Seminary taught me many things about reading the Bible, and one of those things is always to pay attention to the land. Our late-modern historical moment underplays land, rendering it simply one commodity among many. Certainly I’m not unaware of Wendell Berry and the New Agrarian appeal, but those things are largely things I’ve read about. And I do remember, in presidential races gone by, the claims that the so-called “Death Tax” (which I still call the Estate Tax, but only when I can resist calling it the Billionaires’ Tax) ran families off of their long-standing farmland. (A bit of research will show that the only people who lost acreage to the Billionaires’ Tax could have opted instead to ditch cash, stocks, art collections, or other inherited assets. The heirs in question just didn’t value farm land as much as more liquid assets.) But aside from the side shows, land in my own experience is what corporations control for agricultural production and what lies between the towns that make up my real experiences. Far more real than land, in my life, have been roads and classrooms and offices and long-distance hauls to see family.
All of that makes good research into Mark 10 important for someone like me. When the rich young man approaches Jesus, and when Jesus tells him to sell what he has, he’s not talking about the sort of transaction that would happen were I to sell my little suburban house or unload my library for cash. To put things bluntly, Jesus tells the rich man to sell Israel, to unload the Promised Land for cash.
Such a command, on its face, seems to have little to do with life eternal. After all, we post-Cartesian moderns tend to think of “the afterlife” (whether we believe in it or whether we’re writing straw-man critiques of it) as disembodied, disconnected from actual plots of dirt and disinterested when it comes to questions of real estate. (A careful reading of Dante would cure this, but few people read Dante carefully, I fear.) But for the rich man, the life eternal must necessarily involve the land that YHWH promised Abraham and into which Joshua led the people. The visions of Isaiah and of Ezekiel always involve the nations’ regarding the land of Israel as the home of Torah and of glory, and Daniel ends not with a vision of disembodied bliss, far from the cares of the farm, but the dead rising to shame or to glory in the world where Israel is still the promised land.
So when the young man goes away sad, it’s not because he’s just bought the latest Apple product and doesn’t want to turn loose. It’s not even because Dave Ramsey would cluck his tongue at someone who would rid himself of his means of living and thus forsake “financial freedom.” This is Israel on the line, the eternal hope of the people, the very reason that they await Messiah. And here the good teacher, the one who says that only God is agathos (a Greek term which, as Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, has kingly connotations), has called on a man to throw away the very thing to which the hope of Israel always returns.
None of this is to imply that Jesus was kidding or wrong, of course. To the contrary, Jesus is being His most radical here, providing an analogy to his own impending doom, saying that the hundredfold increase in lands can only happen if one forsakes the ancestral lands of the time of Joshua, that one can only gain the innumerable family of the faithful if one forsakes the exclusive family that claims Abraham as blood-ancestor rather than forerunner-in-faith. The cross of Christ is not simply a divine trick for cooking the Heavenly books; it re-structures everything from family lines to nationality to the primacy of the land. None of those things goes away (after all, in the end of Revelation, those in Heaven rejoice because they can come back to Earth), but all of them fall perishable and rise imperishable. That transformation is at least as hard a teaching as consuming flesh and blood, and neither the rich man nor the disciples really get what’s going on until the grand crime of the Cross reveals what it means to be Son of God.
May our devotion rise always from the earth that is always the LORD’s to the heavens where the LORD always looks to the land.