Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 14, 2018)
The rich man asks Jesus: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus first needs to address the word “good” to set his theme. He says that god alone is good. Jesus then presents several commandments not as things not to do or to do, but to help form the attitude to recognize God’s goodness, a necessity to receive our God. The man thinks of these as “things,” a to-do list.
Keeping the commandments, being physically present at Mass, putting something in the collection, doing the things of religion are indicators of the right attitude. They do not make us truly spiritual persons, persons with our hearts in the right place.
Hearing that, Jesus told him he lacked only one thing: a spirit that comes from insecurity by not accumulating, not possessing. “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor . . . You will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
In the Hebrew scripture, wealth is generally understood as a blessing of god. It is no wonder that the disciples are confused. The metaphor of the camel, the largest animal in Israel, passing through the eye of a needle, the smallest hole, only adds to their amazement. They are left to wrestle with the reality that what appears as blessing can become hindrance.
Jesus was using a deliberate exaggeration, an hyperbole, to tell in another form what he had taught back in chapter eight of this Gospel with his one liner question: what will it profit a person to gain the whole world and forfeit their eternal lives?
The camel and the eye of the needle is a catchy phrase. This is not a condemnation of the rich . . . Jesus had good friends that had money; after all, he allowed himself to be anointed with expensive oil - which Judas criticized until Jesus set him straight. A rich man buried him in the tomb. Mark tells us he loved this rich man.
“Catch” is the operative word here. The image of the camel and needle’s eye catch our attention because of its impossibility. Jesus hopes that it will then catch our curiosity, our interest - like a lure that the man who spoke of “fishers of men” would use -- to catch our hearts, to catch us.
Did Jesus prefer the poor to the rich? Did the poor prefer him? Was it the poor who were most likely to believe? The answer to all three questions is “yes”: to initiate what has come to be called Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor,” to have the poor preferring him, and to experience the poor as being better disposed to believe in him was Jesus’ positive experience. Jesus sees that possessions and the status and power that come with them tend to keep people away from God.
With wealth, it is not the money itself that is wrong, but the sense of power and mastery, the sense of independence and self-reliance, the “perks” of wealth that we want to have are wrong. I think that this may be the most difficult area of Christian behavior. A profound question for us is: how much is enough?
I cannot and would never suggest an answer to “how much is enough?” I have great difficulty advising myself about the question. We need to pray thoughtfully as we balance our prudent security and the generosity to which we are called.
Mental health pioneer Karl Menninger said, “Money-giving [not just giving, but money-giving] is a good criterion of a person’s mental health. [He found that] generous people are rarely mentally ill people.” This is true whether you are rich with barns-too-small or a widow with two pennies. Jesus knew, as did Menninger, that giving money is the way of being liberated from our bondage to money. A person so liberated can be a “cheerful” giver. Something to ponder.
Jesus began with emphasizing the goodness of his father. Jesus makes as his main point that goodness. The rich man wants eternal life. Eternal life is a gift flowing freely from the goodness of god. When you and I focus on god’s goodness, we realize that goodness in giving flows from God and it inspires us to participate in the giving, as did Jesus. We live Jesus. Eternal life begins here.