124: “Do not Defraud” — the Rich Man’s Challenge (aposterein) (Mark 10:19)

When Jesus responds to the question of the rich man in Mark 10:18-19, he reviews five of the ten commandments. However, where we would expect the wording of the tenth commandment to occur (“do not covet”), Mark’s narrative incorporates entirely different wording.  Jesus’ query includes the prohibition “do not defraud (aposterēsēis),” which is then followed by the command to “honour parents.” Compare Matthew (19:18) and Luke’s (18:20) parallels in which they read “do not bear false witness”. Matthew also includes a reference to Leviticus 19:18, the second great command.

This verb used by Mark  means to rob, despoil, defraud in Classical Greek. Xenophon, for example, can speak of being robbed (apesterēntai) of horses (Institutio Cyri 6.1.12). The sense of “defraud” occurs in his Anabasis 7.6.9. Sophocles used the verb in the sense of detaching oneself or withdrawing from a person or thing (Oedipus Tyrannus 138). The simple verb form sterein has the sense “deprive, bereave, rob.” For example, in Greek Genesis Jacob responds angrily to Rachel’s demand that he give her children by denying that he is a god “who has deprived (esterēsen) you with respect to the fruit of the womb” (Genesis 30:2).

The textual evidence for Mark’s narrative indicates that this wording is absent in a significant proportion of the manuscripts, but arguments supporting its originality seem to outweigh those suggesting these words are a later scribal comment. We do find this verb used elsewhere in the New Testament by Paul (1 Corinthians 6:7-8; 7:5; 1 Timothy 6:5) and once in James’ epistle (5:4).

In 1 Corinthians 6:7-8 Paul criticizes some Corinthian believers for initiating legal action against one another. Paul asks “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated (apostereisthe)? Instead you yourselves cheat (apostereite) and do wrong and you do this to your brothers.” NRSV translates the verb in this context as “defraud.” Paul does not reveal the exact nature of the lawsuit so we do not know whether it is financial in nature or not. So perhaps a more neutral term such as “rob” or “despoil” might be more appropriate.

Paul used this verb in the following chapter of 1 Corinthians where he applies it to marital relations. Neither husband nor wife should “deprive one another (apostereite)” (1 Corinthians 7:5). Paul urges the husband to “repay the debt” to his spouse (v.3). He casts the withdrawal of intimate relationship by either spouse as a kind of “robbery.” This usage is similar to that found in Greek Exodus 21:10 where a man takes a second wife and is commanded not to “withhold (aposterēsei) … necessities and clothing and marital rights” from the first spouse.

Paul also used the verb in 1 Timothy 6:5 as he addressed false teachers and describes them as “people of corrupt mind and deprived/robbed (aposterēmenōn) of truth.” He does not indicate who might be the “robber” in this instance.

And then there is the usage in James 5:4. It is a warning passage for the wealthy person who has “failed to pay (ho apesterēmenos)” the wages of workmen. NRSV renders as “which you have kept back by fraud.” The Lord Almighty has observed this injustice and holds the wealthy accountable. The financial context is clear. This sounds very similar to one textual reading of Greek Deuteronomy 24:14: “you shall not [defraud/rob (aposterēseis)] the wages of a needy and indigent person from your brothers….” The same prohibition occurs in Sirach 4:1 which warns “do not defraud (aposterēsēis) the life of the poor.” He also warns that “bread is life for the poor when they are destitute; he who withholds (ho aposterōn) it is a person of blood….one who pours out blood is he who deprives (ho aposterōn) the wages of a hired worker” (Sirach 34(31):26-27). Robbing the poor and withholding justly earned wages in both cases is compared to murder. God also condemns this in Malachi 3:5: “I will be a swift witness…against those who defraud (tous aposterountas) the hired worker of his wages and those who oppress the widow….” The passage in James has considerable affinity with Malachi 3:5 (as does James 1:27). Josephus in Antiquities IV.285 is explaining the Jewish law of deposits (Exodus 22:7) and commands the person entrusted with a neighbour’s funds: “let none venture to defraud (apostesai) him that entrusted it to him, neither man nor woman,…” Shortly after he notes that “one must not deprive (aposterēteon) a poor man of his wages, knowing that this…is the portion which God has granted him” (Antiquities IV.288).

We should note as well that whereas the Hebrew text of Malachi 3:8 accuses the sons of Jacob of robbing God, the Greek translator used the verb pternizein, which seems to connote treacherous action. The later Greek translators Aquila and Symmachus (second century AD) chose the verb aposterein, to rob, despoil, defraud, as their preferred rendering in this context.

Philo (De Vita Mosis I. 142) considers the Israelite spoiling of the Egyptians as a just claim for payment “kept back through reluctance (apesterounto) to pay what was due.”  He condemns those who expose an infant to death because as the guardians of these children they “cut them off (aposterountes) from these blessings,” i.e. the blessings of life (De Specialibus Legibus III.112). The year of Jubilee is instituted because God did not “think it right that the original holders should be deprived (apostereisthai) of their own for ever,…” (De Virtutibus 100). Philo praises the provisions of Israelite law that forbid cutting down trees to ravage enemy territory because it is short-sighted. The enemies of today may become the friends of tomorrow and it would be myopic “to deprive (aposterein) them of the necessities of life” (De Virtutibus 152). In his essay against Flaccus, the prefect of Alexandria and Egypt, Philo warns that if the Jews “lose (apesterounto) their meeting-houses” they would have no means “to show reverence to their benefactors” (In Flaccum 48). At the end of that essay Philo concludes that the fate of Flaccus is “proof that the help which God can give was not withdrawn (apesterēsthai) from the nation of the Jews” (In Flaccum 191). The sense of this verb in Philo’s works seems to be upon improper deprivation of something that rightfully should be given.

When Jesus addressed this man, who had significant possessions, and required him to “sell what you have and give to the poor,” the man was shocked and quite sad (v.22). He had no difficulty apparently keeping God’s commandments, but he seems uncertain as to whether he should obey Jesus’ command. His desire for eternal life does not seem strong enough to enable him to suffer penury in this life for Jesus’ sake. Perhaps the social issue reflected in James 5:4 lies behind the matter Jesus focuses upon with this person. His some of his wealth may have its source in defrauding labourers and thus creating deprivation for the poor. Others have speculated that Jesus’ reordering of the commands in vv. 18-19, the insertion of the prohibition against fraud, and the inclusion of the command to “honour father and mother” at the end of the list reflect Jesus’ earlier debate with the Jewish religious leaders over hand-washing (Mark 7). Their placement of funds under “Corban” as a means of avoiding responsibilities to aging parents comes under attack. Whether Jesus or Mark intends us to infer that this man engaged in the same “fraud” cannot be determined finally. What is clear is that Jesus is challenging this man to give up the possession of his “whole world” in order to preserve his own soul (Mark 8:36). The “deceitfulness of wealth” seems to be operating in this man’s life (Mark 4:19), choking the sprouting interest in Jesus.


     i. what has Jesus asked you to “lose” in order to become his follower? How do you deal with that “loss” today? Do you begrudge it or resent it or has your experience with Jesus removed any sense of loss at all?

    ii. as Jesus indicates in Matthew 5 God’s standards of right and justice are far more intense and consistent than ours. How can this man possibly claim to have kept all of the commands “from my youth,” unless his definition of goodness is so lax as to be essentially non-existent. Do we similarly define “goodness” or “holiness” or “love” in such a way that it costs us nothing to claim we possess such qualities?


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