Commentary on Wisdom 7:7-11; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30
THE MAN WHO comes up to Jesus in today’s Gospel is clearly a very good person but it is clear that he has serious deficiencies where the Gospel is concerned. He thinks it is enough to be a morally good person but the Gospel demands more than that.
Even his opening question indicates a certain self-centredness – “What must I do to gain eternal life?" As far as his "salvation" is concerned other people do not enter the matter.
Ten Commandments enough?
Jesus at first replies by reminding him to observe the Ten Commandments. These commandments, of course, do involve relations with other people but, in this case and very often in our case too, the emphasis is on what we do rather than on what happens to others. That is revealed in the way we make our sacramental "confessions". “I was not at Mass on Sunday…, I disobeyed my parents…, I stole money…, I had lustful thoughts… or did ‘bad actions’…, I gossiped…, I was jealous or envious…” It is a litany of personal failure and no mention of faulty relationships with others, a failure to love. Love or compassion are never mentioned. I am sorry because I broke rules and I have disappointed my self image.
The young man, in all sincerity we can take it, says that he has constantly observed these commandments. Maybe he was expecting to be told that that was all he needed to do. If that was the case he was in for a disappointment.
Where perfection lies
"If you would be perfect" – and earlier Matthew has quoted Jesus as saying to his followers, ‘Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect’ – “then sell everything you have and give it to the poor."
In so speaking Jesus was doing a number of things:
- He was zeroing in on the young man’s weakest point. Up to this it probably had never struck the man that wealth and religious perfection could possibly be in conflict with each other. The man had asked for perfection and Jesus was asking him to give up the one thing he may even have thought was a clear sign of God’s blessing. (cf. the reaction of the disciples immediately after this story.)
- Jesus was making it clear that personal moral perfection is not enough to follow the Gospel and be a member of the Kingdom. To be a follower of Christ one must become a partner with God in the creative work of building the Kingdom, a complex of mutual relationships based on truth, love, respect, and justice.
- The man is not told just to give alms generously to the poor. He is told to sell all his property and give it to the poor. The Gospel is not about giving donations from one’s surplus; it is about sharing what one has with one’s brother and sister.
If I have 100 dollars/euros and I give 10 dollars/eurs or even 20 dollars/eurs to the needy, that is alms or "charity". But if I give at least 50, that is sharing. The Gospel is really only interested in sharing, not just in almsgiving. In almsgiving, poverty is temporarily alleviated but not removed. In sharing, there is a solidarity.
This is the meaning of the story of the feeding of the 5,000 in the desert. It is the meaning of the Eucharist which we are now celebrating. In the Eucharist, we do not "receive" Jesus in "communion". We are expressing a solidarity of sharing by eating together from one loaf, which represents all that we as a community have and are.
As such we would have to admit that most of our Eucharists are, strictly speaking, a form of sacrilege and blasphemy as many of us have no intention whatever of doing anything of the sort.
Difficult for the rich to “enter heaven”
And this is the point that Jesus brings up with his disciples afterwards. After the rich man had gone away, unable to part with his wealth, Jesus commented on how difficult it was for the rich to enter the Reign of God. Being rich, by definition, does not just mean having a lot. It means having a lot more than others where, among those others, there are many who do not have enough. Wealth and poverty are relative to each other. An ordinary middle class person in a modern city today enjoys amenities that would have been completely unknown even to the very wealthy of another age. A peasant regarded as very wealthy in a backward rural area may not have as much as a factory worker in Detroit or Birmingham.
Nevertheless, the disciples are shocked by Jesus’ words. To them wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and, as such, highly desirable. If the rich cannot be saved, who can be? they ask. Jesus only emphasised his point by saying that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to belong to the Reign of God.
What about those who have left all for Jesus?
Then they begin to see the other side of the picture. They themselves are far from being rich. And now they have gone further. They have given up everything to be with Jesus: their families, their profession and the instruments of their work. Yes, indeed, there is something for them. To follow Jesus is not to enter into a kind of emptiness. On the contrary, by following his Way they will enjoy an abundance of blessings. This is not just a pie in the sky promise.
The followers of Jesus are to be bonded in a close fellowship founded on mutual love, care and compassion. A community where everything is shared, where my/our main concern is to see that the needs of brothers and sisters are taken care of. When we all give, we all receive. This was what the rich man in the story – and those who cling to wealth in every age – do not understand. It is, alas, a lesson that has not been put into practice very much in the Church, let alone in the wider society. At its best, religious life is an attempt to put this Gospel vision into practice but here, too, legalism has often stifled the spirit. Oddly enough, atheistic Marxism was an effort to implement the spirit of the Gospel in its slogan of “To each according to their need; from each according to their ability”. I don’t think Jesus would have quarrelled with that; it is exactly the vision presented in today’s Gospel. It was not the Marxist slogan that was at fault but the horrendous way some people went about making it a reality.
So Jesus tells his disciples that having left father, mother, brothers and sisters, and their home and material goods, they have found in the community an abundance of "houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and property". And it happens in this life. And, in that sense, Marx had it wrong. Christianity is not an opium, a kind of drug to help people forget their sufferings by longing for a future happiness. What Jesus is saying is supposed to happen now. And it can happen now if we have the will to put it into effect.
What we need is not wealth but the wisdom of which the First Reading speaks. It is wisdom which brings us a deep insight into the really important values in life. To have such wisdom is real wealth because it opens the key to happiness and security. And is not that which we all long for?
It might be no harm for us to reflect to what degree this vision of Jesus is a reality in our parish community. To what extent do we really care for each other and share our resources?