We are in Judea on Jesus' final approach to Jerusalem. Recently, Jesus explained to His disciples that the Kingdom of God belongs to people who are like children (Matthew 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17), similar to the sentiment discussed before. Then, Jesus told a rich man that he should obey the Commandments to gain eternal life, and also that he should sell his belongings, give to the poor, and follow Him. The man apparently rejected Jesus' proposal, causing Jesus to say that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.
The Shifting of Riches
The section we will study here is integral to the section studied previously, where Jesus told a rich man to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Him. Then, when the rich man had walked away saddened, implicitly rejecting Him, Jesus commented that it is impossible for wealthy people to be Saved without God's intervention (implicitly, an intervention above and beyond the atonement that would be offered through Jesus' crucifixion).
In Matthew 19:27-30, Mark 10:28-31, and Luke 18:28-30, you find Peter's response to the shocking episode with the rich man. Peter challenges or questions Jesus about the Disciple's compensation for giving up everything to follow Him. Jesus' subsequent response reveals much. But just like in the last study, it is most informative to start here with the source; Mark. So after Peter says that the Disciples have left everything, in Mark 10:29-30 we find the most interesting part of Jesus' reply:
"I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father[ or wife] or children or fields for Me and the Gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life." NIV
First, note that I added "or wife" in brackets. That is because this verse has variations in it depending on which source manuscripts you use. Consequently, the King James Version reads "... or father or mother or wife or children ..." while the New International Version reads "... or mother or father or children ..."
Besides the inclusion of the wife, you can see that another variation is the order of father and mother. Given that Judaism was a patriarchal society, it is more likely that the father would have been listed first. Also, given that "or wife" is extra information and matches the context well, it is more likely that it was part of the original source, but was possibly dropped in a copyist's error. Coincidentally, the father-then-mother versions all include the mention of leaving the wife, suggesting that the error of dropping "or wife" came at the same time when the order of father and mother were reversed. Furthermore, Luke, who was using a Mark-based text in help to construct his Gospel, included "or wife" in his account.
It is no surprise that the NIV opted to follow the version without the mention of leaving a wife due to the cultural ideals modern Christianity is trying to promote regarding the "sanctity" of marriage. Having a Jesus who promoted leaving your wife would be contrary to their purpose. However, as noted before, there are other spots where Jesus' message promoted forsaking all others, including spouses, in pursuit of God and His Kingdom, and these could not be worked around by picking an alternate manuscript.
In the previous study, we noted how this episode had possibly provided a glimpse of the real Jesus. If that is so, then the glimpse may have ended in the section covered in this study. Why? Well, where before Jesus had apparently humbled Himself, stating that only God was good, here He is instructing that people forsake everything else "for Me," that is for Jesus, not for God. So, in a way, this Jesus is putting Himself above God, or at least at the same level. However, "for Me" could have been another way of saying "because of what I have explained to you." I lean more towards the latter, more-humble explanation, so I suspect that this may still be in line with what the real Jesus probably said.
More interesting is that Jesus said that people would receive rewards "in this present age" for forsaking everything else in this life, as well as being granted eternal life in the "age to come."
The rewards are enticing, but let us take a quick moment to reflect on what was meant by "in this present age" first. In our modern eyes, we would likely judge this to be equivalent to "in this present life," or perhaps "in the time up to God's final Judgement Day." Either of those may be the best interpretation, but history provides another possibility.
Back in those times, Astrology was a very meaningful practice. There are several verses in the Gospels with possible allusions to Astrology, like the verses we are studying here. This "age" could be referring to an Astrological Age. It just so happens that around the time of Jesus, the Age of Aries (the Ram), was coming to an end. The next age in line was the Age of Pisces (the Fish). It is then a curious coincidence that Jesus called His Disciples "fishers of men," like ambassadors for bringing people into the coming new age. It gets even more curious when in Mark 14:13, in preparation for the Last Supper, Jesus tells His Disciples to follow a man carrying a jar of water, which is the symbol for the Age after Pisces, the Age of Aquarius (the Water-Carrier).
Anyway, about those rewards in this present age... homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields. There are a few possible ways to look at this.
- These rewards are a metaphor for the spiritual wealth you receive in following Jesus, but that perspective seems unlikely given the specific nature of particular physical rewards being listed.
- These are actual physical rewards to be granted by God for giving up everything to follow Jesus. It is tempting to play the cynic and suggest that this verse was used as a justification for the wealth that early church leaders soon found at their disposal from the donations of generous followers. Indeed, many preachers of Prosperity Theology today probably see it in that same light. However, such an intent would seem oddly juxtaposed with Jesus telling the rich man to sell all of his belongings.
- These rewards come through a realigned perspective within the community of believers. In other words, you will get many new family members because your fellow believers will be your family, like what Jesus said about His own family, and the homes and fields you will gain will be the shared, communal property which each new believer contributes to the group. This communal message is seen to be implemented in the words of Acts 4:32-35, so this perspective appears to align with the true intent.
So in a nutshell, I believe Mark's Jesus' perspective was that those who gave up everything to follow His teachings would find that they had an even larger family than before; one consisting of fellow believers who shared their possessions generously. Just like with the hippie communes in the late 1960's in the U.S.A., they would be persecuted for their beliefs and communal living. But sometime soon, the next age would dawn, and God would grant them all eternal life and many other blessings.
Let us now quickly turn to the Luke 18:28-30 version of this story section. Luke may have been tired of copying, because he shortened the text a bit. Among the changes are writing "or parents" instead of "or father or mother," writing "for the sake of the Kingdom of God" as opposed to "for Me and the Gospel" (which conveniently avoids the possible misunderstanding noted above in Mark), dropping the specific reward list for this age, and writing "many" instead of "a hundred" times reward. Besides being shorter, Luke's alteration also drops the need to explain that "a hundred times" was not meant to be literal. Other than that, Luke matches Mark very well.
Matthew 19:27-30, on the other hand, significantly changes the message. The idea of rewards in this life vanishes, and the message becomes distinctively more Jewish in nature, as Matthew 19:28-29 demonstrates in the critical part of Jesus' reply:
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for My sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life." NIV
So for Matthew, the reward will not come until "the renewal of all things." The particular sect associated with Matthew may not have subscribed to the communal living practices which Luke had experienced, or perhaps Matthew just did not understand the allusion to the communal living, and so he changed that reward to be purposed for the next life.
It is difficult to know how the idea of "judging the twelve tribes of Israel" crept into this passage when it was obviously not in Mark, the source. It appears as though this may have been a teaching of Jesus which was recorded without any context. This teaching was available in some form for both Matthew and Luke when they wrote their Gospels. Matthew chose to insert it here. Luke would insert that same teaching much later, at the Last Supper, in Luke 22:28-30.
When you consider all of these factors and variances at play, things become paradoxically both unclear and more clear. What the real Jesus said, meant, and believed is unclear with a great degree of certitude. However, it does become clear that the Gospel texts were written with and subjected to all of the follies of men.