Fr. Roger J. Landry
Church of the Holy Family, Manhattan
28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
October 11, 2015
Wis 7:7-11, Ps 90, Heb 4:12-13, Mk 10:17-30
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
The Value of Wisdom
As a young king of the Lord’s people, Solomon pleased the Lord very much. One night God appeared to Solomon and told him to ask for whatever he wanted from the Lord. Solomon could have gotten anything he wanted. We might ask ourselves what we would ask for if the Lord queried us in the same way. Solomon asked not for power, or money, or health, or a long life, or even a beautiful queen, but for wisdom. In today’s first reading, Solomon shows us that, to some degree, he was already wise in asking for what he did. “I preferred [wisdom] to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. … I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases.” This real wisdom was a gift from God to make right judgments, to choose well, to order decision on earth in accordance with the way things really are, made that way by God.
This is the prayer we all asked for in the responsorial psalm today. We begged God, “Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain wisdom of heart.” We asked him for the grace to help us see how in each of days, including in the hardest ones, God was there, forming us, helping us, passing on to us a wisdom not of this world. “Make us glad,” we asked, “glad for the days when you afflicted us, for the years when we saw evil.” This type of wisdom would reach its culmination, St. Paul would tell us, in “Christ Crucified,” who is a “ stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Christ Crucified would become the wisdom of God and he would call us to follow him along that cruciform path of wisdom. He would tell us, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his Cross daily, and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Jesus wants us, like Solomon, to prefer this wisdom to scepters and thrones, to account wealth as nothing in comparison, to love it more than health and beauty, even than light. He wants to give us this wisdom. But this wisdom doesn’t come on the cheap. We have to treat it like the pearl of great price, the treasure buried in a field, worth sacrificing all we have to get it — because this relationship with God and the way it changes us is worth far more than everything else in the world.
This helps us to understand the great drama that takes place in today’s Gospel in Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man. This was a good man. He had kept the commandments of the Lord from a young age. He was concerned about the deepest and most important questions, like the one he asked Jesus, “What good must I do to inherit eternal life?” He already had some faith in Jesus, coming to him not just as a rabbi who knew a lot but as a “Good Teacher,” whose whole bearing intrigued him to approach and ask about the way he should live in order to live for ever. He also recognized that, despite all his material wealth, despite even his moral goodness, there was something missing in his life. His heart yearned for something more. He knew he was called to something greater. He grasped that the life God intended for us had to consist in so much more than merely not breaking the Decalogue. And so he asked in St. Matthew’s account of the same scene, “What do I lack?” Jesus looked at him with love and gave him the challenging, brutally honest, direct answer to his question, “You lack one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me!” It was a highly paradoxical answer. What he lacked was precisely that he had too much. He lacked total detachment from substitutes so that he could attach himself to the Absolute. He had previously lived a good life, but Jesus was now calling him to greatness. He already had some faith in Jesus as a “good Teacher” who was reflecting the goodness of God alone, but Jesus was now calling him to an upgrade in faith, a total commitment. He had previously kept the “second tablet” of the Ten Commandments, all about love of neighbor, but now Jesus was calling him to a much more radical following of both tablets of Decalogue: to love his neighbor to the point of using all his possessions to care for them and to loving God to the point of accounting him more valuable that all his possessions and following him on the path of total-self-giving love.
St. Therese of Lisieux, the great doctor of the Church who never even attended high school — and therefore a tremendous example of one who was enriched with a wisdom from God that you can’t learn by devouring even all the titles in the Library of Congress — taught us that we grow in the spiritual life by subtraction, not by addition. Once a novice sighed in her presence, “When I think of everything I still have to acquire!” The Little Flower replied, “You mean, to lose! Jesus takes it upon himself to fill your soul in the measure that you rid it of its imperfections. I see that you have taken the wrong road; you will never arrive at the end of your journey. You are wanting to climb a great mountain and the good God is trying to make you descend it; he is waiting for you at the bottom in the fertile valley of humility.” The Rich Young Man needed to learn this lesson. Unfortunately he wasn’t ready for the challenge that spiritual perfection requires because he had so many possessions that owned him. He looked at the path of holiness as something he could add on to what he already had, whereas it was an emptying precisely so that Christ could fill him. The Lord is always asking us to let go of many of his gifts in order to help us to recognize that the greatest gift of all is the Giver.
Letting Go of our Greed and Finding Security in Mammon
The Rich Young Man got the answer to the question that was erupting from the depths of his being, but he didn’t like it. In fact, St. Mark tells us, “He was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” In the second reading, it says that the “word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing until it divides… joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The word of God pierced right into the young man’s heart and exposed what, in the ultimate analysis, real wisdom was for him. And it wasn’t God. When given a choice between God’s Wisdom Incarnate and his money, the young man chose the money, and went away sad, because he was still lacking something, which, with all his wealth, left him consciously imperfect and incomplete. The choice of this rich young man was in stark contrast to that of Solomon, who preferred God’s wisdom to all wealth. This young man couldn’t give up the wealth to follow the Creator of every earthly treasure. Without a doubt, the young man was thinking he could both have his money and have what he was lacking. But Jesus said very clearly at another time, “You cannot serve two masters. You will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Mt 6:24).
There’s a story that an African priest tells about how hunters catch monkeys in his country that illustrates this central truth very well. The hunters start by slicing a coconut in two and hollowing it out. In one half of the shell they cut a hole just big enough for a monkey’s hand to pass through; in the other they place an large orange. Then they tie the two halves together, hang the coconut from a tree, and retire into the bushes to wait. Sooner or later a monkey swings by, smells the orange inside the coconut, and slips his hand through the hole trying to extract his prize. Naturally he fails. While the monkey is struggling with the orange, the hunters approach and capture the monkey by throwing a net over it. As long as the monkey keeps its fist wrapped around the orange, the monkey is trapped. The animal is not smart enough to realize that he cannot have both the orange and his freedom. He could save himself simply by letting go of the orange. But the animal is trapped by his own greed.
For human beings, we can similarly be trapped by our own hanging on to our money. Rather than a coconut, Jesus uses the image of a needle and says that we’ll never be able to pass through the eye of the needle into the kingdom of heaven as long as we’re still grasping onto the fruit of our labor. It’s not that material wealth or possessions are bad in themselves; in fact they’re blessings. The harm comes when we start to become attached to them, when they begin to own us rather than our stewarding them as gifts of God. St. Paul says, not that money is the root of all evil, but “the love of money is the root of all evil and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Tim 6:10). He calls greed “idolatry” (Col 3;5). Money, in other words, can easily become our anti-god, which we can begin to worship. Our faith, hope and love — which should always be directed to God — can be transferred to money. “Everything is possible for the one with money,” one can begin to believe. One can start to place his security and his heart in earthly mammon. Like with the Rich Young Man in the Gospel, the person who puts his treasure in earthly mammon isn’t necessarily one we’d define as evil. He may even keep the ten commandments like the Rich Young Man said he did from his youth. The lover of wealth in this world might even consider God really important, but for him, God is not God. God is not the most important thing in his life. Like with the Rich Young Man, when it comes to the time when he has to make a choice, to part with his money or to serve Christ, he chooses his money. He chooses to sell off Christ and give his time, his talents and his energies to storing up for himself an earthly treasure. And, like the Rich Young Man, he will remain sad, because happiness is something that even all the money in the world cannot buy.
So what is a rich man to do? And frankly, almost all of us are rich in relation to the vast majority of people in the world, so what Jesus says in today’s Gospel applies to each one of us. Jesus’ disciples were “exceeding astonished” at the severity of Christ’s statement and asked, “Then who can be saved?” We ourselves can ask, “Do any of us have a chance, or are we like camels before a microscopic hole?” Jesus says in the Gospel that God makes it possible for us to be saved. Jesus shows us the way, but those looking for an easy way are going to be disappointed: “Go, sell what you have, give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
How to Give Away Our Money
Some preachers have done harm to people by trying to water-down the stark and challenging three-fold imperative of Jesus. But other preachers have perhaps done more harm, because they have interpreted what Jesus said in a univocal way, saying that what the Lord is asking of us, with all our responsibilities, is to go down to the local pawn shop, get rid of all our stuff, and then go give it in lump sums to individual poor people, or the St. Vincent de Paul Society, or the Food Pantry, or the Salvation Army. It all comes down to what the Lord means by “selling what you have.” What he’s getting at is spending our money, putting our resources at the service of love of others. There are many ways to give this money away. We give it away when we use it to support — not spoil — the members of our family. We give it away, when, if we’re, for example, a business owner, when we use our capital to create jobs so that people can have work and support themselves and their loved ones. Such people also give away when they pay not just a fair wage but a generous wage to their loyal employees, so that they can make ends meet more easily. We give it away when we give it to the Church Christ founded to support the apostolic works of God. And we give it away when we put it into the hands of Christ in the disguise of the poor and needy around us and around the world. It is by emptying ourselves of all greed, of giving ourselves and what God has given us out of love to others, that we become capable of receiving what the Lord wants to give us. It is only then, when we’re no longer attached to any earthly idols that we can sing in truth what we chanted in today’s Responsorial Psalm, “Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing with joy.”
The Lord said that when he comes at the end of time to judge each of us, we’re not going to be able to buy him off. He’s going to judge us on the basis of our actions of love. “For I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, naked and you clothed me, ill and you comforted me, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:31-46). He said that whatever we do — or fail to do — for the least of his and our brothers and sisters, he takes personally. In order for the material wealth we have not to become curses bringing us down, but rather blessings bringing us an eternal treasure, we have to transfer the funds, not to a Swiss bank account, not to the Cayman Islands, but to heaven, by putting these blessings, directly or indirectly, into the hands of Christ disguised in others. There are so many opportunities for us to transfer those funds. But we have to ask God intelligently in prayer, “How, Lord, should I best give away the material blessings you have given me?”
We can add that the chief practical problem for the lover of wealth in this world is not loving God, per se — because conceptually most of us would say we do love God even when we sacrifice very little for him — but loving our neighbor with genuine sacrificial love. spend our resources for others, who might not even say thanks, simply out of love for them requires great faith in God and great love. The Lord knows it’s hard, but with him all things are possible. And he never says to us, merely, “Do what I say,” but always “follow me.” He’s shown us the example, divesting himself of heaven, taking on the form of a mere servant, emptying himself of everything to give himself over to us, even to the last drop of his blood (Philippians 2:6-7). Surely if God can love others enough to give his life for them, then, if we truly love him, then we will love others enough to give to them generously of the material blessings God has lent to us. And the same applies to the time and to the talents God has given to us.
Treasuring the Kingdom
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” we sang in today’s Alleluia acclamation, “for theirs is the kingdom of God.” The poor in spirit may in fact be very wealthy, but they’re the ones who put their treasure in God, place their hearts at the service of God’s kingdom. The best place for us to begin to become poorer in spirit, to treasure ever more effectively this kingdom, is here at Mass. In the Mass, we see behold, participate in and receive, the greatest wisdom of all, the wisdom that comes from Christ crucified who calls us to follow him along the path that leads here to this altar and from the altar to giving our body and blood, and our time, talents, and treasure out of love for others (1 Cor 1 22-24). At this Mass, as in every Mass, the Lord gives us a choice, a choice between his wisdom and worldly wisdom, between an earthly treasure and an eternal treasure, which moths can’t destroy, rust corrode, or IRS agents take away. The apostles left everything to follow the Lord, putting their whole lives at God’s service. What’s our response going to be?
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 WIS 7:7-11
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
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 2 HEB 4:12-13
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.
Alleluia MT 5:3
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel MK 10:17-30
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.”