Monday, August 26, 2013

An Experiential Exegesis on Mark 10:17-27: Jesus and the Rich Man

Early this summer I enjoyed a class on biblical storytelling at Wesley Seminary. One assignment was to write an "experiential exegesis": that is, a deep look at a biblical text as I imagine it might have been heard by its original audience. In preparing the assignment, I learned a lot about the purpose of holy scripture: most importantly, that the Bible was never meant to be read silently and alone!

Here is the text, followed by the exegesis itself.


As Jesus was setting out on a journey,
a man ran up and knelt before him,
and asked him, “Good Teacher,
what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him,
“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
You know the commandments:
‘You shall not murder;
You shall not commit adultery;
You shall not steal;
You shall not bear false witness;
You shall not defraud;
Honor your father and mother.’”


He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
looking at him,
loved him and said
 “You lack one thing;
sell what you own,
and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven;
then come, follow me.”
When he heard this,
he was shocked
and went away grieving,
for he had many possessions.


Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
And the disciples were perplexed at these words.
But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
They were greatly astounded
and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God;
for God all things are possible.”[1]

Imagine a living room just large enough for forty people to sit on the floor, crammed closely together. A small space has been cleared at one end of the room, and from this location, an eager young man has engaged the people’s rapt attention. He is telling a story. It is a story about a man none of these people ever met in bodily form, yet they feel they know him, and they want to know him better. The storyteller reminds them regularly that this man is with them right now, for although he was killed, he is alive again, and his Holy Spirit has drawn them all into community together.

It will not be enough to give these Jewish Christians the words that Mark has recorded, for most of the people cannot read.[2] It will not even be enough to read the words aloud, for Mark did not write a novel. Ward and Trobisch explain, “The manuscripts of antiquity were designed … to record sound; published literature was intended to serve as a script to be interpreted to an audience by a performer.”[3] Tonight these people have come together to hear a part of the Jesus story and to share the meal of his Body and Blood. The storyteller knows these people, and he will “be able to tailor the reading more or less well to the particular interests, needs, and concerns of the specific audience.”[4] We don’t know for sure how the stories of Jesus would have been told in this setting. Shiner writes, “Perhaps the performance of the Gospel would be most analogous to a popular storytelling style. Unfortunately, there is little evidence about how popular storytellers delivered their stories.” He cites secular sources Quintilian, Apuleius, Xenophon and Pliny to show that storytelling was highly valued in the ancient world.[5] This is the best we have to go on, but it is not difficult to imagine that proponents of this new form of Judaism would have appropriated the culturally valued storytelling styles of the day.

Today the storyteller has a specific story to tell about the time a rich man was called up short. This is a bit risky, for the room in this house would not be available to the group without the beneficence of a man who is rather well-off. It is his house, and all of these people are his guests. But these people are also his brothers and sisters in Christ, and the homeowner is doing exactly what the group imagines Jesus would like him to do. Nevertheless, it behooves the storyteller to tell this story clearly. He has narrated Jesus’ strong line against divorce, and he has taught them that Jesus says they must become like children. This story of the rich man, too, will demand unflinching commitment and a new attitude from the people of God. That commitment will arise from unexpected liberation, a sudden freedom from the assumptions that have bound them to Jewish and Roman society all their lives. Nobody must be left feeling shut out of the kingdom Jesus spoke of, and yet none must underestimate just how much is being asked of them. Jesus wants nothing less than everything. When it comes to the passage related in Mark 10:17-27, R. T. France writes, “Jesus is asking not only for renunciation of possessions but also for a total change in his lifestyle: he is to join the itinerant group of Jesus’ closest disciples, with their communal resources and dependence on the material support of others.”[6] And so the storyteller is a re-educator, forming new Christians for the Kingdom of God.

What can we know historically about how a storyteller might have accomplished such a specific and demanding responsibility? Shiner writes:

  • We can fairly successfully recover the style of delivery that would win applause in the first-century Mediterranean world. This we can consider the ideal performance style. It is likely that any performer of Mark would try to approximate that style, although actual performances may have fallen short. [There is also] the Gospel itself. Sometimes the text tells us Jesus spoke in a loud voice. That suggests a loud performance voice for the line as well. If the text tells us Jesus looked around in anger, that suggests to me as a performer to look around as well.[7]

And so the story begins with Jesus about to set out on a journey, yet delayed by a man who we are not told yet is rich. All we know is that he runs eagerly and kneels humbly. The storyteller indicates the earnestness of the man not by acting his part exactly, but by using a standard set of gestures that is commonly accepted by the culture. Shiner writes, “The conventions of stage gesture were fairly stable for a considerable period of time, and [these] gestures would for the most part correspond to conventions of the first-century stage. Some of these are similar to gestures used in our culture, but others are quite unfamiliar.”[8] In describing specific gestures and postures, Shiner adds, “Some actions may take the performer too far out of his or her role as narrator. For example, a number of suppliants either fall, bow, or kneel down at the feet of Jesus … Actions such as these may be indicated by hand gestures so that the performer can maintain an attitude of addressing the audience.”[9] This is a good example of the kind of performance our storyteller provides: not stage acting, not role-playing, but narrating in a very expressive way.

Jesus’ new would-be follower calls Jesus “good teacher” and wants to know, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Joel Marcus clarifies: “The import of the man’s question … is, ‘What can I do now in order to ensure that in the eschatological future I may receive the inheritance that God has promised to his favored ones?’”[10] But Jesus responds with a question, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Scholars have difficulty interpreting Jesus’ reaction, but they are clear that it is inappropriate to draw Trinitarian conclusions from such an early work. France writes that this “is a problem only in the context of a formal dogmatic assertion of the sinlessness and divinity of Jesus. At the time of Jesus’ ministry this could hardly have been an issue.”[11] Donahue and Harrington, while acknowledging their puzzlement, represent a common scholarly view: “One gets the impression that Jesus regards the address as insincere flattery issuing from a hostile intention … But he quickly changes his mind.”[12] Our storyteller would have to decide for himself how to interpret and render both the man’s question and Jesus’ response. Does the man approach Jesus in a toadying manner, or does he come off as sincere? Perhaps Jesus might be stern with the toady and lightly jibe the sincere supplicant.

Regardless, after Jesus relates a number of the Ten Commandments and hears the pride and expectation in the man’s response, Mark tells us, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” It is the first emotion expressed in the story, and it provides a rich opportunity for the storyteller to express a complex emotion. Marcus writes, “Jesus’ gaze burrows into the rich man’s soul … and with an intuition guided by fatherly affection … brings the obstacle to light.”[13] Donahue and Harrington explain further: “A pious man was expected to prosper and then to serve as a benefactor for those in need … Being a benefactor in turn won gratitude from the beneficiaries and a good reputation in society at large. Jesus is asking the man to divest himself of all his goods once and for all and so deprive himself of the role of benefactor.”[14] Here our storyteller might take full advantage of his personal knowledge of the audience. Shiner explains:

The performer also has the ability to direct particular passages toward particular individuals or groups. The house setting is fairly intimate, and the performer can make eye contact with individuals … One could easily use the presentation of the Gospel in a polemical way. By addressing certain passages to one side or the other in a dispute, the performer can make his own position clear, and the audience would have the experience of the narrative Jesus taking sides.[15]

As the storyteller explicates Jesus’ response to the man, the crowd of Jewish Christians packed into the living room may now feel that they have come face to face with Jesus. The storyteller looks at them intently in the same way that Jesus looked at the man and looked around at his disciples. How might they react? Those who have heard the story before may smile and nod, pondering the sacrifices they have already made for the sake of others. But potential converts may find themselves reacting the same way as the man in the story, answering one complex emotion with another.

“The man was shocked and went away grieving.” Much is made in scholarly circles of the Greek verb στυγνάζω, for in Mark it appears only here. Donahue and Harrington write that it “means ‘be or become gloomy or dark,’ and by extension ‘be shocked or appalled.’”[16] France adds that it “perhaps suggests physical appearance which betrays emotion; in Mt. 16:3 it refers to an ‘overcast’ sky … His face clouded.”[17] In switching back from the role of Jesus to that of the man, the storyteller’s face may also cloud. Marcus adds another wrinkle, saying that the word comes “from a root meaning ‘to hate’ and can have an implication not only of sorrow … but also of resentment … The latter nuance is appropriate in the present context, since it reverses the reverence implied by the man’s kneeling before Jesus in 10:17, just as ‘went away grieving’ reverses ‘came running up.’”[18] The storyteller has the ability to make all of this clear in a way that the text alone cannot. With his body language and gestures, he can indeed show the man’s leaving as the reverse of his coming. With his facial expressions, at least in the intimate context of a room packed with forty people, he can reveal what Marcus calls the “rapid movement from enthusiasm and ardent quest to sadness and resentment” as “a marvel of biblical narrative art.”[19]

Thus the storyteller may reflect back the actual emotions of the gathered community, and he may do so yet again as he relates the disciples’ perplexity. After all, had they not always been taught that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing? Marcus, to be fair, does not accept that this assumption was completely unexamined: “This call to abandon possessions for the sake of the dominion of God may not have struck all of Mark’s readers as novel.” He refers to writings by Diogenes and to the book of 1 Maccabees for examples of pious people renouncing their possessions.[20] Nevertheless, as Jesus expands his initial pronouncement to make clear just how much of an obstacle riches may be for his followers, perplexity turns to astonishment, both for the disciples and for our house church audience. France writes that Jesus’ “further comment only makes matters worse, first by repeating the same declaration, but then by adding to it an epigram which makes the entry of the rich man into God’s kingdom not only difficult but impossible.”[21]

The metaphor Jesus employs is of a camel going through the eye of a needle. Scholars comment on the long history of commentary this metaphor has inspired. Has the word “rope” been mistranslated as “camel”? Was there a narrow gate into Jerusalem called the Needle’s Eye? These days most scholars write off these explanations as unfounded and too ameliorative.[22] It is a bizarre metaphor, but it is intended to shock. A camel is a pack animal, typically burdened with possessions. Yet even completely unladen, it cannot enter. In the same way, we must be brought into the kingdom apart from our own efforts. Potential converts in the crowd, considering their impending baptism, have just received a very important theology lesson: when they come before God, they must come naked and without pretense. Even Jesus’ reassurance that “for God all things are possible” is, as France writes, “enigmatic, leaving the resolution of the problem to the inscrutability of the divine purpose rather than offering a humanly comprehensible solution. And vv. 28-31 do not make matters any easier, as they speak of compensation for those who have left everything, but say nothing to comfort those who have not.”[23]

Perhaps this story will make some of them begin to edge toward the door! Or perhaps, as the people grow together in their knowledge and love of Jesus, the strong emotions present in the crowd will find their place in the larger context of the shared story. Others have shared generously with them, and now they can share generously with others. They can hold their possessions in common, and in so doing, they can begin to reveal to the world the Kingdom of God that is, in a mystical way, already present in their midst. As the story ends and the bread and wine are distributed, the words of institution may help move the listeners from shock and astonishment to joy and renewed strength.

End Notes

[1] Translation from The Harper Collins Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version) (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1989), 1743-1744.

[2] Whitney Shiner, Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 11: “It is unlikely that even 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire could read.”

[3] Richard F. Ward and David J. Trobisch, Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament through Performing It (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 54.

[4] Shiner, 28.

[5] Shiner, 41.

[6] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary of the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 403.

[7] Shiner, 3-4.

[8] Shiner, 129-130.

[9] Shiner, 136.

[10] Joel Marcus, The Anchor Yale Bible: Mark 8-16 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 725.

[11] France, 402.

[12] John R. Donahue, S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., Sacra Pagina Series Volume 2: The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), 303.

[13] Marcus, 727.

[14] Donahue & Harrington, 303.

[15] Shiner, 28.

[16] Donahue & Harrington, 304.

[17] France, 403.

[18] Marcus, 723.

[19] Marcus, 729.

[20] Marcus, 729.

[21] France, 404.

[22] Marcus, 731: “As Minear puts it, such interpretations ‘dwarf the camel and expand the needle’s eye.’”

[23] France, 400.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Reminder Prayer

I wrote this poem in 1996. I still return to it in times of prayer.


How do I focus on you, Lord?
How do I drop the statistics and snippets of songs,
Regretted past actions and various wrongs
And point my face upward to you?

Right now, I feel only like kneeling.
But if I look down, I’ll see footprints to follow,
Reminding me that my intentions are hollow,
Well-thought, but devoid of you.
After all, you see through.

But if I raise my face to the overcast sky
And await your grace, I’ll just wish I could cry
For my frivolous habits and self-centered goals,
And I’ll doubt once again in refillable holes.
I’ll retreat to routine and accomplish so little!
Only you know how I can get.
I’ll look up and feel further regret.

So all that remains is inside.
Whether it’s strict meditation (no hope of success)
Or more rumination (redundant, I guess),
In myself I will find no peace.
I’m helpless, to say the least.
So focus me, Lord! Remind me whom I serve
And promise me more than I truly deserve.
You’ve done it before, as I’m finding.
Sometimes, I just need some reminding.