First…and Last

28th Sunday Ordinary Time, year B, 10-14-2018

Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30

Our 1st and 2nd readings today prepare us for the Gospel.  I would paraphrase our first reading like this: “ I would rather have (Wisdom) than to be King;  having riches is nothing in comparison with being wise. Wisdom is far greater than pearls or diamonds; and gold, next to Wisdom, is just a little sand.  Beyond even health and beauty, I love Wisdom. I chose to have wisdom rather than the light of the sun. ”

How many times have you heard people say that your health is more valuable than anything else? How many times have you talked with someone who blocked off their beauty appointments before anything else on their calendar?  How many people do you know that valued their job so highly that their spouse divorced them and their children despised them? We all have met people who have wanted wealth so badly they gave up their integrity and cheated their boss or their customers.  I could name names of people I have seen make those decisions, and listened to people who later realized how they had hurt themselves and those they loved by their choices.

In the readings from Hebrews, we find, “The Word of God is living and effective, sharper than any 2-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit…able to discern…thoughts of the heart.” It reminds me of the movie, “The Bodyguard” with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. Houston treats Costner’s sword carelessly, like a stage prop, but when he gently tosses her silk scarf into the air, to her amazement, the blade of the sword silently slices it cleanly in half as it floats down.  Only then does she recognize the sharpness of the blade.

In our Gospel, we find the Word of God, in the form of Jesus, penetrating the mind and motives of a man. This man brings so much to like and admire to the scene.   He is full of ambition, intelligent, obedient to the Law of Moses, honest and accomplished, and seeking eternal life.  He runs up, not afraid, or embarrassed, and kneels in respect to Jesus.  He is enthusiastic, he willingly comes to be taught, and he recognizes the authority of Jesus.

We would quickly label him as a man to watch. He has already amassed wealth, he takes action when he wants something, speaks confidently, and has the attitude of one whose name will be known to many. And he seeks out opportunity.  But he does not know how to “inherit eternal life.”  It seems he has found something he desires that he cannot obtain.

However, when he addresses Jesus, he reveals a lack of understanding – he calls Jesus a “Good Teacher”. The term means he admires the skill of Jesus as a teacher/rabbi.  He believes that “goodness” is something that we do, that our own effort creates.  He does not know yet that “goodness” comes from God, as a gift. He also asks, “What must I DO that I may” (get) eternal life”.  While he is willing to work hard, to pay, to earn eternal life, he does not understand that it, too, is a gift, a gift from the Cross, which it is not his to “earn”.

He longs for something that he does not find in the market place or buy from merchants; he knows there is something spiritual about it, for he has come to a traveling teacher who speaks of God in a way that no one else can.  He also senses that what he needs to be fulfilled will not rust or tarnish or die; it must be lasting, “eternal”.

I am on the Standing Committee for CACINA, which interviews people who wish to begin the process of preparing to be ordained as a Deacon or Priest. I can imagine how Jesus might have felt about this man.  Who wouldn’t want this man on your team of clergy?  This the type of person that could be someone you would want to build congregations with; a person who would draw parishioners from miles around, who could deliver the Good News so very well, who would work relentlessly for the Kingdom.  Mark says that Jesus loved him.  This encounter is so very personal, so unusual, so unlike the bitter debates with the Pharisees.

“One thing you lack,” Jesus says, and answers the man’s question, telling him how to have treasure in heaven, how to be fulfilled, how to find that which he is looking for.  Sell your stuff, he says, let go of the stuff, give the money away, release yourself from the hopeless burden of accumulating things that will not last and distract you from the gifts God gives. Then you will be ready to face your death, ready to give of yourself without counting the cost…and follow me.   There was no more conversation.  The man leaves, sad.  He had a lot of stuff, and he was willing to be in bondage to that stuff, he was willing to be a slave to it.  And Jesus said with compassion, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”

Here is where we need an historical note. The common Jewish theology of the day was that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing on a person.  Think about fasting – if you cannot afford food, you cannot fast.  Only the wealthy could fast.  The poor starved.  Think about giving alms – you must have wealth to give to the poor.  Wealth created the ability to be spiritual.  Wealth gave the opportunity to pay for the ritual cleansings,  and buy the animals to be sacrificed for your sins.  Wealth opened the way to heaven, or so they thought.

Now Jesus turns it all around. “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”  He continues with a metaphor from his time (and has been found in other literature from the period), “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Teachers then especially loved using enormous exaggeration for the purpose of teaching, and a camel was likely the largest animal people there would have encountered.  It is the contrast between the huge camel and the tiny eye that Jesus is going for. Some imaginative speakers tried to make this expression into a tiny doorway of sorts several years ago.  Forget all that, and focus on what Jesus is trying to tell us: that only with God’s gifts of love and faith and forgiveness do we enter heaven.  Nothing else works, regardless of how grand and glorious our works and our possessions might be.

Peter thinks, Hey! The apostles had given everything they had to be with Jesus! Jesus responds with an assurance of immense blessings – hundredfold! – and then sums it all up in one phrase: “Many who are first will be last, and the last, first.”  Let us be last to depend on wealth to open heaven, and the last to rely on self-created goodness. Let us be the first to praise God’s love and forgiveness, and the first to be thankful for all those who have carried their cross so that we might have faith.

 

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Culture and Changes

19th Sunday Ordinary time, August 12, 2018

Texts:  Kings 19:4-8; Ps 34:2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

We continue to read from the Gospel of John, chapter 6.  Two weeks ago, we read the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 or more people with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.  Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and still there were leftovers.   We also learned that John’s Gospel was primarily written for people who had already accepted Christianity, and John’s goal is to deepen their faith and their understanding of Jesus.

Last week we found Jesus trying to enlarge the crowd’s understanding of “bread” and “work”; he told them to not work for food which perishes, but for food that leads them to eternal life. They ask Jesus for manna, the heavenly bread that God gave the Israelites after they escaped Egypt.  Jesus responded that God gives the true bread from heaven, and they ask for that bread.  Jesus then says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He talks of becoming close to God, of gaining wisdom and understanding.

We pick up there today, and we begin to notice some changes in the way the story is told. First, we start off with “The Jews” murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  In our first two readings, the crowd is referred to as “the people” or just “they”.  Suddenly they are referred to as “the Jews”.  That label, in John’s Gospel, indicates unbelievers, especially those hostile to Jesus in Jerusalem. The crowd came looking for free food, and they are disappointed that no magic bread has appeared.  They are critical because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” Oddly enough, John did not record Jesus saying that exact statement in the previous verses.

There are two pieces of Mediterranean culture you need to know to understand this scene. First, “Honor” was very important, and honor required that a person stay in their family’s social status, maintain it, and never consider “getting ahead.” Unlike our culture, any attempt then to raise your social status or behave differently from your birth status was shameful because it was seen as divisive and disruptive to the community. Second, the way that people were pressured to follow the rules of society was to be sharply criticized and shamed. So the crowd immediately and bluntly reminds Jesus of who his parents are (not from heaven) and what their social status is, in attempt to belittle him and “keep him in his place”. Jesus tells them to stop complaining.

John used the exact same word for their “murmurs” (or complaints) as is used for the complaints of the Israelites in Exodus (the people who received the manna from God). Those people were portrayed as shallow people who had just been divinely rescued from hard labor and slavery and were not only ungrateful but outrageously rude to and demanding of God. The crowd who, a few verses ago, had difficulty grasping the symbolism of bread now sounds like Rabbis arguing about scripture. Now they use the formal “How can he say” format that was traditional when debating a meaning of the scriptures.

The crowd is behaving just as the label “The Jews” would indicate, with hostility. So Jesus offers the crowd an alternative to hostility. He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him…” Draw means to “bring near”. In this case, it means to bring someone near to Scripture, and open to them the knowledge of God. For John, when we listen and learn from God, we become close with/ near to Jesus. Jesus quotes a verse from Isaiah 54:13, that in the New Jerusalem, in the last days, “(the people) shall be taught (directly) by God”, a very personal relationship indeed.

It seems that someone different wrote this part of our reading, maybe a later editor added something or changed it. Biblical studies can be complicated by such events. We don’t have the originals of any of the Gospels, only copies that have been made by scribes whose tedious jobs were to copy them by hand, and the copies do not always agree. We do not know for sure who the original writers were, and who may have changed or added information, and Bible experts do not always agree even to what the author meant.

This is a good place to look at our other readings. In 1st Kings, we see the angel of God bring bread to Elijah, who was in deep despair and exhausted. It was a way to heal and restore Elijah to health and wholeness; it shows great care and gentleness. Likewise, the 2nd reading urges us to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. Bitterness, anger, shouting, abusive language, and intent to harm or injure others has no place in our lives and grieves the Holy Spirit. We are to imitate God, living in love as Christ loved us. The Psalm urges us to “taste and see” how good God is. All 3 readings speak of God’s love and goodness.

So today we had new and different language (“The Jews” instead of ‘the crowd);  we have the mood of the crowd change, as they belittle Jesus. Last week, I said, “The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves opened the door for people to have an insight into who Jesus was and how he will “feed” our souls for eternity. Now, we have a new image for the bread, a more traditional Eucharistic image of the bread as the body of Christ. Now Jesus says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, they will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” This is the introduction of another way of viewing bread, one that speaks strongly of the Eucharist rather than just manna/bread and learning wisdom and coming to understand God. And that is where we will pick up next week!  Join me then!