Wisdom 7:7–11, Psalm 90, Hebrews 4:12–13, Mark 10:17–30
This Sunday’s Gospel is the Rich Young Man. Mark’s version is too rich for this short space.
The drama heats up when Jesus names the commandment: “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 mother.” Matthew and Luke both report the same ordering of commandments: the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth, then back to the fourth, “honor your father and mother,” the positive good that undergirds the negative prohibitions of the other commandments about neighbors.
But Mark has Jesus throw in one more: “You shall not defraud.” That is not one of the Ten. In fact, in the Greek version of the Old Testament, that word appears only twice. One is in the prophet Malachi: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who DEFRAUD the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.”
Jesus sees to the man’s heart. The prophets just spell out what was implicit in the law. Theft and false witness are the main issues. But Jesus challenges him: have you “defrauded the hired worker in his wages”? Have you covered your theft behind a hidden false witness? (Have we?)
The man responds, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Perhaps he is lying. Or perhaps Jesus is showing him that even if you follow the Law exactly, “You are still lacking in one thing.” In fact, the deeper issue beneath the Law, the issue the Law protects but does not exhaust, is love. As Jesus points out at the beginning, the deeper issue is what we think is “Good,” whether we know that nothing “is good but God alone”—and therefore “no one” is good until his heart is fixed on God alone.
“God alone” is why we must not steal, bear false witness, or defraud the hired worker in his wages. But “God alone” means, too, that we must be willing to go beyond the law, sell everything, and follow Christ. Why does the man cling to his possessions? Why do we? It is a question of whether we know what is truly good.
The other time “defraud” appears in the Old Testament is earlier on, at the very beginning of Moses giving the Law, when he talks about divorce: “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not defraud her of her food, her clothing, or her marital rights” (Ex. 21:10). And in Mark, this story comes immediately after Jesus has talked about what Moses said about divorce.
These things are all tied together.
Fascinating that this story ends with him saying “no one who has left . . . mother or father . . . for my sake . . . will not receive . . . children.” There’s lots else he’s saying—lots of issues beyond marriage. But fascinating, because in the previous story (last Sunday), he has just said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother,” and in the story right before that (two Sundays ago) he said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,” and right after he talked about marriage he said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
It is all about what we leave and what we receive, in Jesus’ name, and for his kingdom. No one is good but God alone—yet in God’s name we must receive the whole world anew. We must not “defraud” God’s kingdom of the love it deserves.
There is an innocence in this receiving. Thinking about the reading this week, I was fascinated by a funny juxtaposition. When Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” the disciples “were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, Then who can be saved?” “Exceedingly astonished” is a lot (and it’s a good translation). The disciples’ argument seems to be that if the rich can’t be saved, no one can!
But the very next thing is that Peter says, “We have given up everything and followed you.” The disciples have already done exactly what Jesus asked the rich man to do. Why, then, are they so amazed? I’m not sure.
The best I can come up with—let me know what you think!—is that for once, the disciples are doing something right. But they are doing it right because they have not done it self-consciously, not as the Pharisees. It’s not that there’s a law of poverty, and the disciples follow it, and say, “Wow, look at us, we are the greatest!” (Though we know they are tempted to think that way.)
It sounds more like this is the first time the disciples have even noticed that they gave up everything. It suddenly dawns on them, after they have been “exceedingly amazed” at Jesus’ demand on the rich young man, “Hey, wait a minute . . . we did that, didn’t we?”
They didn’t do it because it was the Law. They did it because Jesus was good. They didn’t do it for their self-righteousness—they did it because “No one is good, but God alone,” and as Peter said a chapter before, at the Transfiguration, “It is good [beautiful] that we are here,” I wish I could make a tent and stay here. Jesus says, “That’s right, it is good. Follow me, not so you can be good, but because I am.”
Are there places in your life where you haggle over Jesus’ demands, because you forget how good and beautiful he is?