20th Sunday after Trinity

11 October 2018

Proper 23: Amos 5.6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90.12-end; Hebrews 4.12-end; Mark 10.17-31


THE prophet Amos is addressing a community living in relative peace and affluence, but in which external religious observance belies a reality of injustice and oppression. He turns the words of the Law — read and yet ignored — into a living Word.

As Carol Dempsey explains, in the sixth century BC, the prosperity of wealthy Israelites was accompanied by “exploitation of the poor and defenceless. . . With a new economic order came excessive wealth for some, which, in turn, led to a leisured upper class, many of whom became involved in decadent lifestyles” (New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk). Amos warns the rich that God will “break out like fire” against those who “turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground”.

The focus of our Gospel reading is the spiritual damage that greed and oppression do to the wealthy. The rich man in the passage begins by flattering Jesus, calling him “good teacher”. As Ched Myers explains, in the etiquette of the day, such a compliment should have elicited an equally flattering reply: “Theologians have agonised over the Christological implications of Jesus’ apparent self-effacement. . . The problem disappears once we see that Jesus is repelling the man’s hopes for return ingratiation” (Binding the Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus).

Jesus responds by quoting the Ten Commandments, but inserting an additional statute: “Do not defraud.” As Myers observes, “This is our first indication that much more is being discussed than the personal failure of one man: judgment is being passed upon the wealthy class.”

The rich man tells Jesus that he has kept the whole law. His reply is a sign of hubris rather than virtue. As Kenneth Bailey points out, “In the Talmud, Abraham, Moses, and Aaron are reported to have kept the whole law. This rich ruler seems to calmly put himself in rather exalted company” (Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, combined edition).

Jesus’s answer cuts to the very heart of things. They demonstrate (in the language of our epistle) that the word of God is “living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword”. As the rich man discovers, we do not come to God’s word to interrogate, but to be interrogated.

Jesus “looking at him, loved him”, before issuing his response. It is not a word of condemnation, but an invitation to find a new way of life. As Myers observes, by giving his possessions to the poor and finding “treasure in heaven”, the rich man would have to embrace the “apocalyptic status-reversal” of the Kingdom. This is an order in which, as Jesus later says, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Mary Healy points out that other passages in the Gospels indicate that Jesus did not ask every disciple to sell his or her possessions. For example, the women of Galilee continue to have access to their material resources (Mark 15.41). “Total detachment from one’s possession is demanded of every disciple,” however, and such a spiritual posture cannot but have material implications (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Mark).

The disciples are “perplexed” and “greatly astounded” by Jesus’s teaching on the difficulty for the rich of entering the Kingdom of God. In their day, as in ours, the dominant ideology identified worldly wealth and status with blessing from God. This helps to explain the disciples’ question in verse 26: If the rich will find it so hard to enter the Kingdom, “who then can be saved?” Jesus’s answer is that, while such an overturning of worldly values may seem “impossible” for mortals, “for God, all things are possible.”

The blessings of the Kingdom are not reserved to the world to come: Jesus promises that those who give up everything will receive “a hundredfold” on earth. As Healy puts it, they may sacrifice personal wealth, and be ostracised from their blood relations, but they will experience the sharing of goods and the “deep bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood within the family of faith”.

Significantly, the one thing that they do not receive back a hundredfold is “fathers” (for they only have one Father in heaven); and the one thing added to the list of rewards is “persecutions”. This is no promise of earthly wealth and ease: rather, it is the promise of a heavenly Kingdom, whose joy is anticipated in the sacrificial life of the faithful.

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