The Anonymous Traveler Held Up While Boarding: The Drama of a Life that Never Begins (Mk 10:17-30)

by Gospels

Gospel of the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.” He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing.  Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,”Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.” (Mk 10, 17-30)


Travelling isn’t always easy, especially because travelling is often no more than a desire. Maybe we’d like to go in part just to get away, maybe a little to change our lives. Setting out on a voyage also implies choosing one’s own path, redirecting ourselves to where our heart calls us. In biblical language, to set out on the holy journey is to return to Jerusalem, to the fatherland; it’s recovering one’s identity.

Life’s journey is not free from stormy weather; many winds blow across our sails: winds that push us towards our goal, winds that drive us back and frighten us. Whichever the case, the winds are a resource: without the winds, our lives would come to a standstill; we would be left immobile. A flat calm is the worst of all possible conditions because it obligates us to stop. Meanwhile, it’s possible to learn to direct our sails so as to use every type of wind to get where we want to go. This is the meaning of prudence, the virtue of discernment, that allows us to observe the direction of the winds and teaches us to use them to move along our chosen course (cf. Wis 7, 7-11).

However, perhaps we’re unable to set out at all because we don’t have the courage to raise the anchor or because we’ve piled so much dead weight into our ship that we don’t even remember where we’ve stowed it.

The protagonist in this passage of the Gospel is a man overloaded with dead weights; a man who has accumulated so many, almost as if to place his security in their stability, that he no longer has the courage to unload them so that he may set sail.

Tom Kelly @ Flickr

The Gospel defines the man literally as “one”, someone, anyone, a man lost in anonymity. We are anonymous when we no longer carry desires in our hearts. The anonymous man, like so many other men of our time, is the man without desires. Even his quest for eternity has become a mere duty: just as he has gone through his whole life simply following the rules – completing his tasks, fulfilling expectations – now he sees even eternity (or rather happiness, the meaning of life, a full life) as a right to be earned.

He speaks of eternal life as if it were an inheritance, with juridical language that excludes all gratuitousness. An inheritance is obtained only upon the death of the father, so perhaps this is an allusion to a refusal of a relationship with the Father. This “someone” declares his willingness to complete an even greater task in order to earn eternal life. In fact, he flaunts all of his merits before Jesus: he has achieved all his goals in life. He has never slackened, rather always living his life with total dedication to spiritual work. He seems to be saying: After all this commitment, it’s only fair that I receive this award for my efforts! And yet now he is unable to give meaning to his life. What was his mistake? What was his error in life?

This man has never taken the most important journey: the journey within oneself. Faced with all this exteriority, this ostentation of merits and duties… faced with all of these words and medallions, Jesus responds with His gaze: looking within him, he loved him. He loved him even before this man had answered “yes” or “no” to the proposal Jesus would make him. He loves him regardless.  He loves him because He looks within him, because He goes beyond the image he presumes. He gazes into a place this man has never seen before. He sees him in his weakness, in his fragility, in his need to be loved.

Many times in these chapters of the Gospel of St. Mark, Jesus has taken up a child in his arms: this gesture is also meant for this man. Eternal life, meaning, happiness – they are all found in that, in letting oneself be embraced by the Father who recognizes our littleness.

This anonymous man, like the many anonymous men and women of our day, is left crestfallen and confounded by Jesus’ words. Jesus uses verbs that the world does not like: sell, give, follow. This man had gone to Jesus looking to buy, to take, to be autonomous. Jesus is disappointing because he evades our human logic. The world convinces us to interpret our existence as a grand business in which we ought to reach the highest position, maybe to the detriment of others. The world persuades us to present ourselves as independent and self-sufficient adults. Jesus invites us not only to let go of what we think we have achieved, but even to be self-sufficient no longer: to get behind Him, to follow Him, putting our feet where He has placed His like a child behind his father.

This man discovers the dead weight he has accumulated quite abruptly: he is unable to set out, is saddened, and returns to his anonymity. He continues to be one of those who does not know what to do with his life.

The text of the Gospel also presents the confusion of the disciples. Even those closest to Jesus don’t speak his language. Even the disciples don’t like those verbs and show their mistrust upon hearing His words. It’s the mistrust that every disciple carries in his heart; that mistrust that can only be healed by the Father’s embrace, the embrace that transforms an impossible journey into a challenge worth living for.

Questions for Personal Reflection:

– What dead weight are you carrying in your life? How does it prevent you from starting your journey?

– Which verb do you prefer? ‘Sell,’ ‘Give,’ ‘Follow,’ or ‘Buy,’ ‘Take,’ ‘Be autonomous’?

Featured Image: Jonathan Cohen @ Flickr

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