TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2018)
If we had the opportunity that the man in today’s gospel had, to speak to Jesus face-to-face and ask him a question, what might we ask the Lord? Would our primary concern be that of the anonymous individual in the gospel? Would we ask Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life”? If only our primary concern was understanding the requirements for entrance into eternal life. Truth be told, we seldom think that far ahead.
The gospel account for this twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time appears to be in three interrelated parts: a narrative about Jesus’ encounter with a man who had “many possessions,” Jesus’ teaching about “wealth” as a possible obstacle to following Him, and Jesus’ promise of a reward for those who share their material possessions. The conversation with the inquisitive man serves as a corrective to those who might think that merely following the Law suffices for entrance into eternal life. Jesus’ selection of six out of Ten Commandments, all of which deal with relationships, signals the importance of our dealings with others. One’s profession of faith, while important, is not as critical as how we actually treat one another. It is not as if the man in the gospel was doing anything particularly wrong; he just wasn’t doing enough. Jesus tried to challenge the man to something greater – selling what he has and giving it to the poor. At that time the man could not bring himself to do that because, as the gospel tells us, “he had many possessions,” and so the man “went away sad.” It is important to note that he was not rejected by Jesus, nor chastised by Jesus. Indeed, as the gospel states, Jesus “loved him,” and He no doubt continued to love him even though he could not take that extra step and part with/share some of his worldly goods.
Perhaps it was the encounter with this rich man which gave Jesus the opportunity to speak about the problem, or challenge, of wealth. Jesus is not so much aiming His criticism at “rich people,” as much as He is highlighting “how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” His hyperbolic language of a “camel” passing through “the eye of a needle” is meant to describe the level of difficulty of the rich entering the Kingdom. It is next to impossible, but God can bring it about, because “all things are possible for God.”
Jesus’ promise of a reward for sharing one’s material goods “for my sake and the sake of the gospel” is not overwhelmingly persuasive given the inclusion of “persecutions” in the reward. Remember, it was Peter who, only a few chapters previous, protests the suffering and death predicted by Jesus. It is unlikely that the promise of “persecutions” would be an attractive possibility for any of Jesus’ closest disciples. It’s inclusion is, no doubt, an indication of the present reality at the time the gospel was being compiled.
The caution Jesus advises with regards to riches shows his remarkable insight into human nature. It is not as though riches and worldly goods are evil in and of themselves. It is on account of their potential to distract us from that which is most important that Jesus finds the possibility of a rich man entering the Kingdom to be so low. Jesus recognizes that we, like the Jewish people and the golden calf, have the potential to make idols out of our worldly goods. Furthermore, our success and self-worth are often times measured according to our ability to accumulate riches, and accumulating can only be accomplished when there is little to no sharing.
That which is most important in life is not the things of this world. Rather, like the wisdom spoken of so beautifully in our first reading from Wisdom, what is most important in life is not gold or riches. It is the love of and for God that is most important, and if we truly value that love above all things it will cause us to share what we have with our brothers and sisters, especially those with extraordinary needs. Our psalm response proclaims “fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!” It is God’s love for us that is most important during our earthly sojourn, and it is, above all, that love that can save our broken souls, for “all things are possible for God.”