Monday, May 24, 2010

Good Teacher, What Must I Do To Inherit Eternal Life?

Monday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Peter 1:3-9
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,
kept in heaven for you who by the power of God
are safeguarded through faith,
to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time.
In this you rejoice, although now for a little while
you may have to suffer through various trials,
so that the genuineness of your faith,
more precious than gold that is perishable
even though tested by fire,
may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor
at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Although you have not seen him you love him;
even though you do not see him now yet you believe in him,
you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
as you attain the goal of faith, the salvation of your souls.
Today we begin readings from the First Letter of Peter.
“This letter was most likely written… about 64 AD and sets forth the nature of the Christian life begun in baptism as an experience of regeneration. By their acceptance of Christianity, the Christian communities of Asia Minor had become separated from their pagan countrymen, who were abusing and persecuting them. The apostle instructs his readers that Christianity is the true religion in spite of their trials and sufferings and exhorts them to lead good Christian lives.” (St Joseph’s Weekday Missal, vol. 1)

The first three verses of the chapter are not included in the reading but in them the writer tells us to whom the letter is being addressed. They include five Roman provinces in Asia Minor and cover most of what is modern Turkey - Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.

The letter begins in the usual way with a kind of prayer which is full of hope. In fact, an aura of hope suffuses this whole letter. In spite of the frequent suffering and persecution mentioned in the letter, hope is such a key thought in it (the word itself is used here and in vv.13,21; 3:5,15) that it may be called a letter of hope in the midst of suffering. Christian hope is not just wishful thinking; it is an utter conviction of what is going to be realised. Here there is a guarantee of an “imperishable inheritance” to which all can look forward to with faith and confidence. The basis of that hope is the resurrection of Jesus, who passed through such terrible suffering and death to life. Our faith tells us that we can go the same way with him.

This hope leads to the enjoyment of an inheritance, an inheritance that is eternal, one that is being kept in store for us by God. And we are being made safe, first, by the power of God and, second, by our faith, our total trust and commitment to God. And this guarantees our salvation, which can be seen in three phases: 1, the salvation that comes when we first believe in Jesus as Lord and Saviour; 2, the continuing process of salvation as we grow in holiness and wholeness; and 3, when we are united face to face with our God and Lord in glory.

In spite of the many trials and tribulations that the Christians are passing through, the writer assures them that “there is cause for rejoicing”. Because such trials test their faith like gold being purified in fire and will make them even more ready to welcome Christ when he comes. As precious metals are purified by fire, so our faith is strengthened by the trials we experience in our living it out. Experience has shown again and again that persecution has been a strong reinforcer of faith in Christians. Jesus foretold that his followers would constantly face resistance, contempt and persecution. It is not something to be deliberately sought or provoked but at the same time it is one of the signs of our commitment to the Kingdom and the Way of the Gospel. The true Christian will always be seen as a ‘sign of contradiction’ and hence a challenge to conventional wisdom and political correctness.

Peter, who himself had a personal knowledge of Jesus, is presented here as praising the readers of the letter, who, “although you have never seen him, you love him, and without seeing him, you now believe in him”. It reminds one of the words of Jesus to Thomas after the resurrection: “Blessed are those who have not seen but have believed” (John 20:29). Through our faith, we are in direct contact with Jesus. The true believer makes contact with Jesus in every person and every experience.

So, they have reason to “rejoice with inexpressible joy” because they are achieving the goal of faith - and indeed the goal of life - their salvation. “Salvation” means much more than “going to heaven” after we die. It implies a restoration of our fragile and weak lives to complete wholeness and in being totally reunited in joy and peace with him from whom we came - God our Creator. And it begins in this life on earth.

Joy and consolation should be the over-riding experience of the committed follower of Jesus. This joy and consolation is not taken away by our experience of hardships, testings and disappointments in our lives. Quite the contrary.
If that joy is not the deeper part of our Christian experience, then we need to look further for the cause.

+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 111
The Lord will remember his covenant for ever.
He has given food to those who fear him;
he will forever be mindful of his covenant.
He has made known to his people the power of his works,
giving them the inheritance of the nations.
The Lord will remember his covenant for ever.
He has sent deliverance to his people;
he has ratified his covenant forever;
holy and awesome is his name.
His praise endures forever.
The Lord will remember his covenant for ever.
+++    +++    +++    +++
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 men it is impossible, but not for God.
All things are possible for God.”
Today we have the story of a rich man, that is, a man who believed he was rich or who believed that in his material wealth was his happiness. He was a well-meaning man. “Good Teacher, what must I do to share in everlasting life?” You know the commandments,” says Jesus and then proceeds to list only those commandments which involve our relations with others, omitting those relating directly to God: not killing; not committing adultery; not stealing; not bearing false witness; not defrauding; respecting parents.

“I have kept all these things since I was young,” says the man. He was indeed a good man insofar as he did respect his parents and he did not do any of the sinful things mentioned.

Jesus looked at the man with a real love. This is not a love of affection or attraction. It is the love of agape a love which desires the best possible thing for the other. This man was good but Jesus wanted him to be even better. So he said to him: “But there is one more thing: go and sell all you have and give to the poor. After that come and follow me.”

On hearing this, the man’s face clouded over. He walked slowly away full of sadness because he was very rich. Jesus had asked him for the one thing he could not give up.

Had asked for the one thing which the man believed showed he was specially blessed by God. He had not expected this.

After he had gone Jesus looked at his disciples and said: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Now it was his disciples’ turn to be alarmed and shocked.

Their whole tradition believed that wealth was a clear sign of God’s blessings; poverty was a curse from God.

Jesus removes any misunderstanding on their part: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” In other words, quite impossible. This was really too much for them. “In that case,” they asked each other, “who can be saved?” If those who have done well in this life cannot be saved what hope can there be for the losers? It would take them time to learn the truth of Jesus’ words. And it is a lesson that many of us Christians still have to learn.

And we might ask, Why is it so difficult for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God? Is there something wrong with being rich? The answer depends on what meaning we give to ‘rich’ and to ‘Kingdom of God’.

A person at a lower middle class level in Europe or the United States may be extremely wealthy with the same resources if living in some African or Asian countries. Similarly a ‘rich’ peasant in a remote village may live a life that is primitive compared to a family on welfare in Europe.

When Jesus uses the word ‘rich’ he means a person who has more, a lot more, than those around him and especially when many of those around him do not have enough for their basic needs. For a person to cling to their material goods in such a situation, to enjoy a relatively luxurious standard of living while those around are deficient in food and housing is in contradiction to everything that Jesus and the Kingdom stand for.

And we need to emphasise that the ‘Kingdom of God’ here is not referring to a future life in ‘heaven’. Jesus is not saying that a rich person cannot go to heaven. He is concerned with how the rich person is living now. The Kingdom is a situation, a set of relationships where truth and integrity, love and compassion and justice and the sharing of goods prevail, where people take care of each other.

The man in the story said that he kept the commandments. One should notice that, except for one, all are expressed negatively. The man could observe several of them by doing nothing! Jesus was asking him to do something very positive, namely, to share his prosperity with his brothers and sisters in need. That he was not prepared to do. As such, he was not ready for the kingdom. He could not be a follower of Jesus. Nor can anyone else who is in a similar situation.

We might also add that the teaching applies not only to individuals but to communities and even nations. There are countries in the world today enjoying very high levels of prosperity with all kinds of consumer luxuries available while a very large proportion of the rest of the world lives mired in poverty, hunger, disease. It is one of the major scandals of our day. This is not a Kingdom situation and much of it is caused not by an uncaring God, or natural causes but by human beings who just refuse to share their surplus wealth. As someone has said, the really rich are those whose needs are the least.

A final reflection. We may feel that, in our society, we personally could by no stretch of the imagination be called rich and so the story does not apply to us. But we can cling to other things besides money. I might profitably ask myself today if there is anything at all in my life which I would find it very difficult to give up if God asked it of me. It might be a relationship, it might be a job or position, it might be good health.

To be a disciple Jesus means that he is asking me to follow him unconditionally, without any strings, ready to let go of anything and everything (although he may not actually ask me to do so). It is the readiness that counts. The man in the story did not even seem to have that.

Can a Catholic be a millionaire? What do you think? What do you think Jesus’ answer would be?


Sarah in the tent said...

Although Jesus only lists the social commandments to the young man, his preliminary question 'Why do you call me good? No-one is good but God alone.' could be seen as standing for the first few commandments that define our proper relationship with God.

'Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor'

Jesus didn't tell him to give his stuff directly to the poor, he had to sell it. I can imagine that this young man in a hurry was a dynamic salesman, but selling stuff is not always easy. Land especially was problematic for Jews, because it was supposed to revert to its original owners. The young man, trying to generate money for the poor, might find himself selling leases on his vineyards, perhaps being paid in futures on boats coming in, maybe even devoting the profits to a charitable foundation. Selling everything you have and giving the money to the poor doesn't necessarily mean becoming poor yourself - it could mean using your wealth generating gifts to support those less fortunate.

In the 19th century, Quaker businessmen applied this business model very successfully and their names are still famous brands: Kellogg and Carnegie in the US, Cadbury, Rowntree and Quaker in the UK. I expect there are more. They cared about the welfare of their workers and wanted their products and profits to improve the life chances of the poor (Rowntree and Cadbury made cheap sweets to wean the British worker off the demon drink - with unexpected consequences for British teeth!)

Anonymous said...

Why sure a Catholic can be a millionaire. So can a Protestant, Methodist, Baptist, etc. Any one of them has obviously been given the gifts needed to accomplish their becoming a millionaire, whether it is financial aptitude, economic foresight, a good work ethic etc. Shame if they don’t use it (or shame if they abuse it) to become the millionaire.

To be ready to let go of anything and everything only scratches the surface of the issue because what you are ultimately faced with is the letting go of “ownership” . I think he realized that to sell all that he had and give it away would mean the “ownership” that had become the very definition of who he was - worthy, blessed by God, secure, a clear purpose, etc - was on the verge of becoming extinct. In that instant, how he perceived himself if he did what Jesus asked must have looked very “blank” indeed. He couldn’t “see” beyond into agape.

But Jesus could, from that day right up to our own present one. The end of that rich man’s encounter with Jesus became another beginning of our own encounter with Jesus. Agape at its finest. No wonder Jesus looked at the man with a real love.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Today’s gospel points to an aspect of the teaching of Jesus that is often misunderstood, just as the Old Testament proverb sometimes cited n this context is often misquoted. The Scripture does not tell us that “Money is the root of all evil”, but “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Jesus in the gospel commends the young man for his understanding and observance of the Commandments – including “you shall not steal”. But then, he invites him to join the company of his disciples, “Go, sell what you have; then come, follow me”, an invitation that the young man turned down.

Both Sarah and the Anonymous poster show us the other side of the coin: many business moguls on both shores of the Atlantic – and throughout the world – have not only been charitable with their personal wherewithal, but have established institutions in which and through which both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy have been performed in exemplary fashion.

The call to give up all of one’s possessions was not made to every hearer of the word of Jesus in his own time, nor is it made to every Christian in our times. It is possible, although it is not written, that the young man heard the call [perhaps the voice of the Holy Spirit, rather than the voice of Jesus] again later and followed it then. There is no doubt that each of us is reminded frequently – one might even say constantly – to make the best of choices in every circumstance. The Law of Moses was expressed, for the most part, in negative terms: “You shall not …” prefaces all of the commandments but one: “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.” The “New Law” given to us by Jesus is expressed clearly in positive terms: “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you. Greater love than this no one has, but to give one’s life for one’s friend.” The Greek reads “give”, not “lose”, as do some translations. To give one’s life for another rarely requires the death of the donor; but it always requires us to put the wellbeing of others ahead of our own. At the end of the day, some might find that very costly.