Sunday, October 14, 2012

Year B Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis. 7:7-11; Ps. 90:12-17; Heb. 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). Rather than waste our time trying to water down what Jesus says by grasping at straws, like erroneously insisting that Jesus here is referring to a fairly narrow gate found in the wall of ancient Middle Eastern cities (He is not; He is referring to an actual needle, the ancient equivalent of the kind we hold between our thumb and forefinger as we try to thread it- this is why it is literally impossible for a camel to pass through), we need to make an attempt deal with the full force of His challenging words in light of our present circumstances. Doing this is the only way we experience what the inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells about the “word of God” being “living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

Today‘s Gospel highlights Jesus’ continued proclamation of the kingdom of God. In case it hasn’t yet dawned on you, God’s kingdom isn’t at all what you and I expect, which just shows us how at odds our hearts usually are with God’s purpose. Perhaps the most salient feature of God’s kingdom, at least according to Jesus, is that those who smugly think they are in will be out and many who think they are out will be in.

In light of today’s Gospel we see that entrance into God’s kingdom is not first and foremost a matter of keeping the rules, which is not to say that observing the commandments is unimportant, but does take a dim view of keeping them for merely selfish reasons. As He usually does, Jesus invites us to go deeper, beyond the externals of observance, to the heart of the matter, to look at our own hearts and ask ourselves why these things are important enough for us to do, or not to do, as the case may be. Note that Jesus does not rebuke the rich man, who asks Him the only question that really matters, for observing the commandments as Jesus Himself sets them forth. He simply tells the man that there is something he still lacks, namely total commitment to loving God with all his heart, might, mind, and strength and loving his neighbor as himself.

There is something easy to miss in the rich man’s encounter with Jesus, which took a friend pointing it out for me to grasp it. He begins by calling Jesus “Good teacher” (Mark 10:17b). Jesus responds with the question, “Why do you call me good?” (Mark 10:18), indicating that perhaps, just perhaps, the man is seeking to affirm, or maybe even to flatter Jesus, in the hope that Jesus will, in turn, affirm him, not only his righteousness (“Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth” [Mark 10:20], he says in response to Jesus’ exhortation to keep the commandments), but his righteous desire, something Jesus steadfastly refuses to do. Instead, Jesus, looking on him lovingly, ups the ante, calling him to self-sacrifice, to self-forgetfulness, which causes the rich man’s face to fall and also results in him going “away sad” (Mark 10:22). Lest we take too negative a view of either the rich man, or his encounter with Jesus, his fallen and face and his sadness show that Jesus struck a chord in him, a beautiful note that lures him away from self-absorption and self-righteousness, seeking to place his feet on the narrow path to God’s kingdom. Jesus blessed him with uncertainty and inquietude. By upping the ante, Jesus sought to turn the rich man outward, helping him become less self-conscious, less self-absorbed, to leave all and join the community of disciples.

As Dr. Rowan Williams, who serves as Archbishop of Canterbury, noted in his intervention last week at the Synod on the New Evangelization being held in Rome, “The enemy of all proclamation of the Gospel is self-consciousness, and, by definition, we cannot overcome this by being more self-conscious.” This prompts a reflection for us who would be followers of Jesus, “Do we look anxiously to the problems of our day, the varieties of unfaithfulness or of threat to faith and morals, the weakness of the institution? Or are we seeking to look to Jesus, to the unveiled face of God’s image in the light of which we see the image further reflected in ourselves and our neighbors?” (Archbishop’s address to the Synod of Bishops in Rome).

The great Jesuit theologian, Henri de Lubac, whom Dr. Williams cited in his speech, wrote in a book of aphorisms entitled Paradoxes of Faith, “He who will best answer the needs of his time will be someone who will not have first sought to answer them.” This observation points us back to Jesus’ words with which He begins His ministry at the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel: “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15b). It is important that He does not say, “Believe and repent,” but “repent and believe.” De Lubac also insisted “[t]he man who seeks sincerity, instead of seeking truth in self-forgetfulness, is like the man who seeks to be detached instead of laying himself open in love.”

These reflections prompted by Sacred Scripture, it seems to me, are especially important, not only politically, due to the fact that this year is an election year, but moreover because Bishop Wester has asked us to consider, as individuals, as families, as a parish, and as a diocese, what it means to be good stewards of the many gifts God gives us and to prayerfully and thoughtfully discern ways we can become better stewards, responding to Jesus’ call to give sacrificially. As we do this let’s keep in mind these oft-repeated words from the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, who dramatically renounced his wealth by stripping naked in the town square, “it is in giving that we receive.”

The pillars of the Year of Faith, which we began this past Thursday, are to profess, to celebrate, and give witness to our faith in Jesus Christ. Stewardship, which is really a name for figuring out the practicalities of being witnesses, is the loving, self-forgetting response to Jesus’ challenge in today’s Gospel, which can be elicited, but never coerced. As Mother Teresa said, “Faith in action is love and love in action is service.” Expanding on this a bit, another name for “service” is diakonia, which is not so much an institutional office at the lower end of the hierarchy (Lumen Gentium, par. 29) as it is the way to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

After hearing Jesus say that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person enter the kingdom of God, the disciples, absorbing the full impact of these words, which also included this statement- “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24) - they asked Him, “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). Jesus, who is the embodiment of both hope and wisdom, reassured them by saying, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God” (Mark 10:27), indicating that nobody, rich or poor, is automatically precluded from God’s kingdom.

In contrast to the rich man who went away sad because Jesus told him to give away everything he had to the poor and become a disciple, Peter points out that he and his fellow disciples have voluntarily left everything to follow Jesus. The Lord commends them for, in the words of our reading from Wisdom, deeming riches as nothing when compared to Wisdom, for seeing “all gold” as “a bit of sand” and “silver as mire” when compared to following and knowing Him (Wis. 7:9). This is perhaps best articulated by St. Paul in his Letter to the Philippians, who wrote that he considered “everything as a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus…” (Phil. 3:8- NIV).

Jesus assures them and us that those who are persecuted and who “give up, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands” for His sake and for the sake of the Gospel will be blessed now and have “eternal life in the age to come,” before telling them that in God’s kingdom “many that are first will be last, and [the] last will be first” (Mark 10:30-31).

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Jesus' call to a deeper union with him by voluntary renunciation of earthly possessions is a call that requires great courage and faith. We must not fall into shame (seeing ourselves inadequate to the invitation, which is in some sense a form of idolatry, a sense of our own self-importance) but rather take the risk and reach out to the Word of God in such a way that we leave all else behind, and recognize the gift that is being extended to us, the gift of grace.

    The young man's problem in the Gospel was the problem of pride and fear. We all can identify with him, I suspect. Following the Commandments IS necessary for salvation... this is what is common to us all. Hearing the personal call and the personal challenges God gives that are particularly suited to us as individuals (as he did with that young man) is the "one thing more" we must do. Are we brave enough to ask God the question, "Lord, what must I do to share in eternal life?" I hope so.