Mark 10:17-31/Proper 23B/Pentecost 20
“You know the commandments:
‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery;
You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness;
You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”
One of the first things many young Christians learn to recite is the 10 Commandments. My wife, in fact, can still sing the ditty her Sunday School teachers used to help her memorize them.
Ever notice, though, that Jesus kind of rewrites the 10 Commanment here? One of the commands Jesus recites wasn’t actually handed down on Mt. Sinai. Kind of odd, given that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi and all. Surely, Jesus knew the Decalogue.
Do not defraud. It sticks out like a leprous thumb. It is meant to be noticed. It signals the disease in the man seeking the answer to ensuring eternal life.
The term Jesus uses doesn’t simply mean to extort money. Rather, it refers to the intentional holding back of wages for labor. It means not paying workers in full, or perhaps, fraudulently underpaying workers in ways that kept the workers poor.
And it just so happens that the man asks the question is a wealthy landowner, likely with a vast network of farms. Considering the economic model of the time, which regularly relied on tenant farming and could not have survived without an impoverished class to work the fields, it seems unlikely that the landowner could have amassed such wealth without defrauding his workers.
Perhaps Jesus adds the erroneous commandment to the Decalogue to see if the landowner will own up to his moral failures, to decide whether he can even see the error of his own ways. And when the landowner cannot – he has kept every single commandment since he was a small boy! – Jesus asks him to amputate the cancer that is slowly consuming him and eroding his conscience. If his hand causes him to sin, cut it off, as the saying goes.
You see, his wealth hadn’t just defrauded others. It had defrauded him, too.
Like the man who sold everything to purchase the one, priceless pearl, Jesus tells him to sell everything – his home, his lands and farms – and, then, to come and follow. The selling of possessions isn’t part of the following, noticeably. It is what must happen to clear the way for following. It is the thing blinding the man to himself and to the cries of the people he has inadvertently made poor.
O God, I confess that the way I live defrauds people around the world. The food I ate, picked by underpaid hands. The clothes I wear, sewn with the stitches of sweatshop wages. Forgive me for using the churn of daily life to provide a perfect cover for defrauding others. Help me to seek ways to live justly, even if it is inconvenient. Help me to see the ways in which I deceive myself so that I might stay comfortable.
Click here for another take on this week’s Lectionary: The Rich Young Rulers of America and the Good News that Makes Us Sad.