is, in a sense, defrauding one’s parents of their rightful due. This may be why the command to honor your parents comes after the injunction against defrauding in Mark 10.

From a textual critical view, there are some ancient manuscripts that do not have this reference to defrauding in this passage. It is possible that this is influenced by the fact that in the parallel versions of the story in Matthew 19 and Luke 18, this reference to defrauding is also omitted. It is suggested that the fact that the other synoptic Gospels omit it, then this influenced some scribes to also omit it from Mark.

When the rich man states that he followed these commandments since his youth, it says that, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” (Mk 10:20) It should be noted that it does not appear that Christ’s directive to give away His possessions is a condition of salvation. Instead, this is an area where Jesus sees something in him that is lacking from spiritual greatness: his lack of care for others.

In referencing the other commandments, they were mostly formulated in a negative way: he was focused on what he was not supposed to do. But the rich man ignored the parts of his spiritual life that focused on positive action. It is not enough to avoid evil, you must pursue the good. Particularly, Jesus sees in him the fact that he is ignoring the needs of the community around him. It should also be noted that the motivation that Christ gives the man for giving away his possessions is not primarily for the benefit of the poor, but for the benefit of the rich man’s soul. He is then given a call to discipleship.

We will reflect more on this in the second part of this series.

Copyright 2024, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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