by Doug Ward

All three synoptic gospels record an encounter between Jesus and a rich man seeking the way to eternal life. Since Matthew (19:20) describes the man as young and Luke (18:18) identifies him as a ruler, he is commonly known as "the rich young ruler."


Jesus initially directs the man to several commandments of God:


"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.'" (Mark 10:19, NRSV)


This listing includes five of the ten commandments, along with "you shall not defraud." To explain the presence of "you shall not defraud" in the list, commentators frequently observe that this is one way to state the commandment forbidding the coveting of another's possessions. For example, James A. Brooks writes, "The command `do not defraud' between the references to the Ninth and Fifth Commandments is substituted for the Tenth Commandment, `You shall not covet.' Fraud is a concrete example of covetousness and a special temptation of the rich."1


Other sources concur that by Jesus' time, the sin of defrauding another was associated with the commandment against coveting. The association was based partly on Lev 19:13: "Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight." Since verses 11 and 12 of Lev 19 deal, respectively, with the commandments against theft and false witness, a link was made between the next verse (v. 13) and the next commandment in the Decalogue.2 Certainly all the sins described in Lev 19:13 are concrete ways to act upon a desire for something that rightfully belongs to another.


But if Jesus was thinking of "do not defraud" as an example of "do not covet your neighbor's possessions", why didn't he just state the more familiar prohibition against coveting instead? Biblical scholar James K. Bruckner proposes an answer to this question by viewing Jesus' words in the context of an ongoing discussion in Second Temple and early rabbinic Judaism about the dangers of covetousness and the nature and scope of the tenth commandment.3 In this article I will summarize Dr. Bruckner's research, which I believe opens up a deeper understanding of the teaching of Jesus in Mark 10:19-22. Bruckner sets the stage for his exegesis of Mark 10 by surveying what the Hebrew Scriptures, intertestamental literature, and rabbinic literature have to say about covetousness and desire. Such a survey proves to be fascinating in and of itself.


Appropriate and Inappropriate Desires

The tenth commandment-or, in some traditions, the ninth and tenth-states, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Exod 20:17). What is forbidden here is not desire itself, but desire for the possessions of another.


Starting in the Garden of Eden, the Hebrew Scriptures teach that we have been given many good things to enjoy, and we should enjoy them subject to guidelines that God has put in place (Gen 2:16-17). Note for example the festival tithe commandment in Deut 14:22-27, which says in part,


"And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth..."(v. 26, KJV).


The phrase "whatsoever thy soul lusteth after" leaves the worshiper a lot of leeway, but it is meant to be read in light of the rest of the Torah. Earlier in Deut 14, in particular, are restrictions on the varieties of meat that may be eaten.


The Hebrew Scriptures identify some valuable entities that are especially worth desiring. These include the judgments of God (Ps 19:9-10), God's "name and renown" (Isa 26:8-9), and the temple (Ezek 24:16, 21). On the other hand, a number of passages show the consequences of coveting what is not ours. Think of the examples of Achan (Joshua 7), David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11-12), and Ahab with Naboth's vineyard (I Kings 21). The book of Proverbs warns against falling into the trap of illicit desire (Prov 5-6, e.g.).


The prophets caution that in exile, Israel would lose many precious and desirable things, including the temple and its vessels along with the land (2 Chron 36:10,19; Lam 1:7,10; Hosea 9:6,16;13:15; Zech 7:14) Here we see that God, for the long-term spiritual benefit of his people, may sometimes deprive them of things that can be rightfully desired under ordinary circumstances.


Dangerous Desires

Continued reflection on both the positive and negative aspects of desire is present in the Apocrypha. On the positive side, Sirach 14:14 says that we should enjoy the desirable things that God has given us: "Do not deprive yourself of a day's enjoyment; do not let your share of desired good pass by you" (NRSV). Wisdom of Solomon 6 mentions some especially desirable things: "The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction... . (v.6); and "... the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom "(v. 20).


On the negative side, there is increasing emphasis on the dangers of desires in general and the need to keep them under control. Sirach 5:2 cautions, "Do not follow your inclination and strength in pursuing the desires of your heart." Sirach 18:30 adds, "Do not follow your base desires, but restrain your appetites." In 23:5-6, Ben Sirach prays, "... remove evil desire from me; Let neither gluttony nor lust overcome me, and do not give me over to shameless passion."


The book of 4 Maccabees stresses the importance of self-control and asserts that the power of reason can be brought to bear to conquer lusts (4 Macc 2:4). If God had not made humans capable of ruling their desires and emotions, this book argues, he would not have instituted the commandment against coveting (vv. 5-6). The author praises Joseph for resisting the advances of Potiphar's wife by "mental effort" (v. 2).


Dr. Bruckner singles out three ways in which the theme of covetousness is treated in the Pseudepigrapha. Some passages warn of the evil deeds that can result from illicit desires. For example, chapter 4 of the Psalms of Solomon (first century B.C.) describes how such desires lead people to defraud others. In Letter of Aristeas 211 (second century B.C.), kings are advised not to be led astray "to immoderate or unseemly desires." Instead, they should "desire not many things but only such as are necessary for ruling."


Other passages, especially in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, warn about the importance of controlling desires and the dangers of yielding to them. The Testament of Asher (chapter 3) cautions that those who are ensnared by desires serve Beliar (the devil) rather than God, while the Testament of Joseph (chapter 7) mentions Potiphar's wife as an example of someone who was enslaved by a wicked desire. The Testament of Reuben (chapter 4) praises Joseph, noting that Joseph received protection from God because "his soul's deliberation rejected evil desire."


Two texts describe covetousness as a main source of sin and evil. Chapter 15 of I Enoch pictures the covetousness of the Watchers for human women as the source of evil spirits in the world, while Life of Adam and Eve 19:3 says that "covetousness is the origin of every sin." The idea here seems similar to James 1:14-15, which describes a slippery slope from lust to sin to death.


Covetousness in Rabbinic Tradition

In rabbinic literature, as in intertestamental sources, the patriarchs (and Joseph in particular) are praised for conquering desires and obeying God's commandments. After stating that Joseph had kept the ten commandments, Leviticus Rabbah 2:10 says of the patriarchs, "Even though unto them the Torah had not yet been given, they fulfilled it of their own accord. For this reason the Holy One, blessed be He, loved them with a complete love, and made their name like unto His own great name."


But since human desires can lead to so many sins, how can the commandment against covetousness be carried out? Based on Deut 7:25, which connects the coveting of precious metals with the act of taking them, rabbinic discussion of this commandment focuses on identifying concrete ways in which people might act upon illicit desires. In particular, the Mishnah (c. 200 A.D.) connects Exodus 22:36-37 and Lev 19:13-14; 25:36-37 with coveting. These are commandments that prohibit charging interest on a personal loan, taking advantage of the poor, or otherwise defrauding others.


The Mishnah examines a number of specific cases of fraud-e.g., a person asking to borrow some quantity of grain and offering to pay back that same amount of grain at harvest time. If the price of grain goes down at harvest time, the borrower would be returning less than he borrowed and would thus be defrauding the lender (m. Baba Metzia 5:9). Avoiding any kind of fraudulent transaction is a concrete and measurable way to refrain from coveting and so fulfill the tenth commandment.


Jesus' Teaching in Mark 10:19-22

With this background in mind, Bruckner considers Jesus' conversation with the rich young ruler. He suggests that when Jesus lists several commandments (v. 19), he says "you shall not defraud" rather than "you shall not covet" in order to restrict the initial scope of the discussion to the realm of concrete, measurable ways of carrying out the tenth commandment.


The man responds to Jesus by saying, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth" (v. 20). Bruckner observes that Jesus did not dispute this claim or deny that it was possible for someone to follow these commandments. Like Joseph, the man must have had commendable self-control and strength of character. Mark records that Jesus "loved him," reminding us of the God's love for the faithful patriarchs.


Jesus then gives an additional directive, in effect expanding the scope of the tenth commandment well beyond the external requirement of "you shall not defraud." He says to the rich young ruler, "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" (v. 21). This is more than the rich man is prepared to hear. "When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions" (v. 22).


The young man has earned his wealth by legitimate means and so has every right, according to the letter of the law, to enjoy what God has given him. However, the shock and grief he experiences when asked to surrender his riches indicate that he still has a problem with desire. Jesus, in asking the man to sell his possessions, is implying that even a desire for one's own possessions can become a form of idolatry and thus a kind of illicit desire. (For the connection between covetousness and idolatry, see Col 3:5.)


Jesus' teaching in Mark 10:19-22 responds to the ways in which Second Temple Judaism was wrestling with the challenge of desire. On the one hand, Jesus acknowledges the great value in efforts to exercise self-control and fulfill the tenth commandment in concrete ways. On the other hand, because of the pervasive danger of desire, those efforts inevitably will fall short.


Bruckner observes that Jesus, in directing the young man to follow him, is saying that he is a safe and legitimate object of desire. (While an attachment to possessions can stand between a person and God, an attachment to Jesus is the way to follow God.) In this way Jesus places himself in elite company since, as we have seen, the list of desirable things in the Hebrew Scriptures includes the Torah, the Temple, and the name and memory of God.4


Bruckner also identifies two important applications of Mark 10:19-22. One is the importance of following the commandments of God. In particular, obedience to commandments like "you shall not defraud" helps protect the most vulnerable members of society. A second is the recognition that we all fall short, succumbing to illicit desires, and that the solution to the problem of desire is found in Jesus. In an era of great wealth and temptations, these are key messages to remember.


1Mark, New American Commentary, Volume 23, Broadman Press, 1991, p. 162.


2See for example James K. Bruckner, Exodus, New International Biblical Commentary, Volume 2, Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, p. 192.


3See Bruckner's article, "On the One Hand ... On the Other Hand: The Twofold Meaning of the Law Against Covetousness", pp. 97-118 in To Hear and Obey: Essays in Honor of Frederick Carlson Holmgren, Bradley J. Bergfalk and Paul E. Koptak, editors, Covenant Publications, Chicago, 1997.


4While Jesus did not directly assert his deity, his sayings often indirectly imply a high christology. On this point see, for example, the article "Who Did Jesus Say He Was?" in Issue 9 of Grace & Knowledge.

Issue 28


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On 15 Jan 2014, 19:25.