In Pursuit of Eternal Life

28th Sunday Ordinary Time.
Cycle B.
Wisdom 7: 7-11
Mark 10: 17-30

Tony Van Vuuren

When we describe a person as “wise,” we don’t usually mean them to be sitting around on a mountaintop studying books and contemplating their navel. A truly wise person is one who can give us guidance in solving a problem; help us resolve a conflict, or guide us in setting lifetime goals;
which is the way our Jewish ancestors thought of Wisdom; as a practical gift that would help them: master a skill; gain self-control; live ethically; govern a people wisely (Solomon is a good example of that), etc. The Bible has a variety of Wisdom literature: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and today’s Book of Wisdom to name a few; and what is unique to biblical wisdom is the personification of Wisdom in feminine terms. (Sophia, in Greek)  In today’s selection from the Book of Wisdom, she is depicted as a guide helping the petitioner, Solomon, to follow God’s ways. He is not just praying for everyday prudence with which to make good choices. He wants something more; something only God can bestow on him…..hence the prayer. What good can riches be without the blessing of wisdom to direct one’s deepest longings and satisfy our appetites for personal fulfillment?

The New Testament picks up on the wisdom tradition. Jesus is shown in the Gospels as a wise person… a teacher… a rabbi. He offers a wisdom that gives eternal life to those who choose to respond to his call and follow him.
The rich young man wants exactly that — eternal life; but he has no notion of what it means. This is a poignant incident common to the three Synoptic Gospels. The young man’s question is also our question; what must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus’ answer to the young man is also His answer to us: “Keep the Commandments.”
 The young man might have thought he obeyed all the commandments and that this would give him instant acceptance, but Jesus looks at him with deep love and says there is one thing that he lacks and then challenges him to sell all that he has and give it to the poor. Jesus’ challenge exposes what was missing in the young man’s life; compassion for the poor and an unwillingness to give up and share his blessings with the needy. The disciples are shocked when Jesus once again turns a traditional Jewish belief upside down. Riches were considered a reward from God for good behavior and seen as a sign of God’s blessing; whereas if one were poor, then that person must have done something wrong not to deserve good fortune from God.
Jesus has asked the man to give up the very proof of what in society showed that he was favored by God. Jesus really did want this man to follow him and to be able to offer him the eternal life for which he was searching. Jesus wasn’t offering just unending life, but a deeper, more satisfying life than the man had ever known…..even with all his riches. The man’s reluctance to accept Jesus’ challenge reveals his inability to give up his material possessions, clinging to his earthly blessings. Jesus’ reaction to the rich man’s departure was disappointment. He saw in him what he sees in all of us…..the potential of leaving our old lives and becoming new people.
And so sadly the man walks away and Jesus uses the episode to instruct his disciples on the difficulty of entering the kingdom of heaven, using the memorable passage: “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God”.
By using such a vivid, grotesque exaggeration Jesus is asserting the absolute impossibility of anyone, let alone a rich man, of attaining heaven through one‘s own human efforts. Salvation is due solely to the power of God, through whom nothing is impossible.
The apostles were right to say: “In that case who can be saved?” And we would probably say exactly the same thing. The truth that Jesus teaches is that it is impossible for any of us to get to heaven by our own efforts. Yes we are bound to keep the commandments; but only divine grace can enable us to enter the Kingdom of God.
There is nothing we can do on our own which will earn us entry to the Kingdom. Yes, God will, as Jesus says, reward us a hundred-fold for the sacrifices we make on his behalf. But these sacrifices are less acceptable if they are made merely to earn our way into heaven. When made for love, when made as an expression of true faith in God, when made freely and generously without thought of reward, only then will they gain us the treasure we seek. Jesus wants us to love him without strings attached. He wants us to love him for his own sake. So we are invited to step into the unknown with our hands open, invited to take the plunge of faith, invited to commit our whole lives to God freely and without thought of reward. 
Jesus never condemns material wealth or earthly goods in themselves. After all some of his closest friends on earth must have been well off and lived comfortable lives. He never asked Mary and Martha to sell their home and follow him. Even the disciples were not asked to sell their fishing boats when called to follow him. Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man. The only person that Jesus is recorded as to have asked to give up his wealth and give it to the poor was the young man in today’s Gospel passage. And he turned Jesus down.
 Fr Cantalamessa  reflects that what Jesus condemns is exaggerated attachment to money and property; to make one’s life depend on these and to accumulate riches only for oneself. Money has the danger of creating an alternative world where Faith Hope and Charity are no longer placed in God, but in money.

Jesus’ encounter with the rich man and Jesus’ teaching on wealth issue a challenge to us this weekend. We live in a society which to a large extent measures success in terms of economic growth and power. A society that appears to reward the rich with more riches, and the have nots with even less. The danger is that our own values can centre on power, profit and property, and we can all become devoted disciples of consumerism driven by desires that will never be satisfied.
If our identity is locked into our possessions, who are we when our possessions are taken away from us? And this can happen so easily as we have seen in recent months. Like the rich man, attachment to our possessions can soon lead to us being possessed by our attachments. If this happens we are no longer free to accept Christ’s invitation when called to join him on the journey to salvation.
Jesus does not condemn wealth, but the inherent danger of wealth is simple to figure out. It can turn us into selfish people, insensitive to the pain of others. It can turn us into people who don’t care about the fate of the needy, who don’t give any thought to social justice.
Today Jesus is offering us a practical wisdom. While our world’s wisdom encourages us to grab for the “gold ring,” true wisdom lies in becoming his followers and putting aside everything else that hinders us from doing that. Following him means living as he did, with an open heart and hands for those in need. No one need feel guilty about working hard to support their families and save for their future. But today’s piece of gospel wisdom reminds us that we need to keep our eyes open for where eternal life waits for us.
For us, wisdom has become a person in Jesus. Wisdom was born in a manger and died on a cross;
Looking at Jesus, we see what it means to be poor in spirit, gentle and merciful, to mourn, to care for what is right, to be pure in heart, to make peace, to be persecuted. This is why he has the right to say to each of us, “Come, follow me!”
He does not say simply, “Do what I say.”
He says, “Come, follow me!”
Jesus looks intently and lovingly at each one of us and reminds us that life is to be had in its fullness not by accumulating wealth, honors, privileges, reputations, and prestige, but by letting go of things. Initially, his invitation might surprise, upset, shock, and grieve us;
but with God’s grace, may we realize Jesus’ words are living and effective!
Hopefully, we will not go away sad.
Thank you God for all that you have given me;
For all that you have taken away from me;
And for all that you have left for me;
Especially for the gift of my faith.

 

 

 

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