By Fr Brian McCarthy
In this article we look at one passage of St Mark’s Gospel, his encounter with the rich young man (Mark 10:17-27), as an example of how to read the New Testament. I can’t include the passage itself here because of shortage of space, so I suggest you have it open beside you as you read.
Jesus had been in the town for some time, and was now preparing to leave. Presumably the young man had been listening to him intently, but didn’t approach him. Maybe he was shy, or something held him back; and then, when it’s almost too late to do anything about it, he comes running up and blurts out his question. At any rate, we can see ourselves mirrored in his behaviour: well-meaning, but hesitant and indecisive.
His question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” shows that he had been listening carefully, because the theme of eternal life and salvation was the principal subject of our Lord’s preaching, with conversion and penance as the gateway to achieve it. Jesus starts by proposing to him the commandments of the Law, which the fellow had been observing since boyhood.
We are then told that Jesus did two things: he “looked at him”, and he “loved him”. There are many Gospel passages in which Jesus “looks” at people. Evidently his glance had an extraordinary power, arresting and compelling: an irresistible charisma. It is only what we would expect of the incarnate Son of God.
Secondly, the statement that “he loved him” is at first sight puzzling. Doesn’t Jesus love everybody? Yes of course, but clearly something more is implied here. I like to imagine that he expressed his approval of the lad’s attitude with a gesture, some form of embrace or affectionate caress, as was common among the Jews, approving and encouraging, a lead-in to what was coming next.
Without further ado, Jesus opens to him the panorama of total commitment: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”. We might think such an invitation premature (after all, they had only just met), but not Jesus: he saw that the lad had the qualities to respond, so he didn’t hesitate. Unfortunately the young man baulked at the invitation: “At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions”.
The surprising thing is that Jesus doesn’t call him back, or try to explain things to him: maybe a few days in the company of the disciples might help him to see things differently. But no: it’s take it or leave it. Here we see the truly radical nature of the message: once it is clearly perceived, there’s nothing more to say: it depends on the hearer’s generosity. One encounters the same attitude in many other passages of the New Testament. Grace comes by: one has to catch it when it does, because it may not come again. In the Acts of the Apostles, for example, St Luke mentions how the Lord “added daily to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). It sounds almost like some form of predestination, but not really: what we see is that the response to grace is a fully free act: and because it is, it is meritorious. But at the same time, scary: if one doesn’t respond, one misses a great opportunity, maybe even forever.
Just so that there can no misunderstanding Jesus’ position, he reiterates it to his disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God“, but assuages their astonishment by reminding them that “all things are possible with God”. Following Christ is not for the faint-hearted. So, when presenting his message to others, we shouldn’t make the mistake of making it “reasonable”: it is meant to challenge and awaken.