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Joshua (the rich young man - Mark 10:17-22)
“You’re a good man, Joshua.” The words of Eleazar, the leader of the synagogue, gave Joshua a warm glow inside and an extra spring in his step as he set out on the path that led from Chorazim down to Capernaum on the lakeside.
It was with these words that Eleazar bid farewell to Joshua after their meeting in Chorazim earlier that day. Joshua had arranged to meet with Eleazar and the other elders of the synagogue to announce that he was donating a piece of land on the edge of the village for the building of a brand new synagogue. Furthermore, he would personally cover the full costs of constructing the building. Up until now Eleazar had used his own home as the village synagogue.
Joshua felt it was only right that he should make this gift. For years there had been close links between Chorazim and his family estate. Over that time his father had gradually acquired most of the land around the village and many of the villagers were now seasonal workers or tenant farmers on the estate which Joshua had inherited on his father’s death. He knew the people of Chorazim well and he wanted them to have a proper place for their Sabbath prayers, a place dedicated to the glory of God. Religious observance was important to Joshua and he earnestly desired to help others keep the commandments and the law of God.
All this he had explained to the elders of the synagogue when they had met just a few hours ago. And, no doubt, this is what had prompted those words of Eleazar, the words that Joshua brought to mind once more as he continued his journey down to Capernaum: “you’re a good man, Joshua.”
Well if being a good man was about keeping the law, saying your prayers and paying your tithes then perhaps he deserved to be described as a good man, Joshua thought to himself. From his youth he had made every effort to keep the commandments and to do what was right in the eyes of God. He could count through in his head the ten commandments given to the people of Israel by God and know that he was honouring every one of them. What more could he do? If anybody should feel entitled to God’s acceptance it was him. God’s salvation was his due, his spiritual inheritance. Joshua nodded to himself as he walked. Yes, Eleazar was right, he was a good man.
Eleazar would probably not have used the same expression about Mordecai, Joshua’s father. Mordecai had owned a large estate close to the village of Chorazim. He was rarely on the estate himself, preferring to spend his time in the town of Sepphoris where he had built a very large house. In Sepphoris Mordecai was better placed to maintain and strengthen his relationship with Herod Antipas who had granted him the right to collect taxes in the region of Chorazim. It was through the oversight of local tax collection, the rents he charged his tenant farmers and the interest he recovered on his many loans that Mordecai not only maintained his great wealth, but also increased it significantly over his lifetime.
Joshua knew that many local people had not warmed to his father and his wealth. There were some who felt that his business practices were too sharp. Not all of the tax money which Mordecai collected was sent on to Herod. His rapidly growing wealth was clear evidence to the local villagers that Mordecai kept a sizeable commission for himself. The rents that he charged his tenants farmers were so high that many of the farmers fell into debt and the interest on loans which Mordecai then offered to struggling farmers and smallholders made their situation worse. Some felt that Mordecai was defrauding people of what little wealth they had. Others argued that God had created a world in which there was only so much wealth to go around and if Mordecai had vastly more than anybody else he must be taking what should belong to others.
Joshua had heard these accusations that his father had defrauded people of their wealth and sometimes it made him feel uncomfortable. But there was another way of looking at it. He had read the scriptures and he knew what was written about the wealthy. He could quote passages which demonstrated clearly that personal wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. As he strode along the path to Capernaum Joshua recited them out loud: “Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous;” “In the house of the righteous there is much treasure, but trouble befalls the income of the wicked;” “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life”. If his father had been such a wicked man then God would have taken away his wealth. No, clearly the blessing of God was upon Mordecai and upon all who were wealthy. Indeed, their very wealth was a sign that they were good people in the eyes of God.
This was important for Joshua because he was a very wealthy man. In fact, he took pleasure from feeling that there was nothing he really lacked in life. He had inherited all of his father’s wealth. This was money that he was entitled to and Joshua considered it a blessing from God upon him. And the fact that he had grown even richer since his father’s death was further evidence of God’s favour, further evidence that he was a good person, just like Eleazar had said. With his inheritance Joshua had continued to collect Herod’s taxes, gather rent from his tenant farmers and receive interest on his many loans, although he liked to think that he was less harsh on his debtors and tenants than his father had been. And he was generous with his money. The money he had given for the building of the synagogue wasn’t the first gift he had made.
For Joshua it was all very clear. He had inherited his father’s wealth and land as his entitlement and his continuing wealth demonstrated God’s blessing upon him. And as a good man, a law abiding child of Israel, he would come to inherit God’s salvation. He would know the eternal life offered by God to the faithful. This seemed clear to him and he felt certain that this is what the scriptures pointed too … but, even so, he wanted to quiz somebody who knew the scriptures well, a local rabbi. He wanted assurances from somebody other than Eleazar, who had known him from his youth, that he was a good man, and that he was entitled to inherit a place in God’s kingdom. And this was why he was now making the journey from Chorazim to Capernaum.
He had heard from Eleazar that there was a rabbi in Capernaum whom many regarded as a holy man. He had heard stories about acts of healing, about powerful sermons in the synagogue and on the hillside above Capernaum, close to where Joshua was walking now. This rabbi was called Jesus and Joshua had heard that he had attracted a considerable group of followers. As he quickened his pace along the path to Capernaum he hoped he would be lucky and find him in the village because he was known to travel with his disciples across the whole region.
Joshua had already thought about how he would approach Jesus if he found him in Capernaum. From his clothes anybody could tell that Joshua was a wealthy man and so Joshua did not want to intimidate or overawe the rabbi. He felt he should perform an act of humility before him, to demonstrate his respect for his wisdom and reputation. And so he decided he would kneel before Jesus when they first met. After all, had he not just been reciting those words of scripture “the reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life”?
By now the path was descending steeply down the hillside, towards the shore of the Sea of Galilee and the village of Capernaum that was situated down by the waterside. As Joshua approached the first few houses on the edge of the village he could see a group of people making their way out of the village on the same path that Joshua was using. As they drew closer Joshua realised what was happening. There was a figure in the centre of the group who was clearly the focus of attention. This was the rabbi Jesus with his company of followers, about to set out on one of his preaching journeys around the region. A feeling of excitement filled Joshua’s heart. How lucky he had been to catch Jesus just before he set off! The group approached and Joshua caught the eye of Jesus who was talking with one of his followers at the front of the group. As they came face to face Joshua dramatically kneeled before him, to the surprise of those around Jesus who could see that this was a man of great wealth.
Joshua wasted no time. He had been framing in his mind a question for Jesus on the road to Capernaum: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The conversation in the crowd around Jesus hushed as people waited for Jesus’ response to this question. There was a long moment of silence in which Joshua began to feel increasingly awkward and uncomfortable kneeling before Jesus. Finally Jesus responded.
“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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; honour your father and mother.’”
These words of Jesus left Joshua reeling as he staggered back onto his feet. This was not the response he had been expecting. Firstly, Jesus had rejected the compliment Joshua had paid him by calling him a “good teacher”. How dare he be so rude? Who did he think he was? Then Jesus had declared that no-one is good, except God alone. After his reflections on the journey down from Chorazim these words of Jesus cut to his heart. Eleazar had called him a good man, but Jesus was now questioning whether anybody could be described as good, almost as if he knew that Joshua had been musing on his own goodness on the road to Capernaum. And then Jesus had listed some of the commandments, but not all of them. And amongst the commandments that Jesus had quoted he had rephrased one of them in a way that felt like a direct challenge to Joshua. “Do not defraud” Jesus had said. These words had stung Joshua deeply. It reminded him of the accusations made against his father. That he had defrauded many people of their land and livelihood in order to create the vast wealth which Joshua had then inherited. Had Jesus heard of these stories? Was Jesus challenging the way in which Joshua had come into his money?
Joshua resolved to defend himself against these words of Jesus which felt like an attack on the very basis of how he understood himself and his place in society. He knew he was a good man, a devout man who took his religious obligations seriously. He used his wealth responsibly. Only today he had taken steps to spend some of his money on a good cause, on a building that would glorify God and be of benefit to a community who could not otherwise afford such a building. If his wealth was a sign of God’s blessing upon him then he was returning that blessing to others. If he had no wealth then he wouldn’t be able to do good in this way.
The words of Jesus had shaken Joshua, he could see that Jesus was no fool, that his words were chosen carefully and this sharpened an urge in Joshua to convince Jesus that he was a good man, an honest keeper of God’s law. Why should he feel threatened by what Jesus had said? He had done nothing wrong.
“Teacher, I have kept all these commandments since my youth”.
How could Jesus find any fault with that answer, thought Joshua. He sincerely believed he had kept the commandments of God. He was entitled to his place in the salvation plan of God, to his place in the kingdom of heaven. Joshua looked at Jesus, waiting for him to respond and was surprised at the expression on Jesus’s face. It was not that of approval, or admiration but rather there was a sense of sadness and compassion in his eyes. Almost as if Jesus felt sorry for Joshua and concerned for his welfare.
“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.”
Joshua felt his world disintegrating around him. The words of Jesus left him feeling exposed and wrong footed. It was as if his very identity was being undermined. He knew he could not do what Jesus asked of him. The challenge of Jesus had revealed the hidden foundations upon which his understanding of his own goodness, his generosity, his humility, his religious devotion were based. Giving away his money meant giving away the power and status which his money had bestowed upon him.
Joshua felt as if he was being torn apart by a dilemma he could not resolve. He knew he could not let go of his possessions and accept the challenge of Jesus to follow him. And the reason why he could not let go of his possessions was slowly dawning on him: his possessions, his wealth had shaped his sense of worth, his self-esteem. It would feel like death to lose them. But, at the same time, it would feel like death to hold on to them. His possessions would no longer allow him to live with the conceit that he was a good man. And what was more he knew he could now never forget that disturbing new commandment that Jesus had included in his list of God’s commandments: “you shall not defraud”. Joshua knew that this was directed at him, and perhaps all who had many possessions. He could never again ignore the questions about how he came to be wealthy. Had he and his father defrauded others to achieve their wealth? Did he have a right to great riches when so many around him were poor?
All these questions flooded into Joshua’s heart as he turned away from Jesus, who continued to look at him with loving concern. Joshua recognised the heavy sensation that was increasingly gripping him as he began the long walk back up to Chorazim. It was grief; for something deep within him had died through his encounter with Jesus and he wondered whether he would ever feel truly alive again.

© Simon Topping 2013

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