October 14, 2018
TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Teach us to number our days aright
Sharper than any two-edged sword
A rich man seeks to follow
The author of the Book of Wisdom, written sometime in the first century B.C., adopts the persona of Solomon, famous for his wisdom and his wealth. Solomon prays for wisdom and receives wealth as well. This is not an unusual viewpoint in wisdom literature, since often among the ancients wisdom was seen as the key to negotiating a successful life. And the seal on a successful life was prosperity, measured in treasure. Much as in many quarters today.
The famous story in the Gospel of Mark also features a rich man. This person also seeks wisdom of a sort, for he asks Jesus the way to “eternal life.” As Mark tells the story, Jesus seems put off at first. He refers him to the Commandments as the guide to being a good person. But when he discovers the man has been faithful to these, and is still seeking further, he provides some additional advice — sell everything and “Come, follow me.”
You can recognize this as a “call story,” much like that of Peter, Andrew, James and John, at the lakeside (Mark 1:16-20), or that of Levi (2:13-14). They left everything and followed him.
But not this time. This is a failed call story. The man cannot manage to give up all of this. There is too much to give up. And it is more than a matter of possessions; it is also identity. He will no longer be the rich man — but who then will he be? It is too much, and “he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
The story doesn’t end here, however, for the disciples get into the picture. At that point we have the famous example of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. This is easier than a rich person entering the kingdom, says Jesus. Often we hear this explained in terms of a narrow city gate called “the Eye of the Needle.” Not likely. This seems to be a rationalization that would remove some of the outrageous exaggeration of the image. But perhaps that is part of the message. More likely is a typical Mideastern hyperbole, comparing the largest animal around with the smallest aperture. Still, the point is made.
The disciples wonder: Who then can be saved?
Another famous saying follows: “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
It’s possible that Jesus is saying that God will still allow one who is preoccupied with wealth to enter into the kingdom. Or he may mean that God is powerful enough to convince someone to give up that preoccupation for something greater. All things are possible with God, even prying someone away from their things.
The disciples are duly alarmed, apparently for what this means for them. Peter makes a point of emphasizing how much they have given up in order to follow Jesus. Jesus affirms that those who give up house, brothers or sisters, or mother or father, or children, or lands, for the sake of the gospel will receive that and more in the present age — along with persecutions. This might not be as reassuring as one would hope. But Jesus adds that beyond this present age, there is something more: in the coming age, eternal life.
And with that the passage comes to a completion with the answer to the question the rich man originally asked: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
For reflection: If Jesus is calling for detachment from material things, what does that mean?
Notice: On Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, at 6:30-8 p.m., I will be discussing my book “Jesus and His Enemies: Narrative Conflict in the Four Gospels” at Shalom Spirituality Center, 1001 Davis St., Dubuque, Iowa. Admission free.
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.