Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
28th Sunday of OT, Year B
October 15, 2006
Wis 7:7-11; Heb 4:12-13; Mk 10:17-30
1) 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 choices on earth in accordance with the way things really are, made that way by God. Jesus would say the wisdom of the Kingdom of heaven is like a precious pearl or a field with a buried treasure worth selling everything else we own to obtain.
2) In today’s Gospel, Jesus applies very concretely what that divine wisdom is in terms of perhaps the most important question anyone of us could ask: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies first by listing the commandments, which are applications of God’s wisdom to our moral decisions, so that we might always choose the path leading to heaven. Often we do not look at the commandments that way, as God’s care manual for the proper functioning of his most beloved creature, but the commandments are expressions of God’s wisdom to teach us how to love in truth. Jesus, Divine Wisdom incarnate, recognizes, however, that merely keeping the commandments will not be enough for us to receive everything God wants to give us in this world. In St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says to the Rich Young Man, “You lack one thing.” In St. Matthew’s, the young man says, “What more must I do?” and the Lord responds, “If you wish to be perfect…” (Mt 19:20-21). Jesus knew that, despite all his riches, the young person was missing something in order to come to genuine human completion. Divine wisdom then indicated what would satisfy his true God-made longings, what would help him to become fully whom God created us to be: “Go, sell what you have, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
3) 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).
4) 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.
5) 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.
6) 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.”
7) 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.”
8 ) 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?”
9) 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.
10) “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” we sang in today’s Gospel 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. St. Paul said the pagans searched for worldly wisdom, the Jews for signs, but Christians the power and the wisdom of God in Christ crucified (1 Cor 22:24). In the Mass we participate live through eternity in the Last Supper and stand at the foot of the Cross, on which Christ gave of himself completely for those he loved. He did it all so that we might gain an eternal treasure. But he told us to pick up our cross of similar self-sacrificial love and follow him all the way. 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?