Sunday, October 11, 2009

Go, Sell All That You Have, And Come, Follow Me!

First Reading
Wisdom 7:7-11

I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.

I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.

Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.
Yet all good things together came to me in her company,
and countless riches at her hands.

Responsorial Psalm
Ps 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17

R. Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!

Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!

R. Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!

Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
Make us glad, for the days when you afflicted us,
for the years when we saw evil.

R. Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!

Let your work be seen by your servants
and your glory by their children;
and may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours;
prosper the work of our hands for us!
Prosper the work of our hands!

R. Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!

Reading II
Hebrews 4:12-13

Brothers and sisters:
Indeed the word of God is 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.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.

Mark 10:17-27

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good?
No one is good but God alone.

You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother."

He replied and said to him,
"Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth."

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
"You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
"How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!"

The disciples were amazed at his words.
So Jesus again said to them in reply,
"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
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."

They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
"Then who can be saved?"

Jesus looked at them and said,
"For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.
All things are possible for God."

Peter began to say to him,
"We have given up everything and followed you."

Jesus said, "Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come."

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Listen to the words of King Solomon at the beginning of Chapter 7, the six verses before today’s First Reading

I am a mortal man, a descendant of the first man formed on the earth, the same as everyone else. From the seed of a man, and the pleasure that accompanies marriage, I was molded into flesh within my mother’s body and grew there, body and blood, for a period of ten months. When I was born, I breathed the common air, and wailing, uttered the first sound common to all. I was wrapped in swaddling clothes, and nurtured with constant care. For no king has a different origin or birth. Entry into life is the same for everyone; and in the same way, everyone leaves it (7:1-6).

The First Reading provides the background to the story of the young man in today’s gospel. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks Jesus. He has done well for himself in this life; now he wants to find out how he can be equally successful in the next. To begin with, Jesus gives him the standard response, one which he should know already, “You know the commandments …” and then recites them . The man answers, “I’ve observed them from my youth.” Knowing the commandments since your Bar Mitzvah is one thing; observing them faithfully is something else again! But he was speaking to the wrong person. He was confident that he could stand before God on his own merits. But his smug self-assurance is misplaced, and identical to that of the Pharisees.

Jesus does not challenge him directly, though. He simply draws him out further. We are used to hearing this story, and its impact is somehow softened for us. In Jesus’ time, wealth and social status (which tended to come paired) were generally considered a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus looked at him lovingly and said to him, “You are lacking in only one thing. Go, sell all you have, and give the proceeds to the needy. Then, come follow me.” This was too much for the young man, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. He will be forever remembered as the only person in the gospels who turned down a direct invitation from Jesus, and walked away.

Jesus then turned and spoke to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God!” They were astonished at his words, but he went even further, “Children, how difficult it is for those who put their trust in wealth to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Some commentators suggest that Jesus was referring to a small gate in the walls of Jerusalem known as “Needle’s Eye Gate.” But the fact is that camels could get through that gate. Jesus is asserting that it is impossible for a rich man to enter God’s Kingdom. The disciples were understandably puzzled, since they came from the same tradition as the young man. “Then, who can be saved?”

Jesus’ reply gives us the solution to the conundrum: “For human beings, it is impossible, but not for God. For God, all things are possible.”

The clear implication here is that the number of one’s possessions and their monetary worth is not nearly as dangerous as one’s attachment to them. There are generous millionaires and there are miserly paupers. To be freed from the hypnotic influence of possessions is to be prepared to put the needs of others above our own comfort and convenience. It was Saint Augustine who said that, from a Christian perspective, the surplus of the wealthy is owed to the poor. Here, surplus means all that is not required for a modest life style. I believe Augustine would apply the same measure to the wealth of nations.


Sarah in the tent said...

I have read claims that Christ's question "Why do you call me good. No-one is good but God alone" is a denial of Christ's own divinity. I see it more as a teaching question, like "Who do people say that I am?". It's interesting that the commandments listed are just the ones that would characterize any well ordered society. You wouldn't expect these to be the key to something amazing like eternal life. The list includes none of the commandments governing the relationship with God, nor is the commandment against covetousness there. It's also interesting that Our Lord says that just "one thing" is lacking. This must be because, if God is your heart's desire, covetousness will not be a problem. Our Lord deals with covetousness by recommending an action that is guaranteed to cure it - give everything away - and then commands the young man to come, follow Him. This instruction from Our Lord therefore stands for all the commandments concerning our relationship with God, including the Sabbath, and is a veiled declaration of His divinity. Maybe the rich young man understood it that way and went away sad because, as a devout Jew, he thought following Jesus would mean giving away his spiritual wealth. Jesus loved him. This makes me think that perhaps, at that moment, the rich young man stood for all God's chosen people. In fact, the chosen people did give away their spiritual wealth to the poor (us pagan gentiles) and now find themselves at the heart of an enormously extended, argumentative faith family! No wonder the rich young man was worried!
Camels: in another part of the Gospel, Jesus compares the law regarding mint, dill and cumin to a gnat and the law regarding justice, mercy and faithfulness to a camel, perhaps because these fundamental virtues carry all the others. I don't think camels are famous for their justice or mercy, but I suppose they must be quite faithful beasts of burden and I expect they attract swarms of gnats! Perhaps rich people should aspire to be spiritual camels!

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Sarah, your comment includes two very good insights. First, Jesus' comment, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" is not a denial of his divinity, since He knows who he is. But the young man who raised the question does not know that, and knows only Jesus in the flesh, the teacher from Galilee.

Jesus' response to the young man is clearly about material wealth: Sell all you own. Give the proceeds to the poor. Then, come follow me. But he couldn't do that, because of his attachment to his earthly possessions.

Peter's reaction, in the longer form of this gospel, supports this interpretation. Peter, Andrew, James and John gave up a very lucrative fishing enterprise in order to follow Jesus, and his question is: "What's in it for us?" I don't know that the disciples were ready for the answer: In this life, persecution; in the next, eternal joy.