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The Good News and the Law (10:1-31)
Chapter 10 opens with a note of advance. The group had moved slowly from the point farthest north (Caesarea Philippi, perhaps near Mount Hermon) through Galilee to Capernaum, on south to Transjordania. When they later come to Jericho (Mark 10:46), they will begin the last ascent to the Holy City (Mark 11:1; Mark 11:11). Arriving in Transjordania for the first time (according to Mark’s itinerary), they again met the crowds whom Jesus taught and the Pharisees who began testing him. It should be noted, however, that Jesus turned each conversation with non-disciples into efforts to train his disciples. Conversations with the former clarified his attitude toward the Law; conversations with the latter set forth his unique understanding of the Kingdom of God.
First, the Pharisees tested him by asking what the Law dictates concerning divorce. He asked then what Moses had said; they knew the answer and quoted it. Then he told them why Moses had allowed a husband to divorce his wife. It was because of their hard hearts. Men whose hearts are far from God, whose minds do not seek God’s will, and who rely upon a formal written standard — such men find a written commandment to be necessary. Jesus appealed beyond the Mosaic commands to God’s purpose in creating husband and wife (Genesis 1:27). He had made them two in order that they might become one (Mark 10:8). So when they had become one, they were never again to be made two. God’s creative act served as the ultimate norm; Moses’ command was a compromise with men’s self-centeredness and pride.
In his explanation to his disciples the Teacher carried the logic to its true conclusion. Because man cannot change what God has joined, a divorced husband who marries another woman is actually guilty of adultery. The same holds true of a divorced wife if she marries again. According to Jewish law only a husband was permitted to secure a divorce. In Roman law either husband or wife was so permitted. Mark’s version covered the latter practice. There is ample evidence that this version was too rigorous for many Christians. Beginning with Matthew’s edition, Christians have added various exceptions to the Markan rule (Matthew 5:32).
In doing so, they have misunderstood Jesus’ intent. He was not setting forth a new law, which hard hearts could twist to fit their desires. He was simply announcing what God had done in making two one, and therefore what men do in separating two thus joined. Mark knew how difficult this understanding of marriage was, but he let Jesus’ teaching for his disciples stand in all its rigor.
The second incident (vss. 13-16) quickly shows that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of keeping laws nor of amassing credit and status. It is a matter of receptivity. One does not need to develop special credits to present as a ticket of admission. Rather he needs to be content with no such credit. Childlikeness had, in Jewish thought, nothing to do with sentimental ideas of innocence or purity. A child had no claims. His status was one of total dependence. He was an example of being least and last. If we are not to hinder children, we are not to hinder anyone — period. If the Kingdom belongs to children, then it belongs to all. To enter, what one needs to do (although this may be the hardest thing) is to be willing to begin again with nothing of one’s own (John 3:3; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; 1 Peter 2:1-2). Jesus thus tried to teach his disciples both the "impossible" standard of absolute integrity (in the case of marriage) and the "possible" requirement of absolute humility. However difficult it may be, it is possible for anyone to accept the status of a child.
The alternation between teaching non-disciples and teaching disciples is particularly effective in the third incident, which deals still with the so-called requirements for entering the Kingdom. This incident indicates even more clearly both how difficult and how easy it is to become like a child. The line between the eager questioner (vss. 17-22) and the disciples (vss. 23-31) is not very broad. He wants eternal life as do they. Like them he recognizes Jesus as a good teacher and kneels before him in homage. Moreover, he brings his requests when Jesus is setting out again on his road ("journey," vs. 17). We can say that this man comes as near as it is possible to come without taking the same road as a disciple. We should therefore pay close attention to the climax of his story — the one thing he lacked.
He did not lack adequate reverence for Jesus; no, to Jesus his praise was even excessive (vs. 18). He did not lack loyalty to the commandments of God; no, he knew them and had for years obeyed them. He did not lack honesty or sincerity; no, Jesus loved him and did not upbraid him for blindness or hardness of heart.
Then what was the one thing he lacked? He had too many things. His deficiency was his abundance. He had great possessions. Luke (Luke 18:18) adds that he was a ruler and Matthew (Matthew 19:20) that he was young. He could not become a child again, nakedly dependent and defenseless. He could not take the step which would have enabled him to say "having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (2 Corinthians 6:10). What did he lack? Was it one thing or two? It was one decision in a double form : to give away his wealth and to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus meant total renunciation (Luke 14:25-33). How could a "Good Teacher" whose goodness and whose teaching consisted of being condemned to death (vs. 33) be followed on this very road by a person unwilling to give everything to the poor? Impossible. Following is not following Jesus without selling all other possessions. The one thing this man lacked was decisive.
The Gospel of Mark, however, does not pause to describe what happened to the rich man, but rushes on to focus attention on those who had already embarked on this strange journey. Jesus used the rich man as an object lesson for their sakes. He first underscored the impossibility of such a man’s entering the Kingdom. The eye of a needle is too small for a camel. His disciples, although he called them "children" (a status which the other had been unwilling to accept), were astonished at his ruthless logic. "Then who can be saved?" He, in turn, was astonished at their astonishment. Had they not learned that impossible things were possible with God? What was the impossible thing Jesus had in mind? Not that a rich man could follow without becoming poor, but that a rich man could become poor, could become a child. Peter immediately got the point: their own status indicated that God had enabled them to renounce everything to follow Jesus on this road. Whether they had at this time renounced everything becomes a bit dubious when we read the next two paragraphs (vss. 32-45). But Peter’s remark, "We have left everything," gives Jesus the opportunity to complete the paradox. The rich man lacked one thing because he held on to what he had. True disciples lack everything but receive one thing. The alternatives were simple, though difficult to understand: either in possessing all things to have nothing, or in having nothing to possess all things. Is this a riddle? If so, the riddle becomes an axiom: "Many that are first will be last, and the last first" (vs. 31). And the illustration of the axiom is provided by the testimony of the Christian community: in surrendering one’s family for the sake of the good news (that is, in order to qualify as bearers of this news) they had already "with persecutions" inherited a much larger and more adequate family. How could this be? They were on the road (vs. 32), a road which produced simultaneously persecutions and a new family, with eternal life at the end.
Before moving with Mark to the next milestone, we should look back at these previous indications of how this good news was related to the Law (Mark 10:1-31). Looking back, we may notice that in all three incidents there is a recurrent interest in the family — the relation of parents to one another (vss. 1-12), of adults to children (vss. 13-16), and of the new family (the Church) to the old (vss. 17-31). All three incidents take place on the same road, all end in instruction to the pilgrims, all presuppose a shift in perspectives produced by faith. Faith in God’s creative purpose replaces reliance on the Law and on arguments about interpreting Moses’ commands. If by divorce men are quite unable to separate what God has joined together in creation, how much less are they able to cancel the family bonds created by God’s miraculous deed in the gospel (compare vss. 10-12 and vss. 27-30). If God has opened his Kingdom only to those who receive it "like a child," how blasphemous are disciples who reject children whose status under the Law is inferior (compare vss. 13-16 and vss. 29-30). If the rich man, though obeying the Law, prizes his possessions above the Kingdom of God, how much more should disciples prize the "hundredfold" possessions granted to them in that Kingdom. In one sense the followers of Jesus must and do become last; in a truer sense, they become first in God’s ordering of things (vs. 31); yet this re-evaluation is only realized by those who take the same road — narrow, indeed, but leading to life (Matthew 7:14). This was Mark’s message to his Roman readers.
The Coming Baptism (10:32-52)
Mark, however, was under no illusions concerning the difficulty of accepting this message. It was certainly no easier for his Roman brothers than it had been for the Twelve. In fact, the kinship of the two groups was very marked. They were akin in faith and in persecutions (vs. 30). They belonged to the same family with the same destiny. They were both amazed and startled by the same Lord, who always walked ahead of them (vs. 32). They were susceptible to the same kinds of ambition (vs. 37) and, perhaps most decisive of all, they had received the same baptism (vs. 39).
Because baptism was so decisive a step, so characteristic of this new family, Mark was keenly interested in it. To him as to Paul, when a person was baptized, he was united with Christ Jesus (Romans 6:3; Romans 6:5). To him as to John, this was nothing less than a new birth from above, like becoming a child again (John 3:3). To him as to both Paul and Peter, baptism required nothing short of being buried with Christ and being raised with him to a new life (Romans 6:4; 1 Peter 1:3-7). In baptism a person, once blind, received new sight (John 9:24-38). In three short paragraphs Mark brings together many of these motifs.
In the first of them, he provides a full summary of Jesus’ own baptism (vss. 32-34, 38). Here Jesus referred primarily not to the opening scene at the Jordan but to the climactic scene in Jerusalem. The two were not opposed but complementary: the baptism with which the Messiah had been baptized was the baptism with which he would be baptized (vss. 38-39). Predicting this completion of his work, Jesus told the Twelve more fully "what was to happen to him" (vs. 32; see Mark 8:31; Mark 9:12; Mark 9:31),a full preview of the Passion. What God had ordained for him would be his baptism.
Then Jesus turned to tell his followers about their baptism. The occasion, a very telling one, was the desire for chief places in his glory (vs. 37). Notice the implication of this request. They were now anticipating his triumph and wanted to participate in it. In this respect the disciples had learned something. In the previous days when Jesus had told of coming suffering and vindication, they had not understood (for example, Mark 9:32). Now they comprehend well enough at least to want special seats at his side. Even so, Jesus warns them that they are still profoundly ignorant. Are they able? In this question Jesus gives an epitome of his teaching goal: he wants them to develop this ability. They falsely reply, "We are able," to which he responds with a warning and a promise. The warning is a reminder that the Messiah does not have authority to parcel out privileges. That authority remains vested in God alone. But the promise is something fully within the jurisdiction of the Messiah. Although they are not yet able, they will all in fact participate in his cup and his baptism. In this promise Christian readers detect at once a reference to the two chief sacraments. This is undoubtedly right, but the promise points beyond the sacraments to their consummation in a shared suffering. It is as if Mark were saying to his readers: "Are you baptized? Yes, of course, you are, but this baptism is something which becomes real only when you have carried your own ministry to its end. What that end will be has been disclosed in the story of Jesus."
The ambition of two disciples provoked this promise; the indignation of the other ten provoked the formulation of the new law, the law of the gospel. The disciples in this instance were exemplifying the rule governing Gentile society. Jesus asserts the opposite rule as binding upon his society (vss. 42-43). Here everything is turned bottom side up. Only the slave of all is qualified to govern all. And slavery to others is embodied in the act of dying for them. The only true king, it would seem, is a dead king. It is not at all surprising, then, when we reread the Gospel to find that the rejection of this rule lies behind all the rejections of Jesus, whether by the scribes, the crowds, the rich man, or the disciples. Yet the coming baptism will include the adoption of this rule. The baptism of the disciples will be fulfilled not simply by their suffering and death, but by their becoming slaves of all. This is why the New Testament can speak of all faithful believers as kings (Revelation 1:6; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 5:10; 1 Peter 2:9). When all are kings because all are slaves, such ambitions as those of James and John will be truly senseless.
When he underscored so sharply the blindness to this truth on the part of the Twelve, Mark was not shouting for a crusade against the revered Apostles. He was not holding them especially culpable, because he knew that all disciples share their blindness except when Jesus heals them. The story of the blind beggar serves to suggest the proper response to such teachings. A person must become aware of his blindness and his poverty. He must cry out with the cry of all generations: Kyrie Eleison (Lord, have mercy). When Jesus calls, such a one must take heart and rise. He must believe and hope and pray. Then when he receives sight, he will follow Jesus "on the way." To Mark, the true picture of discipleship included both "exposures": the self-centered question of James and John, and the poverty-stricken plea for mercy from the beggar.
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"Commentary on Mark 10". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany