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.