Later, when Jesus was walking on the road, a man came running up and kneeled before Jesus, asking him, “Good rabbi, what should I do so that I may inherit eternal life?”
What the rich man asks for in Mark 10,
in Greek, is “zoe ainion.”
This might mean “life eternal,”
The usual translation into English,
but it might not—
translators make decisions;
traditions make decisions.
When we are honest about it,
we know that we do not know
what zoe ainion meant.
After all, Hebrew and Christian scriptures offer many visions of an afterlife and of reality on the other side of a return of a messiah. These scriptures also offer many ways to “be saved.” The various religious traditions that have developed around these texts have made choices among them. Saying otherwise is both intellectually and spiritually dishonest. Only by looking carefully at each text can we find answers. Each of us must look for that salvation “which the prophets have enquired of and searched diligently, prophesying of the grace that should come to you’ (1 Peter 1:10). Salvation is too serious a question to be left to exaggerations or half-truths. Here is how Jesus answers the question in this text:
Jesus said to the man, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God. You know the commandments—Do not commit adultery; do not kill; do not steal; do not bear false witness; defraud not; honor your father and mother.”
The man said, “Rabbi, I have observed these laws since my youth.”
Filled with compassion, Jesus looked at the man and said, “You lack one thing: go your way, sell whatever you have, give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come follow me.”
When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieved because he had many possessions.
The New English Bible translation says, “At these words his face fell and he went away with a heavy heart.”
Since entering Judea (the beginning of Chapter 10), Jesus had been preaching, not healing. Here Jesus encounters a person of privilege, a type of encounter that did not happen often during the Galilean part of his ministry. Jesus has been preaching the kingdom of Heaven (Balilea tou Theon in Greek, Malkuth haShamayim in Hebrew), a spiritual realm that Jesus has just said may be entered with a childlike spirit ((10:13-16). Here the man asks about zoe ainion. Are these two things the same? Mark does not tell us, though it is clear that Jesus offers the man a prescription for a spiritual life.
After setting the man straight on the position of Jesus in terms of God’s goodness, Jesus first repeats the traditional commandments that the man obviously knows well. The man’s dedication to the commandments fills Jesus with compassion. Jesus has only one more suggestion, one that, as usual in the spiritual program of Jesus, inverts the normal order of things: zoe ainion, eternal life of perhaps “treasure in heaven,” implies no personal treasure on earth. After distributing his wealth to the poor, the man is invited to join Jesus.
The man leaves, unwilling to subscribe to the economic reality of living in zoe ainion. The reversed nature of the spiritual realm becomes clear: At least in the case of wealth, the poor have a much better chance of entering this place where Jesus dwells.