Mark 10:7-31 Sunday 10-14-2018 — Jesus and the Young Archon.
I’ve heard two reflections on this text since Sunday, and my take kept on veering away in a different direction than either of them. This is the gist of the story:
‘The influential and powerful prince comes and kneels before Jesus to ask him what he needs to do to get an admission ticket to the Kingdom. Jesus disappoints him.’
Of course, being me, I immediately departed from the traditional interpretations. I had in mind the lengthy, grim knowledge of manipulative people that I gained in my 18 years working as a cop. This young fellow was “working” Jesus, I’m sure of it. So then, how do we interpret Jesus’s response, “Why do you call me good?” [To aid in this analysis, I want to dredge up another Jesus quote from John 2:24-25— “24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.” (NRSV) — “24 But he did not commit himself to them, for he knew what people are like — 25 that is, he didn’t need anyone to inform him about a person, because he knew what was in the person’s heart.” (CJB)]
It looks like what we have here is a Jesus who is immune to manipulation; who isn’t moved by attempts to impress or influence him. In other words, he sees through dissembling and flattery, right through to a person’s true motivations. It just occurred to me that I might have been acting like Jesus when, as a cop, I saw through such attempts to manipulate me, and would say to the flatterer, “You can stop schmoozing me now.”
So, then, lets start with the premise that this young CEO (I’ll call him Victor) was indeed schmoozing Jesus. He meant to flatter and impress Jesus so that he could work his way into Jesus’ good graces, and thereby get some advantage for himself. He didn’t give a damn for the Kingdom, he just knew that Jesus was always talking about it. So young Victor figured that he’d use that angle, in the same way that a grifter figures out how to exploit his mark’s vulnerabilities. Victor figured that the Kingdom was Jesus’ soft spot.
But we already know that Jesus isn’t susceptible to that sort of manipulation. He doesn’t ‘commit’ or ‘entrust’ himself to anyone, because he sees what is in people’s hearts. I could dig up several more quotes from the Gospels that illustrate that this is Jesus’s pattern. He always cuts right to the meat of a question. His integrity is ingrained in him, and that’s the reason that Jesus can outfox the lawyers, and stymy the stone-throwing accusers of adulterous wives. It’s his genuineness that’s the basis of all his snappy comebacks, such as the one about whose image is on a Roman coin. I suppose that we might conclude that the Gospel is encouraging us to be skeptical and suspicious, except for one thing: the way Jesus reacted to Victor’s attempt to play him. It’s right there in the text: “He looked at him and loved him.” He wasn’t annoyed or resentful at Victor’s attempt to sucker him; no, he saw right through it, and it only made Jesus feel affectionate toward him.
Let’s just sit with that for a minute.
Now, here’s an interesting connection— This passage follows right after the passage in which Jesus says we need to receive the Kingdom as a child. In a previous post I suggested that the analogy is that it’s the Kingdom which is like a child, not us. We are not to make ourselves like children, we are to treat the Kingdom as if it were a child, and receive it just as we receive a child. The reason that I mention this stems from the realization that the only time I instinctively respond with affection to an attempt to flatter or manipulate me, is when children are doing it. Only then do I smile and feel my heart soften, even though I have no intention of letting them get away with it. Why is that? It’s because I know their hearts. I know what they really want, and I know that they really aren’t cynical and self-serving. I know that it’s only because they are safe and loved that they can afford to spend the energy to try and con me into buying them the toy they want; and I also know that I would never take that shelter and comfort away from them, even if they throw a tantrum because I didn’t end up buying them that toy.
Let’s put that filter over this Gospel story: Could it be that, in telling us the story of this self-important and entitled young man, Jesus is showing us yet another example of how to receive the Kingdom? This young man is the Kingdom; and Jesus receives him as a child. Jesus sees through Victor, and answers him in a way designed to reveal the truth of his flattery: “Why do you call me good? All you are doing is trying to get me to be flattered by your opinion of me, instead of what it would be better to be thinking about— the goodness of God.”
Then Jesus goes on to lay bare the reality that Victor is grasping after something he only thinks he wants, by pointing out to Victor that the Kingdom lies under the plain light of day, and it isn’t really anything special. To live in the Kingdom, Jesus tells him, all anyone has to do is what is right and good to do. It’s at this point that Jesus slips in an extra commandment that isn’t in the canon: “Do not defraud.” I think that’s aimed specifically at Victor. Our opportunistic young Victor misses the subtle point, and says, “But I already do all those things!” Then Jesus shows poor Victor just how he’s trying to trade in his safe and loving home in the Kingdom for nothing more than some new toy that he wants. He shows him just how impermanent and breakable this toy is, by telling him to go and get rid of all his toys, and then come and follow the Way. He shows him the wasteland he’s living in, filled with cheap plastic toys and the empty admiration of creeps with agendas. Jesus proves the point to Victor that he hasn’t obeyed that extra commandment because, right this moment, he’s trying to run a con on Jesus. The thing is, Jesus isn’t biting, and so the only person being defrauded here is Victor himself.
This is not a sad story of defeat though! Victor didn’t reject the proposal that he sell everything he has to come and follow the Way. All the story says is that he was “appalled, and went away sad; because he was wealthy.” It’s then that Jesus drives home the point to the disciples that Victor has a truly tough chore ahead of him; a huge task; one that will take all of Victor’s discipline, integrity, and fortitude. It’s not easy for a person to place all of their means into the service of the Kingdom; and for a rich person, it’s even more of a challenge. Victor saw with brutal clarity that he was going to have to buckle down in order to follow the Way, and it was going to be tough going. Victor saw how, from moment to moment, he would have to sell off one cherished idea after another in order to keep his promise to the Kingdom. He would have to stick to the Way of generosity, kindness, and good-will; and he would have to set all of his prized notions aside, or they would lead him astray.
Jesus wasn’t criticizing Victor when he told the disciples how hard it is for a ‘rich’ person to enter the Kingdom— he was recommending to his disciples that they respond with love; that they reach out a helping hand to anybody who’s wading through a ‘wealth’ of commotion, distraction and enticement; to everybody who’s struggling to find the Way through the needle’s eye.
From the Zen rodeo
we get the phrase
but I propose in its place
of squeezing a camel
through a needle’s eye.
On the one hand
we have the spare grace
of an open, empty
on the other,
a spitting, gurgling, frothing,
God help us!