Jesus’ Declaration about Peter

17 As he 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?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 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.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 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!” 24 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! 25 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.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

See the general introduction to Mark.

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas / phrases / concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today / challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Mark.

The World of the Text

Texts & Textual Features

The text of Mark 10:17-31 is structured in two main parts. The first (17-22), tells of the encounter between Jesus and the rich man. The second (23-31), is the interaction between Jesus and his disciples concerning this encounter. Stories similar to this account are found in Matthew 19 and Luke 18. The first part of the encounter between the rich man and Jesus begins with the question about eternal life (17) and the response referring to the commandments of the Jewish law (Torah) in verse 19. The story then shifts in verse 21 when Jesus turns the focus to the man’s wealth with the instruction to sell everything, give the money to the poor and to ‘come and follow me’. This proves to be too difficult for the man who is said to have had ‘many possessions’ (22) and he turns away grieving. In giving the instruction to sell all his possessions, the author includes the detail that Jesus looked at the man and ‘loved him’ (21). Despite Jesus’ possible misgivings about the rich man’s attachment to his wealth he still loved the man. An affirmation that for Jesus, love of the other is foundational and not dependent on them doing good.

At the most basic level this is a further call story, adding to those found in Mark 1 and 2. In each of these recounts someone is called to leave behind their previous life and take on a new one: key to this recognition is the invitation Jesus gives to come, follow me. Simon, Andrew, James, John and then Levi are all willing to give up their lives, leaving their work to do as Jesus asks: in this passage, the rich man is not able to leave what holds him – his wealth.

Interspersed among the different points of the encounter between Jesus and the rich man is a ‘sub-plot’ regarding Jesus’ identity. The rich man first addresses Jesus as ‘good teacher’ (17) which leads to a rebuke from Jesus ‘no one is good but God alone’. Subsequently, in verse 20, he refers to Jesus simply as ‘teacher’. The meaning of Jesus’ rebuke is not clear, however, it may well be an echo of the so called messianic secret in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus forbids people to speak of him as the messiah (Mark 1:24-25, 3:11-12, 5:43, 8:26, 8:29-30, 9:9). It is noteworthy that the man is said to have run up to Jesus, suggesting a degree of urgency and ‘knelt before him’ (17), a posture of worship.

The second part of the text, the interaction between Jesus and his disciples, begins with Jesus’ assertion that it is difficult for someone with wealth to enter the kingdom of God (23). Jesus then reiterates this statement when faced with the perplexed response from his disciples (24) before elaborating further with the astonishing claim that ‘it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (25). Verse 26 and 27 temper the impact of the ‘eye of the needle’ assertion with the recognition that, ultimately, salvation is the work of God and not of humans and that for God ‘all things are possible’ (27).

In verse 28 Peter exclaims that he and the other disciples have indeed ‘left everything and followed you’ to which Jesus responds with the promise of blessings ‘in this age’ and ‘in the age to come eternal life’ (30). The promise of temporal blessings is tempered with the reference to persecutions (30). The passage concludes with a final qualification, apparently related to the promised blessings that the ‘first will be last and the last will be first’ (31)

Characters & Setting

At the beginning of chapter 10 we are told that Jesus leaves the region of Galilee and head towards the region of Judea, beyond the Jordan. While the immediate destination is unclear, it forms part of the overall movement in the Gospel where Jesus, and his disciples, journey to Jerusalem arriving in Jericho at verse 46 and then finally in Jerusalem at the start of chapter 11.’

The story of the rich man (Mark 10:17-31) is situated ‘on the way’. While this phrase reflects the physical movement of Jesus, it also reflects the spiritual reality of some Jesus will meet as he travels south – among them, the rick young mad, who, by his actions, shows he still has some way to go.

Israel in the time of Jesus

The only characters to feature in this story are Jesus, his disciples and the rich man. Peter is the only one of the disciples to be mentioned by name and the rich man himself remains nameless. Evidently, judging by his reference to the Torah, the rich man is a devout follower of the Jewish religion.

Ideas/ phrases/ concepts:

The story of the rich man is replete with intriguing and somewhat challenging ideas. At its heart is Mark’s commitment to explaining discipleship: what it is and what it costs.

Jesus’ comment to the disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom has been a source of fascination for commentators. Some have suggested that the ‘eye of a needle’ refers to a small gate in the walls of the city of Jerusalem which allows access when the main gate is shut, however, the size of this small gate is not sufficient for a camel, laden with goods, to pass, thus leading to the metaphor of the rich man’s possessions. While this explanation is quite prevalent in commentaries, it is, nevertheless, difficult to find corroborating references for the existence of such a gate in Jerusalem, known by this term.

A second theory is that the term ‘camel’ is a copyist error due to the word’s similarity to the word for ‘rope’. Fallon writes:

“It is possible that the word ‘camel’ (Greek: kamêlos) might be meant to be ‘hawser’ (Greek: kamilos). One might be able to work a thin thread through the eye of a needle, but not the thick rope used for attaching a boat to a wharf!”,31-10,52.pdf

Alongside these theories is the presence of a similar expression in the Babylonian Talmud, part of the ancient Jewish sacred texts. Berakoth 55b in the Babylonian Talmud refers to an elephant, rather than a camel, passing through the eye of a needle. There is a distinct possibility that this is the source of Jesus’ statement.

Whatever the explanation for this intriguing statement, the impact of the phrase on understanding how hard discipleship is and will be is clear: discipleship, entering God’s kingdom, is difficult. However, ultimately it asserts that nothing is impossible for God (27).

A further intriguing idea in this text is the conundrum of wealth. For the rich man, his attachment to his many possessions (22) are clearly an impediment to entering the kingdom of God. They are too important to him, too impossible to give up. This young man cannot imitate the actions of the fishermen called from the lake (Mk 1) or Levi, called from his tax collecting booths (Mk 2). It is not so much the wealth per se which is the issue but the rich man’s attachment to these possessions which, in the end, prevents him from following Jesus.

Finally, the concluding verse of the story (31) foreshadows an inversion of the normal pattern of things where the ‘last will be first and the first will be last’. This is an example of the revolutionary character of Jesus’ ministry and the coming kingdom of God. Matthew’s Gospel repeats the same saying (Matthew 20:16). While Luke’s Gospel speaks of filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away (Luke 1:53) as well as bringing ‘good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18).

Questions for the teacher:

What am I wondering about the text?
What of this information is important to share with the students?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text?
What might they already know about (from their study of literacy)?
What might they wonder about?

World In Front of the Text

Questions for the teacher:

How does the information assist you in understanding the text?
What else do you need to know?
How might Matthew’s community have reacted to this text?
What else might the students need to know? What could be some questions the students might ask?

Meaning for today/challenges

The key focus of this text is that of wealth and its impact on the ability, or willingness, of a person to leave it behind to follow Jesus and to become a disciple. The call is to come, and follow me, free from what holds or binds you. Therefore, this text should not be interpreted as an absolute indictment of material possessions. Nevertheless, the discourse does challenge the audience to consider their own attachment to possessions, whether they be many or few, and to reflect on whether they are genuinely able to put these aside in order to follow Jesus.

Few of us would consider ourselves as wealthy, however, it is instructive for us to consider where we might sit on the affluence scale, in comparison to others. The disproportionate share of wealth between the majority world and affluent societies such as our own should give us pause for thought about the challenge of this Gospel text. Verse 31 provides a further prophetic edge to this challenge with the promise that the ‘first will be last and the last will be first’.

In addition to the question of attachment to wealth, this text also invites us to reflect on the sincerity and integrity of our discipleship. In the first part of the text, the rich man shows himself to be a devout follower of the Jewish faith, keeping all the commandments from his youth (20). Yet, as is evident in the following verse, the man lacked integrity in his keeping of the commandments as this had not led him to the disposition of placing God before all else.

Finally, the text reassures the reader that salvation is ultimately the work of God and that ‘for God, all things are possible’ (27).

Liturgical usage

The story of the rich man features in the lectionary as the Gospel Reading for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary time (Year B). However, the text for this reading finishes at verse 30 rather than verse 31. Pope Saint John Paul II includes a lengthy reflection on the story of the rich man in Veritatis Splendor (1993), however, he draws from Matthew’s account of this story rather than from Mark.

Pope Francis has reflected on this text in a number of his homilies. May 27th 2013, May 28th 2013, February 28th 2017, June 13th 2018.