Keep the commandments
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 14, 2012 (28B)
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS
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We have for our Gospel today the wonderful account of the rich young man and his encounter with Jesus.
This incident is common to the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). If you want to read an extended commentary on Matthew’s version then go no further than Pope John Paul’s Encyclical Veritatis in Splendor of 1993 which gives in chapter one the Pope’s own reflections on this marvellous story from the Gospels.
The question of the young man is also our question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? And the answer of Jesus to the young man is also his answer to us: Keep the commandments.
Jesus lists the commandments for him and even adds one in which is not in the Ten Commandments—You must not defraud. I suppose he adds this to show that the young man’s wealth was achieved honestly and that he was entirely blameless.
The fact that the young man ran up to Jesus is also to illustrate his enthusiasm and heighten the fact of his goodness. The young man says that he is keeping the commandments. He is obviously living a moral life, a life of integrity. And like the young man we have no real difficulty in accepting the commandments, for they are the basic rules of life for anyone who wants to call themselves a Christian.
But then comes the rub. Jesus says to him: There is one thing you lack, go sell everything you have give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, then come follow me. Even Jesus later acknowledges to his disciples that this is very difficult: How hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God.
Jesus is saying that even wealth can become an encumbrance to the life of a Christian. We tend to think of wealth as liberating—why else would so many people buy lottery tickets each week? We think of poverty and problems of every kind preoccupying us. Surely if we had the money we wouldn’t have to go to work, we wouldn’t have to worry about anything and we could devote ourselves to studying the scriptures and to prayer. But it never seems to work like that, does it?
Jesus is telling us that anything, even wealth, can be a distraction from true discipleship.
The disciples, however, have done precisely what Christ asked of them. They left everything they had and quite literally followed him. This is what those who enter a religious order do even today. You give up the possibility of marriage, of a career, of a salary and you devote yourself to prayer and to witnessing to the Good News.
But the apostles, as we have often seen, were slow on the uptake and jockeying for position and when-push-came-to-shove even managed to deny Christ. So even doing this one thing that the rich young man lacked—leaving everything and following Christ—does not guarantee entry to the Kingdom.
With the very best of intentions we still manage to let ourselves down. For example those of us who have entered the priesthood or the religious life are still very human, still prey to envy and despite many sacrifices still fall down on the job.
Jesus tells the apostles, in the memorable phrase: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.
This is a grotesque image and probably because it is so grotesque we can be fairly certain that Jesus said it. Some have suggested that it was a copyist’s error because if you transpose one of the Greek letters the word for camel becomes the word for rope. Others relying on a note in a 9th century commentary say that the needle was a very small gate in the Jerusalem city wall.
People can try to explain it away but it is futile to do so. Jesus is asserting the utter impossibility of attaining heaven through one’s own efforts—that’s the point and the bizarreness of the image he uses merely strengthens his point.
The apostles were right to say: In that case who can be saved? And we could and probably would say exactly the same thing.
The truth that Jesus teaches is that it is impossible for any of us to get to heaven by our own efforts. Yes we are bound to keep the commandments and some are called to the more radical form of discipleship like the apostles through entering a religious order or some such equivalent. But only divine grace can enable us to enter the Kingdom of God.
Entry to the Kingdom is entirely in the free gift of God. There is nothing we can do which will earn us entry to the Kingdom.
Yes, God will, as Jesus says, reward us a hundred-fold for the sacrifices we make on his behalf. But these sacrifices are quite unacceptable if they are made merely to earn our way into heaven. When made for love, when made as an expression of true faith in God, when made freely and generously without thought of reward only then they will gain us the treasure we seek.
Even though this sounds like the Catch 22 of the Gospels it isn’t really. Jesus is only testing our motives, he wants us to love him without strings attached. He wants us to love him for his own sake.
So we are invited to step into the unknown, invited to take the plunge of faith, invited to commit our whole lives to God freely and without thought of reward.
We are invited to do no less than to imitate Christ himself. And what did Christ do? He took the plunge and came down from his place in heaven to enter our world and take on human form. And he allowed himself to be subjected to all the idiocy, ridicule and meanness our fellow human beings could impose on him.
He asks us to take a similar plunge, to leave our human world-view to renounce ourselves and to do things his way. This too will earn us ridicule and will put us under attack from those around us.
But we will be free; we will be living a new kind of life, a life in the Spirit. We will be living a life of love, a life without dependence on material things, a life without worry because we have placed our entire reliance on Divine Providence.
This is the kind of life the Saints live; it is the kind of life we ought to live.