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The Formerly Rich Young Man

In a previous post about the story of the rich young man (Mark 10:17-21) I suggested that there’s no reason to think that the man did not indeed go away intending to do as Jesus commanded, by selling all his possessions and following him. In the comments someone suggested that there is a tradition that suggests Barnabas may be the rich young man in question here. I did some digging and couldn’t find much of anything on that point, but I did find another possibility that actually has support from the text of Mark itself.

Could it not be that the young man in question is simply Mark himself? I think we may catch a hint of this conclusion in Mark 14:51-52 where the narrative tells us that “A certain young man was following [Jesus], wearing nothing but a linen cloth.” This unidentified young man is generally thought — at least in all the commentaries I’ve come across — to be Mark.

Now, it could be that Mark just wanted to throw in some superfluous information by describing the nature of the young man’s (lack of) clothing, but given the intentionality that characterizes the narrative patterns of Mark I’m inclined to doubt it. Why tell us that the young man was dressed only in a sheet that he had wrapped around himself? Why make a point of the fact that he was following Jesus? Could it be that the complete lack of possessions, even clothing, his young age, and his description as actively following Jesus are meant to point us back to the story of the rich young man? Seems like a pretty valid connection to me. I don’t think there’s anyone else mentioned in the gospel of Mark who might qualify for this. Let us follow this line of thought. . .

Symbolically, this event is the culmination of the story of the rich young man. Unlike the others who desert Jesus and flee immediately (vs. 50), he continues to follow, to the point of being seized, at which point he makes his escape by leaving the very last of his possessions behind. His journey of discipleship is complete, he has been utterly dispossessed by following Jesus, right down to his clothing. And finally he has been driven into exile by the powers that set themselves against the mission of Christ.

The rich young man has been dispossessed of everything in following the Messiah, and is left scattered, naked in the dark. The only thing that can make this come out right is a hope beyond hope, a veritable new creation. Discipleship brings the young man to a null point, a point that can only be rendered meaningful by a radical disruption of the status quo. Only resurrection can make dispossessive discipleship of this sort anything more than a pathetic joke.

17 Comments

  1. aj wrote:

    I have heard that possibly this young man might also be the same as the young man at the tomb, and the change of clothing is a reference to baptism in light of the resurrection

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  2. Paul wrote:

    By “pathetic joke”, I’m assuming you mean “look, he’s running around with his weewee hanging out, hee hee”

    Sorry, I just had to do it.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  3. kim fabricius wrote:

    Nice try, Halden, but the essential thing that is throwing you here is that Mark 10:17 says nothing about the rich man being young; you’re importing the neaniskos of Matthew 19:20 into the Markan narrative. Moreover, I think it is crucial to the Markan narrative that all the followers of Jesus forsake him and flee. That the neaniskos of Mark 14:51 flees buck naked is not to his exoneration but to the utter shamlessness of the abandonment of Jesus.

    I would recommend Ched Myer’s comment on Mark 14:51-52 (in Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus [New York: Orbis Books, 1988], p. 369):

    “This little episode sees the introduction of two new terms: ‘young man’ (neaniskos) and ‘linen cloth’ (sindon). These terms appear again only in the ‘second’ epilogue: Joseph of the council wraps the dead body of Jesus in a sindon (15:46), and the neaniskos appears at the tomb of Jesus… The young man, who flees (ephugen) after the authorities try to seize him along with Jesus, is a symbol of the discipleship community as a whole, which has just itself fled (14:50). He escapes naked (gumnos), indicative of shame, leaving behind a cloth that becomes a ‘burial garment’ for Jesus.”

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 1:02 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    No, I realized that the terminology was different, I don’t think the matter turns on this. Nor do I simply mean to exonerate the young man of Mark 14. But clearly there is some sort of distinction, albeit slight between him and the other disciples.

    Also I think that the young man sitting in the tomb clothed in a white robe in Mark 15 is relevant here too. If anything that’s the strongest connection to the reference in Mark 14. The disciple community, represented, I think, by the author is now raised with Christ, clothed anew.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  5. steph wrote:

    It is interesting how over the years of biblical criticism, Christian scholars have perceived literary symbolism in the text and created arguments to justify assumptions that the texts are riddled with patterns and hidden meanings. If the young man fleeing naked isn’t a purely symbolic literary creation by Mark then he must be meant to reflect the young man at the tomb or Mark himself. For more bizarre scholarly speculation see Brown, Death of the Messiah and Collin, Mark. Why the desperation to avoid the possible plausibility of Mark’s historical sources? It is historically plausible that such an event would be remembered and recounted. There is evidence of similar derobings in other literature of the time which is to be expected considering the nature of the garments they wore and methods of wearing them. Not everyone wore knickers back then.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    To be clear, I’m not questioning the historical truth of narrative or anything. I don’t think things must be fictionalized to be symbolic. The Lord of the text is also the Lord of history in my book.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  7. steph wrote:

    So is all history (in the NT) symbolic? Why did Matthew and Luke cut it out?

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 6:53 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Umm yeah, there’s many literary and symbolic elements in the other gospels.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 7:05 pm | Permalink
  9. steph wrote:

    By ‘it’ I meant the naked young man verses which Matthew and Luke omit. I don’t think they saw it as symbolic but as an embarrassing historical irrelevance.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 8:21 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    They may just not have known about it because the person who could have known about it first hand was Mark and all the other disciples had fled at that point. But whatever, I don’t really think this is important enough to debate about.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 8:25 pm | Permalink
  11. I don’t think the meanings are supposed to be “hidden”. This isn’t apocalyptic literature where you have to be in the “know” about certain symbols in order to read & understand. This is good literature in which an attentive reader (especially reading in the original language, I find) picks up on connections in the narrative. It’s just good storytelling. The Gospels are true (historically!) but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect them or find them to be well-told.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  12. Why would it be included if it was irrelevant? Surely there was a reason to include it. Lots of other historical facts were left out by everyone (what color were Jesus’ eyes?). This detail matters to the telling of the story.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 9:14 am | Permalink
  13. Halden, you say the matter doesn’t turn on this — but isn’t the purported connection between the young naked man in Mark 14 and the rich man in Mark 10 very, very weak given kim’s observation? It’s still a nice idea, but I’m not sure the narrative truly and naturally leads the hearer or reader to this connection.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    Well, I think there’s some semblance of more than just a very, very weak connection in that Jesus tells the rich man to sell all he has and follow him and the young man is reported to be following him and has nothing more than a sheet for clothes.

    And I’m not for harmonizing the gospels or anything like that, but the fact that the other gospels note that the rich man was a “young man” certainly doesn’t hurt anything.

    Not saying its iron-clad, merely that its a possibility.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 9:20 am | Permalink
  15. Mike Bull wrote:

    Fantastic post.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 1:58 am | Permalink
  16. steph wrote:

    It wasn’t irrelevant to Mark. It was probably part of his historical tradition. For Matthew and Luke perhaps they found it embarrassing and decided it was not necessary to include it. They can’t have believed the detail to matter very much in the telling of the story.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 9:42 pm | Permalink
  17. Jimmy wrote:

    I just came across your blog and think I’ll be back again…

    Anyways, my NT prof in seminary, whose research focused on Greco-Roman influences in the NT texts, spent a good deal of time on this passage and argues that there is a case for clothing/robes as symbols of life and death, ala dying to one’s self and being clothed in Christ, and argues that the man who loses his clothes is actually the first martyr for Jesus and is resurrected (wearing a new robe) with Jesus at the tomb. He claims this fits Mark’s concern for discipleship. Not sure if I agree, but it’s another interpretation.

    Monday, December 14, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

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