Jesus’ astonished disciples in Mark 10

Chalk this one up to staring too closely at the text. It’s not a felicitous scenario when the material you’re analyzing for your dissertation keeps distracting you from the actual subject.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

Mark 10.23-27 NRSV

I’ve been trying to figure out why Mark shows the disciples finding this teaching so hard to believe, first to be “perplexed” and then still more “astounded” after Jesus was obliged to restate it more explicitly. It’s hard for me to find a compelling narrative or rhetorical purpose behind the disciples’ astonishment.

They had just witnessed the rich young man’s reaction, so a clear illustration of the subject of Jesus’ statement had just been demonstrated before their eyes. The real question is why Mark portrays them as taking the news so personally. They seem almost horrified. Peter goes on to remind Jesus that they should hardly be in danger of exclusion from the Kingdom for wealth’s sake, because they had left all theirs behind to follow him.

Luke appears to pick up on this and redirects the “How hard it is…” statement to the rich man directly and then has a more vague audience (“those who heard him”) react in amazement, letting the disciples off the hook a bit, as Luke is wont to do, by allowing Peter to state more confidently, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.”

If not a narrative purpose, it seems there would at least be an intended dramatic or rhetorical purpose. But what effect did the writer expect this to have?

Maybe Mark as a famed drama queen simply used Jesus’ disciples as props to set up this implausible scenario of despair to give Jesus a chance to still the storm with his reassurance that “…for God all things are possible.” But why use the disciples and not, as did Luke, a more general audience? Perhaps he was writing with an affluent audience in mind and chose to voice their anticipated incredulity at this hard saying by placing it in the mouths of such generally creditable characters as the disciples of Jesus. Jesus does let the rich off the hook pretty quickly. I can think of no other reason why we should draw such a conclusion about Mark’s audience, however.

There’s a good chance the author wanted to portray Jesus’ teaching as shockingly innovative in its inversion of social status in the Kingdom of God. Yet because the principle of inversion was not an out-of-the-blue doctrine in Judea, this would make it seem that the author was either out of touch with Judean apocalyptic or that he was banking on the possibility that his audience was.

One of the factors that might come into play is Mark’s oft noted pattern of showing the disciples as not quite “getting it”. It is fairly clear however that in this case it was not a lack of understanding but a clear realization of what he said that caused their reaction; this is consternation, not confusion. Why are they painted as feeling threatened by this teaching even though they clearly, even within the narrative, are exempt?

Perhaps it is an awkward attempt to kill two birds with one stone in presenting Jesus’ explosive teaching about the danger of riches while also incidentally intimating that the disciples were not at all on the same page as Jesus, even when they actually knew what he was talking about.

It’s probably multiple of these. But even stirring them in together I don’t come up with anything that can make this passage make sense. So either 1) I’m missing something or 2) the author wouldn’t win many modern writing awards for this passage. Any other ideas?

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