Monday, August 16, 2010

"Teacher, What Good Must I Do To Gain Eternal Life?" Jesus Answered: "Keep The Commandments."

Monday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Ezekiel 24:15-23
The word of the LORD came to me:
Son of man, by a sudden blow
I am taking away from you the delight of your eyes,
but do not mourn or weep or shed any tears.
Groan in silence, make no lament for the dead,
bind on your turban, put your sandals on your feet,
do not cover your beard,
and do not eat the customary bread.
That evening my wife died,
and the next morning
I did as I had been commanded.
Then the people asked me,
“Will you not tell us what all these things
that you are doing mean for us?”
I therefore spoke to the people that morning,
saying to them:
Thus the word of the LORD came to me:
Say to the house of Israel:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I will now desecrate my sanctuary,
the stronghold of your pride,
the delight of your eyes,
 the desire of your soul.
The sons and daughters you left behind
shall fall by the sword.
Ezekiel shall be a sign for you:
all that he did you shall do when it happens.
Thus you shall know that I am the LORD.
You shall do as I have done,
not covering your beards
nor eating the customary bread.
Your turbans shall remain on your heads,
your sandals on your feet.
You shall not mourn or weep,
but you shall rot away because of your sins
and groan one to another.
The death of the prophet’s wife becomes a symbol of how the people are to respond to the loss of their Temple.

God warns Ezekiel that he is going to lose his wife, the “delight of [his] eyes”, through sudden illness and death. She would be taken away by a “sudden blow”, a swiftly fatal disease, perhaps some form of plague.

However, when it happens, Ezekiel is to display none of the traditional forms of mourning but is to suffer his loss privately. He is not to mourn or weep. He is to groan in the silence of his own heart, not to lament the dead. He is to keep his turban fastened; it was normal for the mourner to uncover his head and put dust on it. He is to keep his sandals on and not to cover his beard (a gesture of shame or uncleanness). Nor is he to eat the customary bread, perhaps referring to a funeral meal in which neighbours would take part as an expression of sympathy and commiseration.

That very evening his wife died and Ezekiel told the people what he had been instructed to do. Not surprisingly, the people wanted to know the meaning of this rather unusual and unfeeling behaviour. Ezekiel then passes on the message that God had given him for the people.

The beloved sanctuary of God, the Temple, “the delight of your eyes” and “the passion of your souls”, is about to be desecrated, that is, burnt down by Nebuchadnezzar. When it happens, the people are to do what Ezekiel did after the death of his wife. Not that the citizens of Jerusalem are forbidden to lament their sins, but that there will simply be no time for mourning; the catastrophe will be too sudden and cataclysmic. Many, in fact, will simply be cut down by the Babylonian invaders. It will be the punishment for the people’s immorality and idolatries.

Ezekiel and his behaviour over the death of his wife is to be a sign for the people. “All that he did, you shall do when it happens.”

It is not the Temple they are to mourn for but for themselves and their failure to recognise that Yahweh is Lord. The loss of a building is something far less significant than the loss of their own integrity and wholeness.

Obviously, there is no teaching here to discourage people from mourning the loss of loved ones. Rather, the lesson is that we can become so focused on the loss of others that we fail to see how much should be mourned in our own lives because of our constant failure in our relationships with God and the living neighbour.
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Responsorial Psalm
Deuteronomy 32
You have forgotten God who gave you birth.
You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you.
You forgot the God who gave you birth.
When the LORD saw this, he was filled with loathing
and anger toward his sons and daughters.
You have forgotten God who gave you birth.
"I will hide my face from them,” he said,
“and see what will then become of them.
What a fickle race they are,
sons with no loyalty in them!”
You have forgotten God who gave you birth.
“Since they have provoked me with their ‘no-god’
and angered me with their vain idols,
I will provoke them with a ‘no-people’;
with a foolish nation I will anger them.”
You have forgotten God who gave you birth.
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Matthew 19:16-22
A young man approached Jesus and said,
“Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?”
He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good?
There is only One who is good.
If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
He asked him, “Which ones?”
And Jesus replied, “You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
honor your father and your mother;
and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The young man said to him,
“All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?”
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go,
sell what you have and give to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this statement,
he went away sad,
for he had many possessions.
We have here a story of a young man who did not have that simple trust of the child which Jesus spoke about in the immediately preceding passage. (Only Matthew describes him as ‘young’.)

He was apparently a good man, an unusually good man. He asks Jesus what he needs to do in order to have eternal life. However, he seemed to be operating out of the legalistic mind with the emphasis on external actions. For Jesus what we are is more important than what we do. The man also asked about ‘eternal life’. In Matthew (and in Mark and Luke) ‘eternal life’ is really synonymous with ‘entering the Kingdom of Heaven [God]' and ‘being saved’. It is to be totally taken up into God’s world and sharing God’s understanding of life.

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus asks him. “There is One alone who is good.” This seems to be a way of telling the man that goodness is not something merely external. The real source of goodness is inside, although, of course, it will flow out to the exterior. Is it also a way of asking the man who he really thinks Jesus is?

In any case, the man is told, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” As we have just said, to ‘enter into life’ is equivalent to entering the Kingdom. And Jesus mentions just four of the commandments, all touching on relationships with other people. And he adds, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

The man is not satisfied. “I have kept all these. What more do I need to do?” Jesus tells him that if he wants to be perfect then he should sell off everything he has, give it to the poor and then become a disciple of Jesus.

Obviously, the man was not expecting this. He was very rich and, although he wanted to serve God, he was not prepared to separate himself from the security of his wealth. And he walked away from Jesus full of sadness. It is an example of Jesus’ words earlier on that we cannot at the same time serve God and wealth.

To be rich is not just to have a lot of money. It is to have a lot more money than others and especially to have more money than one needs in a world where there are people who do not have enough for a life of dignity. And wealth is very relative: a person close to the poverty line in Europe could be seen as very rich in a remote African or Asian village.

So as long as the man had to cling to his money, he could not - as he claimed to be doing - be loving his neighbour as his own self. Clearly he was not yet ready for an unconditional following of Jesus. He was not able to follow the example of Peter and Andrew, James and John who left their boats, nets and family to go and put all their security with Jesus.

Before we think that this gospel does not particularly concern us because we do not see ourselves as numbered among the rich, we should listen to what Jesus is really saying.

He touched on the one thing that the man was not ready to give up - his money and all that it brought. But, if we are honest, we will admit that we all have some things we would be very slow to let go of. Things we would not like God to ask us to give up.

It might be a good exercise today for us to ask ourselves what would be the most difficult thing for us to give up if Jesus asked us to do so. It might be some thing we own like our house, or it might be a relationship, or our job, or our health. Whatever it is, it could be coming between us and our total following of Jesus. Do the things we own really own us?

Why not ask for the strength to be ready, if called on, to give it up? Only then do we know that we are truly free and truly followers of Jesus.

One final point. This story has been used in the past as an example of someone getting a special ‘vocation’. According to this view, all are expected to keep the commandments but only some are invited to follow a ‘counsel’, such as living a life of ‘poverty’, as members of religious institutes do. It would be quite wrong to see Jesus here suggesting two levels of living the Christian life. What is said here applies to every person who wants to follow Christ. All the baptised are called to the same level of service although there are different ways of doing this.*

The Irish Jesuits

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