If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you may remember my series on Rikk Watts’ lectures on Isaiah. Watts, NT lecturer at Regent College, is currently writing a commentary on Mark in the NICNT series. The focus of his dissertation was on Mark’s use of Isaiah’s second exodus (Isa 40-55; 56-66). Now I’ve been listening to Watts’ lectures on Mark, and when Watts taught on the rich young man in Mark 10.17-22, he took a different perspective from what I’ve always heard.
Growing up I’ve only heard one perspective on the rich young man. He was rich, he was young, and he was self-righteous. He didn’t really keep the whole Law. He simply wanted to pull-one over on Jesus, or at least he was so deceived he really thought he had kept the whole law. Yet Jesus sees straight through his facade. Knowing the young man is covetous and greedy, Jesus tells him that he must sell his belongings, those things that keep the rich man from Jesus, and follow Jesus so that he will have eternal life.
The Other Way
But Watts doesn’t think that’s what’s happening at all. Instead, Watts sees Mark presenting the rich young man in a positive light.
The rich young man “knelt before” Jesus and calls him “Good teacher” (v17). He’s not a scumbag. He believes that Jesus can tell him how he can have eternal life. And Jesus asks, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (v18). His answer to the rich man to follow him (and not Torah) implies that he is equating himself with Yahweh.
Jesus points first to the law and gives a list of commandments that the rich man should know: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t defraud, do honor your parents. But the rich man has kept all of these from his youth. While this sounds farfetched, Paul says that when it came to “righteousness under the law,” he was “blameless” (Phil 3.6b). This doesn’t mean Paul nor the rich man were perfect, but that they were faithful to God by keeping to the Jewish laws and sacrifices.
Good, You Lack One Thing
In verse 21, Mark doesn’t say, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lie.’” Instead, Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” For the rabbis, “lacking nothing” was the mark of a truly righteous man. Jesus doesn’t require anyone else in Mark to do this. Why is this?
People can tell the difference between someone who wealthy and righteous and someone who is wealthy and rotten. For the Jews, keeping the law and having money was a genuine sign that someone was righteous. Watts believes this guy is being told to let go of his reliance on both Torah and all of the brownie points (material wealth) that testify to his being a truly righteous man from a Jewish point of view. He “kept the law and has shekels in the bank to prove it” (Watts, Lecture 10).
Watts says that if the rich young man really was selfish, the disciples would say, “Well, we know why he isn’t getting in. He’s selfish!“ They know about the oppressive wealthy (10.42), but here they are surprised! If this man has kept the law, he has money, but he can’t gain eternal life, what on earth can the disciples do?
But Many Who Are First…
“But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (v31). This rich man, who is first in everyone’s eyes, is now last because he refuses to follow the one who is greater than the Torah, Jesus Christ. But the disciples, who were low in everyone’s else’s eyes, and who would become lower because they followed the one who would be crucified, will be first.
But how can this be? They are not the best disciples. They do not understand Jesus’ teachings (4.10). They’re hearts are hard (6.52). They care little about those whom Jesus cares much about (6.36-37). They do not yet understand (8.21), and Peter rebukes his Teacher (8.32). They can not cast out a demon (9.18), and they do not pray with a heart of humility (9.29). They all want to be on the top (9.34).
The disciples will have eternal life so long as they follow and listen to the Beloved Son of God (Mk 9.7) who was crucified for our sins (15.39) and was risen from the dead (16.6).
“With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (v27).