Historical Culture Context
Mark alone mentions that Jesus “loved him” (Mk 10:21; cf. Mt 19:16-30 and Lk 18:18-30). “Love” in Mediterranean culture is appropriately translated as “attachment” in an active and practical way. The youth’s claim that he lived a well rounded moral life “since my youth” stirs Jesus’ affection toward the lad to the degree that he would like to have the young man join him and his disciples.
Jesus’ familiar advice, however, needs to be distanced from the economic interpretation Westerners usually attribute to it. “Go sell what you have” means to part with the most precious of all possessions in the Mediterranean world: family, home, and land. It is not primarily cashing in one’s stock portfolio, emptying the bank account, and disposing of other similar Western treasures.
In order to follow Jesus, one must break blood ties with one’s family, as the disciples have already done. This is spelled out quite explicitly in Jesus’ reflection upon Peter’s statement that the disciples “have left everything?” Jesus says, “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age.” (Gospel).
In a society where family and kinship ties are essential conditions for life itself, Jesus’ challenge amounts to social suicide. His exhortation is morally impossible to fulfill without some compensating factors.
Jesus states these immediately. The young man will have “treasure in heaven”; that is, God will replace the sources of sustenance that this person willingly sacrifices. And “come follow me” promises him fellowship in a new community, a fictive family to replace his family of flesh and blood. This is what Jesus has been creating throughout this gospel.
The young man certainly perceived that Jesus desired him to join the group and clearly understood the sacrifice Jesus demanded (but would replace). With regret and sorrow, he rejects both of Jesus’ offers and departs, “for he had great possessions.”
The conclusion of this episode instructs us about the ancient Mediterranean understanding of the word “rich.” Possessions did not constitute a problem for this man. It was his unwillingness to share that caused the problem, to give to those who had less than he (“the poor”). For this reason, wherever the word “rich” appears in the Bible it is more appropriately rendered “greedy.” This man was not simply rich but also “greedy” (cf. Lk 12:13-21).
The disciples are shocked to hear that the greedy rich have no advantage when it comes to dealing with God. “Who then can be saved?” In Mediterranean culture, the greedy rich want for nothing because they surround themselves with clients who supply their needs, including the need for honorable reputation. Clients spread the word about their benefactor and their good fortune. Jesus says all this counts for nothing with God.
Those like Jesus’ followers who have severed ties with blood relationships and freely embraced a reversal of status in a society which thrives on status will receive a double reward: a hundredfold return “with persecutions” in this life, and eternal life in the age to come.
Status reversal sounds great to those whose status is raised but prompts a violent response from those who are toppled from their honorable position. How does the promise of Jesus in this episode resonate with American concern for immediate gratification and a here-and-now pay-off?
John J. Pilch