Money, money, money!

The oldest surviving image of Francis of Assisi who in the 13th century heard these words of Jeuss in Mark 10.17ff as addressed to him personally. The image is found at the Benedictine Abbey of Subiaco and is thought to have been painted c 1228/9.

Money’ (the excess of it, or the lack of it) is the common thread running through this week’s lectionary blog which has three short sections. It is based on the Gospel passage Mark 10.17-31.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

*****

‘Jesus looked on him and loved him’ (Mark 10.21). I find it absolutely fascinating and immensely powerful that the one and only individual of whom it is recounted in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus loved them, is this person who apparently refuses – albeit regretfully – Jesus’ personal challenge to him. It is I think also important that Jesus does not argue with him, or try to cajole him. An aspect of Jesus’ ‘love’ for this man is the freedom he gives him to make his own decision.

The verb ‘looked at’ (which in its Greek form is actually quite rare in the New Testament) though has itself a certain power. Intriguingly it is repeated a few verses below when Jesus ‘looks at’ his astounded disciples after telling them how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. The same verb  also appears in Luke’s (though not in Mark’s) account of Peter’s denial of Jesus during his trial, ‘The Lord turned and looked at Peter’ (Luke 22.61) after Peter’s third denial. The intensity of Jesus’ gaze could itself be life-changing. It was for Peter on that occasion.

Which brings me to another point (which I admit is speculative but which has been intriguing me since I thought about it). We commonly refer to the man whom Jesus meets in Mark 10.17ff as ‘the rich young ruler’. But in Mark the account of the incident nowhere describes him as ‘young’.  Indeed the fact that he says to Jesus ‘I have kept all these (laws) since my youth (Mark 10.20) rather hints that he is at least middle-aged.  The reason the person is described as ‘young’ is because the corresponding episode in the Gospel of Matthew describes him as so (Matthew 19.16-22).  (The word ‘ruler’ is only found in the parallel episode in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 18.18-23).)  The word used for ‘young man’ appears twice in Matthew’s account, in verses 20 and 22. In Greek it is neaniskos.

Now neaniskos does come twice in the Gospel of Mark – but not here. It is used to speak of the young man who runs away naked (Mark 14.51) in the garden of Gethsemane, and the young man who is dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side of the tomb (Mark 16.5). Going back to biblical scholarship in the 1970s, but also building on patristic interpretations, it has been noted that the word neaniskos was sometimes used for those who were catechumens and newly baptised. And the description of the ‘young man’ who is naked in Mark 14 and clothed in white in Mark 16 reflects the sartorial process of early Christian baptism. Does the neaniskos therefore represent in some way  a newly baptised person, baptised into Christ in a process that is only made possible by Jesus’ own death and resurrection?  And if so, is there any chance that (with the help of Matthew’s Gospel) we should make a connection so that this rich man whom Jesus meets in Mark 10.17ff has had his life so turned upside down by Jesus’ gaze and Jesus’ love that he does eventually become a follower of Jesus – symbolised by the neaniskos whom we meet later in Mark’s story? It would be a wonderful conclusion to this encounter if that were so!

*****

I am probably on surer grounds with my comment about the camel and the eye of the needle. As the prayer-poem below I wrote 20 years ago suggests I think that when he spoke about camels going through the eye of a needle Jesus was here using jesting hyperbole. He was actually telling a joke!  I am glad to see that my view is confirmed by most modern commentators, see for example  What Is The Eye Of The Needle (Matthew 19:23-24 / Mark 10:25)? – Dust Off The Bible

I believe that the quest by some of looking for a narrow gate in Jerusalem that camels could only get through if they were off-loaded betrays an unhelpful literalism, and misunderstands Jesus’ words. His point is precisely that it is impossible – yet God (and God alone) can make the impossible possible!

We thank you God that you enjoy the company of your human playmates.
Sometimes the games you play seem a bit one sided and unfair.
It’s that one where ‘The first will be last and the last will be first’ that really gets me.
I’m frightened of it and I don’t want to play it too often.
Yet thank you God. You look upon me and love me.

We thank you God that you delight in games of hide-and-seek.
I do too, just as long as I can be the one who hides.
I know you will search for me wherever I am, but am I as eager to seek for you?
Sometimes it feels all too easy to want to give up the quest.
So thank you God. You look upon me and love me.

We thank you God that you simply have never been any good at Monopoly.
You want to be on our side all the time, rather than play against us.
You would rather bankrupt yourself, and people get annoyed because you don’t want to own Mayfair.
But the extravagance of your love means that there are never any losers.
I will thank you God.  You look upon me and love me.

We have always puzzled at your teasing riddles, God. You know some great posers!
That one about the camel going through the eye of a needle really got the learned scholars going.
They started looking all over Jerusalem for a narrow gate,
The idea that Jesus might be telling a joke. Well, that’s simply awesome!
Wow, thank you God. You look upon me and love me.

But I know your favourite game, God, it’s treasure hunting.
I enjoy it too, but your idea of treasure feels so different to mine.
You tell me of treasure that is going to be stored up for me in heaven.
I will have to solve so many clues before I discover that hoard.
Yet I know you will always look upon me and love me.
Thank you God. You look upon me and love me.

*****

I pity preachers having to preach on this passage to communities of Christians in many places in Europe, including the church where my husband will be preaching on Sunday. How can we listen to and wrestle with the meaning of Jesus’ words about poverty and riches in our contemporary contexts in which many of us are wealthy in a way that would have been unthinkable to those who first listened to Jesus’ words? How can we be faithful followers of Jesus in our time? What does discipleship mean for us today? There are no easy answers.

It is of course interesting that this Gospel reading appears in the lectionary 6 days after the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, who heard Jesus’ challenge to ‘the rich young ruler’ as directly addressed to himself and who turned his own life upside down as a result.  But if we are not all going to respond in the same way as Francis, what do Jesus words mean for us in 21st century Europe? Genuinely it would be interesting to hear from readers how you engage with this question for yourself.

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