A Severing of the Spirit

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; [he] is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

I always understood this to be a reference to scripture as the “word of God.” I am not sure that I do anymore. Recently, I have come to apply the Johannine use of the term “logos,” which is translated here as “word,” to hear this passage as a reference, not to the text of scripture, but rather to Christ, the Word of God. 

I suppose one could argue with the integrity of that decision, supposing that the Johannine use of “logos” does not necessarily make its way into the other books of the New Testament. But the rest of our reading from Hebrews also gives us reason to think it is referring to Jesus, seeing that the following verse (13) speaks of a person, using personal pronouns and the phrase “the one to whom we must render account.” Similarly, the following, well-known passage from Hebrews speaks directly of Jesus, our “Great High Priest.” The one who judges thoughts and intentions of the heart is also the one who is able to sympathize with them.  

For this reason, I believe the author of Hebrews is speaking of Jesus, and it makes even more sense as we see this two-edged sword do its work on the Rich Young Ruler in the Gospel reading from Mark 10:17-31. Here we see a pious man conflicted in his loyalty, perhaps unable to discern his own thoughts and intentions, and the call of Jesus will act with surgical precision in an attempt to divide a masked-but-unclean spirit from this beloved soul. 

Willie Jennings, commenting on Karl Barth’s exegesis of this passage, points to the posture and piety of this young man as he approaches Jesus, kneeling and honoring Jesus by calling him “good”. He is, as Jennings says, the “properly formed religious subject.” That is, he makes the right gestures and even admits to a life of righteous behavior after Jesus names the commandments of the “second table,” those directed at love of neighbor.

Here is where, however, the two-edged sword begins to split soul from the spirit that possesses the Rich Young Ruler: “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.’” The devastation of the Rich Man at this instruction reveals both his wealth (for we have not known of it until this point in the reading) and of his absolute devotion the unclean spirit of wealth accumulation. Christ has called the man into covenant partnership, and, as Jennings says, “The rich man already has a covenant partner: mammon.” The man is not only ruled by this unholy covenant partner, but we are also led to ask whether his religious formation and right observation of the law were funded by this greater devotion to Mammon. Could his financial security be the bedrock of his religious mastery, with Mammon then being the great provider for the possibility of his religious devotion? 

Jennings gives us these questions to ponder, while also pointing to the invitation of Jesus as a direct challenge to the lordship of Mammon in the life of the Rich Man: 

The Rich Man’s theological mastery is resourced by his financial mastery, and he is being asked by Jesus to exercise that mastery in offering up both to God and neighbor…The man through his giving will have treasure in heaven and thereby begin the reorientation of his life through an alternative financial calculus. That alternative financial calculus is aimed concretely at the poor as the new point of coordination for wealth. It is in exactly how the poor and disadvantaged are helped that shows love of neighbor and constitutes the material conditions for the transformation of the rich man.

Jesus speaks to the Rich Man in love, asking him to follow him – to join him in covenant partnership and signify this partnership through the redistribution of his possessions to the poor – the very neighbors he has apparently neglected to serve in the course of his pious observation of the Law. For, his law observance was always subject to the call of Mammon and that unholy pursuit, grounded in the Lordship of wealth and service in that temple. Jesus is beckoning him toward a different pursuit, one that redirects wealth and possessions toward a shared life with Jesus and the poor who will inherit his Kingdom. Thus, there is Good News to be shared with the Rich, as Saint Oscar Romero has said, “that they, too, become poor in order to share the benefits of the Kingdom with the poor.”

But this severing of the spirit of Mammon from the soul of the Rich Man proves to be too difficult for him, and the Word of God has laid him naked and bare before the other disciples and, perhaps, to himself for the first time. This man only feels the love of Christ as judgment, and the invitation to covenant partnership, to discipleship, reveals just how tightly his identity is bound to the pursuit and maintenance of his wealth. Again, Jennings is spot on in his lecture: 

By calling the rich man to covenant partnership, Jesus has killed him. He has killed him by bringing him into [Jesus’] own life – his obedience to God his father and his life in the Spirit. God confronts the rich man with a death that leads to life. If no one can see God and live, then the rich man is now looking at God asking him to die.

This is nothing less than the call to discipleship, and we stand with the disciples asking Jesus the same question, “Then who can be saved?” Their question reveals their own temptation toward the pursuit of mammon, and it should resonate with us as we navigate a world where financial pragmatism and “stewardship” is measured by acquisition, accumulation, and growth. We are asked with the disciples, “Who are you trying to become? The Rich Man? Or the One who bears the cross in solidarity with the poor?”

The gate of the Kingdom is as narrow as a needle’s eye for those burdened with the heap of accumulated wealth. If the church is to bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus and the Spirit of Grace, wealth must be shared and distributed as each has need so that no one is so burdened at the entrance of the Kingdom that they cannot easily pass through the narrow gate that leads to life abundant. 

1 Quoted from the NRSV, with the article changed from “it” to “he” in 4:12b. There is not article in the Greek text; it is an addition to the English translation.  

2 Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way, 34-35. Jersak’s experience recounted on those pages mapped onto my own, and I am grateful to him for exposing this as simply as he does in this book. 

3 The bulk of my reflections on this passage stem from a lecture I heard years ago and return to regularly. The lecture is titled, “A Rich Disciple? Karl Barth on the Rich Young Ruler,” and it was given at the annual Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary by Willie James Jennings. The audio/video of the lecture is no longer available online, but it seems to have been published under the same title in Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth

4 Oscar Romero, “The Political Dimension of Christian Love,” Commonweal, March 26, 1982. https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/archives-political-dimension-christian-love

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