This coming Sunday is the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Cycle B of the Lectionary. It is a familiar story: “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?” (Mark 10:17).
The beginning of the Gospel according to Mark begins with John the Baptist citing Isaiah speaking of the messenger: “he will prepare your way…Prepare the way of the Lord.” (Mark 1:2-3) In both verses the underlying word for “way” is hodos. There are other places in Mark when hodos is used and is translated as ‘way” – e.g., “the way of God in accordance with the truth,” and describing Jesus and the apostles “on the way” in 8:27 and 10:32. So it is odd that in 10:17, the same word hodos is translated as journey in the New American Bible (NAB).
The NAB translation of “journey” in v. 17 and “road” in v. 32 misses a connection that Mark makes with the use of the Greek hodos used in both verses. The meaning of the word is “way; road; journey” [EDNT 491 ]. The choice of journey – which is accurate – takes away an easy reference for the reader to point to a figurative meaning of one’s “way of life.” This reference to the simpler meaning of hodos became a title for the believers in Christ, “who belong to the Way” (Ac 9:2; also Ac 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14).
If Mark intends hodos to remind us of Jesus’ way heading towards the cross, then we have the contrast between Jesus who is going to give up his very life for the sake of the gospel and the rich man who can’t part with his possessions.
A man (rich young man in Matthew) enthusiastically approaches Jesus. The man’s kneeling posture and the formal address together with the weighty character of his question—all suggest deep respect for Jesus and genuine earnestness on the part of the man himself. He came to consult Jesus as a distinguished rabbi and showed him the deference reserved for revered teachers of the Law. He asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” As Stoffregen notes, it is a rather odd question – if inheritance is a gift, then you need do nothing. He writes:
“Could you image going up to the richest man in the world and asking, ‘What must I do to inherit your great fortune? or even a small part of your fortune?’ The answer would probably be, ‘Get out of here! You can do nothing. I don’t know you. You’re not related to me. You’re not getting even one penny from me.’ On the other hand, it is nearly as absurd for a child to ask a father, ‘Dad, what must I do to inherit part of your estate?’ The answer would probably be, ‘You can’t do anything. You are my child, so you will naturally inherit it. Your name has been in my will since the time of your birth.’”
I think we quickly grasp his point, but I would suggest that we should stop for a moment and consider how often our religious language raises questions about our understanding of the great gifts of God – those things that can never be earned. It shows up in simple expressions most notably around special feast days, especially ones in which Catholics, of good intent and disposition, speak of “getting” grace because they prayed a novena, went to Confession, and received Eucharist. Every one of those moments was an encounter with God’s unmerited grace and love. The only question is whether you were open and “received” the grace. Perhaps I make too much of small nuances in language, but it seems to me “getting” grace lingers on the border of “I did this and that and now I have earned…” We are owed nothing, but we are promised everything!