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Question Marked: What Did Jesus Mean by “Don’t Defraud”?

I’m involved in a dispute with a long-time friend and former teacher about the interpretation of a passage in Mark. It’s the one about a person coming to Jesus with the question of what must be done to inherit eternal life. (Mark 10: 17-22)
 

You’ll recall that Jesus proceeds to say that they both know what’s required for life eternal: to follow all of the commandments. And then Jesus provides a quick summary of them:

 

  • You shall not murder.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not bear false witness.
  • You shall not defraud.
  • Honor your father and mother.

 

Clearly, Jesus hasn’t covered all 10 of the commandments given to Moses, but the reader gets the sense that he didn’t have to because Jesus was probably just being suggestive of all them, or the last half of them – as we sometimes just use “etc.” to signal that we can assume everybody knows the complete set.

 

What is in dispute between my colleague and me is the status of the phrase: “You shall not defraud” in this passage in Mark.

 

My colleague argues that the inclusion of this particular commandment, which clearly isn’t a word-for-word quote from the Tablets, is simply an extension of Jesus summarizing what is generally covered in the last half of the Decalogue.

 

And my colleague adds that when the text indicates that after this Jesus looked and loved the person, it means that Jesus agreed that the person was correct in the self-assessment – that, indeed, the person had fulfilled all the commandments, even though Jesus adds still another one as a qualification for eternal life: to sell what the person owned, to give it to the poor and to follow Jesus. As we know from the story, it was that additional commandment that the person couldn’t fulfill, and thus went away grieving.

 

The interpretation I want to defend, on the other hand, is that the insertion of “not defrauding” in the list of commandments wasn’t a summary – a kind of “etc.” – of a bunch of commandments but rather a deliberate editing of the Decalogue by Jesus to fit the circumstance or condition of the person standing before him asking about eternal life.

 

Matthew and Luke, in their version of the story, don’t include Mark’s account of Jesus adding the “defrauding” phrase. My argument is that the inclusion of the “defrauding” phrase in Mark, but its exclusion in Matthew and Luke, is in each case deliberate. The best way to account for its inclusion in Mark is that it reflects what Jesus discerns is actually and particularly missing in the person’s attempt to fulfill all the commandments.

 

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In some technical and pharisaic sense, yes, the person has met the terms of the Mosaic law. But Jesus sees that this person has accumulated wealth, and determines, I want to argue, that this wealth has been achieved by fraud – that is, by denying people what, in God’s eyes, they truly deserve and taking it for oneself.

 

It isn’t strictly “stealing.” It isn’t strictly “bearing false witness.” But it is a different kind of taking-for-one’s-own something that someone else deserves or has a legitimate claim to. It’s fraud in Jesus’ eyes, according to Mark. And it is serious enough to keep the perpetuator from gaining eternal life.

 

Jesus concludes that the only way to accomplish what is needed is for the person to give back all that has been accumulated by fraud, intentionally or not, to those who have been defrauded – the poor, those who have been denied what they were always entitled to.

 

If my colleague turns out to be correct in his more standard interpretation, it still has relevance to our current situation: even if any one of us has met all the stipulations of the Ten Commandments, we will not achieve eternal worth until we have exceeded the Mosaic law and shed our excessive wealth and shared it with the poor and followed in the path of Jesus.

 

I assume that has direct and serious consequences for us in a domestic and global condition in which more and more people are falling into poverty, are without adequate health insurance and are being shut out of the human services they need and in which more children are being denied a quality education that will be required if they are to flourish in the 21st century.

 

Even if we have met all the stipulations of the Ten Commandments, Jesus lovingly tells us to do that one more thing: of giving up what we don’t need, sharing it with those who need it and doing our best to keep up in following Jesus.

 

If there is any merit in my interpretation of this passage in Mark, then something even more is expected of us: to recognize how much we have been and are a part, whether intentionally or not, of the fraud of denying people what, in God’s eyes, they deserve.

 

It is to recognize that fraud can be to deprive in an unjust manner what rightly belongs to others – whether that unjust depravation is personally designed, willed and carried out, or if it is the result of being a part of an unjust structure or system that has the consequence of denying people what is rightfully theirs.

 

And it is then to find ways, in response to the look and love of Jesus, to make things right, to make things just, to make things as God intends them to be.

 

But I acknowledge that the differing interpretations of the passage from Mark are not, in the end, so much at stake as is our eternal standing before and with God.

 

Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence at The Common Good Network.