Thursday, October 11, 2018

Rich Man: Word Study


My friend and colleague, Seth Olson, had a great post on Monday of ten different ways a preacher might tackle Mark 10:17-31, and I hope you'll take a minute to read it. His post and a careful reading and discussion of Sunday's gospel lesson during our parish's staff meeting have drawn me to a more deliberate study of the words in this passage. Here are some of the things that caught my eye.

Inherit. According to the NRSV, the man asks Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" and the word "inherit" grabbed my attention. Since money will prove to be the thing that gets in the way of this man's participation in God's reign, I found the use of the word "inherit" to be provocative. The Greek verb "κληρονομέω" means to obtain or acquire through inheritance, so it's exactly what it sounds like it means. The interlinear Bible I use reckons it as "I should be tenanting" or "I should be enjoying the allotment of." There's clear language of entitlement and ownership buried in the man's question, which Mark may use to foreshadow the problem that arises later.

Kept. According to the NRSV, after Jesus lists the commandments, the man responds, "I have kept all these since my youth." I wondered what "kept" really means. The Greek word is "φυλάσσω," which, in addition to "keep," means "guard" or "protect" or "observe." Yes, the connotation is the same, but I wonder whether there is something to be said for one who guards the commandments--not fulfills but observes, watches, holds attention to. Does that shift our sometimes presumed understanding of the man as boastful? Maybe his response is merely to say, "I've been shaping my life around these commandments my whole life as fully as my heart and mind will allow." That's faithfulness, isn't it? But, still, something was missing.

Loved. As I wrote about on Monday, Jesus' response to the man is to "love" him, and the word for love in this case is a form of "ἀγαπάω," which is the verb for "agape" or divine love. We cannot miss that Jesus had more than fondness or affection for this man. Jesus looked at him the way God looks at us and loves us, despite our failures, yet always inviting us into transformation. That leaves open the possibility for transformation despite our reluctance to answer God's call completely.

Sell, Own, Money, Possessions, Wealth, Rich, and Treasure. Jesus invites the man, "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," so that he might have "treasure in heaven." Then, after the man goes away grieved "because he had many possessions," Jesus announces to the disciples (and anyone else who will listen), "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" Notice, of course, all of the language of economics. Although one word (NRSV = "money") is actually a Greek preposition ("this"), there is still a strong concentration of the language of money and transaction in this passage. Of particular note is the word for "treasure," which in the Greek is "θησαυρός," which implies a place to store one's future possessions. Where are we storing our future--on earth on in heaven? One cannot miss the focus on money in this passage.

Left. When Peter responds to Jesus, he uses a form of the Greek word "ἀφίημι" to describe what he and the other disciples have done in order to follow Jesus. The English "left" is a good translation, but the implication isn't just a physical or geographic journey but a letting go of, a forsaking of, or a releasing of something. They have let go of their claim on earthly possessions in order to have their sight fixed on Jesus and the coming reign of God, and they, Jesus tells us, will be rewarded.

Persecutions. In the oddest sort of way, Jesus predicts for Peter and the other followers an earthly reward. Those who have left everything for Jesus's sake will "receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields..." but then there's a qualifier: "...fields with persecutions." What does that mean? Literally, the Greek word "διωγμός," which is always translated by the NRSV as "persecution" means "chasing down" as in "hunted." So these riches that the disciples will receive in this life, in this age, will come with a sense of being hunted down, perhaps, as Jesus goes on to say, until "eternal life" is given in the next age.

It's a lot. It's rich. There's much to hear. As Seth wrote, there is an "embarrassment of riches" in this passage, and it makes me want to preach two sermons on it. Hopefully, this kind of careful reading will shape what I write into one sermon because no one wants to hear two.

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