‘Do not Judge who is Worthy and Unworthy’: Clement’s Warning not to Speculate about the Rich Young Man’s Response (Mark 10.17-31)
Andrew D. Clarke
University of Aberdeen
Forthcoming in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31 (2009).
Since the earliest commentators, Mark’s account of the rich man has almost universally been read as evidently suggesting the character’s ultimate rejection of Jesus’ call. However, if this man is typical of Mark’s portrayal of minor characters, then he may be regarded as a positive foil to the disciples; and his sadness in departure is nonetheless consistent with considered reflection on the severe cost of discipleship. Such a reading is also consistent with Mark 8-10, which challenges that true discipleship is indeed costly, and not to be entered upon lightly. Jesus subsequently gives a critical rejoinder to the precipitate self-congratulation of the disciples – ‘many who are first will be last, and the last will be first’. Mark’s silence about whether or not the rich man did, after due reflection, accept Jesus’ invitation encourages the reader to focus rather on the cost of following Jesus, than speculating about what has been left unstated.
discipleship, Mark 10.17-31, rich man
A History of Interpretation
When some among them I had recognised,
I looked, and I beheld the shade of him
Who made through cowardice the great refusal
[colui Che fece per viltà lo gran rifiuto]
(Dante, Divine Comedy, Inferno 3.59-60)
Dante does not reveal the identity of the deathly shadow in hell, who has gone down in history as the cowardly perpetrator of ‘the great refusal’; but, among the contenders has been the rich young man of the synoptic gospels.1 However, the question as to whether or not the rich person, who enquired of Jesus how he might gain eternal life, did in fact refuse to become a disciple is not answered within the synoptic narratives. The account of this event in Mark, as in the similar encounters in Luke and Matthew, is concluded without a description of the eventual outcome.2 Instead, we read that Matthew’s ‘young man’ (neani/skoj, Mt. 19.20, 22) and Mark’s, perhaps somewhat older, man (able to recall his youth, neo&thj, Mk 10.20) both ‘went away sad, for he had many possessions’, while Luke’s ‘ruler’ (a!rxwn, Lk. 18.18) simply became ‘very sad, for he was very rich’ (Lk. 18.23). In each instance, readers are left to draw their own conclusions as to whether the character’s departure, following his interchange with Jesus, amounts to a refusal.
While a number of early interpreters of the pericope of the rich man pass no comment on the nature of his eventual actions in response to Jesus,3 it is noteworthy that the majority of commentators, throughout the history of interpretation, are significantly influenced in their reading of the pericope by their assumption that the rich man of Mark 10 and parallels did not, perhaps could not, follow through on his search for eternal life. Jesus’ challenge to him is considered too much to countenance, and, a significant number of readings are profoundly derogatory towards the rich man. In many of these instances interpreters have associated this dominical challenge with that particular strand of biblical and ecclesiastical pronouncements, which focuses on the dangers of wealth, and they have considered that the rich man’s sad departure inevitably reflects a rejection of the invitation to sell all and give to the poor.4
In this vein, Commodianus, a little known mid-third-century, North African bishop, and poet in his local dialect, pronounces starkly against those who are rich, considering them to be wicked, unbelieving and proud (Instructiones 29-30). It is by no means certain that Commodianus has this gospel pericope in mind, but it should be noted that there is much similarity in thought and language: this, perhaps generic, rich man is one who is a ‘ruler’ (Instructiones 29), who insatiably clings to (or squanders) his own wealth, and has little regard for eternity, but proudly exalts himself as one who does good.5
One of the earliest, explicit interpretations of the rich man pericope can be found in a citation from a fragmentary Jewish-Christian gospel incorporated within a Latin translation of Origen’s Commentary on Matthew.6 In response to Jesus’ challenge to ‘go, sell … and come’ (vade, vende … et veni), there is what appears to be a negative gloss that ‘the rich man began to scratch his head’ for he was displeased with Jesus’ instruction (coepit autem dives scalpere caput suum et non placuit ei, G. Heb. 16). On the other hand, Tertullian, writing at the beginning of the third century, describes the rich man in even more clearly negative terms as a ‘vainglorious observer of the commandments [who] was convicted of holding money in much higher estimation’ (Marc. 4.36). Indeed, Tertullian goes as far as to suggest that the rich man’s earlier designation of Jesus as ‘good’ was merely evidence of him having ‘dissipated other doubts’ (Marc. 4.36).7
Both Origen’s editor and Tertullian are likely to have been influenced in some measure by Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-211/16), who offers the most extended of the extant early expositions of this pericope in his treatise, Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved?8 Notably, the thrust of this discourse is seeking to accommodate, rather than criticize, those who have riches. Clement focuses particularly on the Markan version of the account, although he notes a congruity with the other gospels.9 His exposition is introduced by a round criticism of those who flatter the rich. While not beyond salvation, such people are nonetheless often far from it, and their fate should not be further imperilled by those who praise them from all sides and thereby entice them into conceit. He cautions that there are some rich who fail to comprehend fully Jesus’ saying ‘that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven’. Listening to this dominical saying in an off-hand way, such people are guilty of interpreting it erroneously, and fall into despair (Quis div. 2, 4). Clement then urges that the Saviour’s teaching and his mystic wisdom in this pericope should be duly investigated in order to ‘learn the meaning hidden’ in it; and he cautions against those who fail to grasp this deeper meaning (Quis div. 5).
The rich man, deemed to be young, is commended by Clement as being of ‘mature judgement older than his years – an admirable and distinguished champion’, who rightly approaches the Son of God in supplication (Quis div. 8). Following the Markan account, Jesus’ response is characterized by love and fondness for the obedient young man (Quis div. 9). He receives a good press for his earnest seeking of life, but is considered eventually to have ‘departed displeased, vexed at the commandment of the life, on account of which he supplicated. For he did not truly wish life, as he averred, but aimed at the mere reputation of the good choice’; ‘he was not able to complete’ what had been commanded of him (Quis div. 10).10 Accordingly, he departed from the master in flight (Quis div. 11).
Unlike other ancient commentators, Clement does not frown on riches, per se, noting that they can be tools for good, if used skilfully (Quis div. 14-15). What should be renounced are ‘those possessions that are injurious, not those that are capable of being serviceable’ (Quis div. 15). Clement deems that this ‘parable’ teaches ‘the prosperous that they are not to neglect their own salvation, as if they had been already fore-doomed, nor, on the other hand, to cast wealth into the sea, or condemn it as a traitor and an enemy to life, but learn in what way and how to use wealth and obtain life’ (Quis div. 27). He notes that there is little use in making oneself poor, and thereby depriving others of the assistance of one’s wealth. One should, rather, hold ‘possessions, and gold, and silver, and houses, as the gifts of God; and … possess them more for the sake of the brethren than himself’ (Quis div. 16). It is interesting to note that Clement here credits Peter with a quick and full comprehension of the nature of Jesus’ challenge, apparently in stark contrast to the rich man.11
In the context of his otherwise notably accommodating view of riches, Clement of Alexandria urges his reader not to ‘judge who is worthy and unworthy, for it is possible that you may be mistaken in your opinion’ (Quis div. 33). In the end, however, it is clear that Clement here sets a pattern, which is followed by the majority of subsequent commentators. Confident that he is not mistaken in his opinion, he does indeed judge that this rich man was unworthy, and that, sadly, his response was negative, and demonstrated an inability to accept Jesus’ challenge to him.
From the fourth century, John Chrysostom similarly presents a warm initial response to the rich man in his Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew (focusing on Mt. 19.16-26). Indeed, he is perhaps critically alluding to Tertullian’s ungenerous reading when he notes:
Some indeed accuse this young man, as one dissembling and ill-minded, and coming with a temptation to Jesus, but I, though I would not say he was not fond of money, and under subjection to his wealth, since Christ in fact convicted him of being such a character, yet a dissembler I would by no means call him … (Hom. Matt. 63.369).
Indeed, Chrysostom warns the interpreter, in the vein of Clement, that ‘it is not safe to venture on things uncertain, and especially in blame’ (Hom. Matt. 63.369). He goes on to distinguish between the dissembling of the lawyer (presumably alluding ahead to Mt. 22.35-40) and the more honest approach of this rich man (Hom. Matt. 63.370). In the end, however, Chrysostom, like Clement, focuses on the way that this man was in subjection to his wealth (Hom. Matt. 370), noting that he eventually departs ‘silenced … dejected … and sullen’ (Hom. Matt. 370), unable to ‘obtain what he desires’ (Hom. Matt. 371).12
Calvin’s initial observation about the rich man that ‘a blind confidence in his works hindered him from profiting under Christ, to whom, in other respects, he wished to be submissive’, is notably mitigated by later conceding at least the possibility that the rich man’s dejection may have been merely transitory. This expression of generosity is soon retracted, however, by the rather more confident assertion: ‘Whether or not this temptation was temporary, so that the young man afterwards repented, we know not; but it may be conjectured with probability, that his covetousness kept him back from making any proficiency’ (Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke, Vol 2, ad loc.).
In broad continuity with these earlier interpreters, many of the more recent commentators take the description that the rich man ‘departed in sadness’ (a)ph~lqen lupou&menoj, Mk 10.22//Mt. 19.22) to be sufficient signal that he evidently could not sustain Jesus’ command.13 A number of commentators even go as far as to conjecture specific reasons as to precisely why this man was unable to accept these onerous conditions of discipleship.14 One of the most critical readings is that of Ched Myers, who takes Jesus’ response as reproof and a repelling of ‘the man’s hopes for return ingratiation’ (Myers 1990: 272). He interprets it as a reference not only to the man’s ‘personal failure’, but also a judgment on the wealthy class as a whole (Myers 1990: 273). Myers regards Jesus’ love for this man as a potential contrast to the man’s love of wealth (Myers 1990: 273). He concludes that the man ‘slinks away’ – ‘an intertextual allusion to Ezekiel’s judgment on the rich and powerful of Tyre (Ezek 27.35). The man’s “hurt” (lupomenos) is proleptic of what the twelve will feel later on when accused of betrayal (14.19)’ (Myers 1990: 274). Myers suggests that the man’s wealth has been gleaned through ‘defrauding’ and exploiting the poor – and that he was far from blameless. This is evidenced in Jesus’ inclusion of an extraneous commandment in his list, which is otherwise drawn from the Decalogue (mh_ a)posterh&sh|j, Mk 10:19; Myers 1990: 272-74).15
Although a history of interpretation may distinguish between those who are unreservedly critical of the rich man’s response and those who countenance a glimmer of hope, even that occasional glimmer is ultimately almost always extinguished; the rich man is finally condemned, in tune with Clement’s initial conclusion, albeit against his own cautionary advice not to ‘judge who is unworthy and worthy’.16 Given that the subsequent response of the rich man is not described in any of the synoptic accounts, it may be asked whether there is evidence elsewhere in Mark’s gospel, which justifies the reader being predisposed to respond in one way or another to this person. The following will explore both the surrounding context of the pericope, and Mark’s presentation of stock characters for such clues.