October 11, 2009/ 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
This gospel starts out like a movie - a man runs to catch up with Jesus, throws himself on his knees before him, and gasps : “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life ?” Imagine the musical score for this scene - something like Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, maybe, with lots of drama and building excitement. Cue the kettle drums and the horns, the cannons and the fireworks ! Our hero is about to receive THE ANSWER ! What will it be ?
Perhaps that’s how the man himself felt as he ran after Jesus, his heart pounding with desire. But things don’t work out the way he might have hoped. Instead of playing the role of the great guru — “Well, my son, in my great wisdom I will now reveal to you the secret that kings have long desired to know,” etc. etc. — Jesus responds rather testily : “Why do you call me good ?” Then, that point settled, he simply cites the second half of the Law - the commandments having to do with human relationships. When the man claims that “all those I have observed since my youth,” there’s a note of disappointment in his voice. Is that all there is to it ? Can this be THE ANSWER ? Not killing, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness, not defrauding and honoring your father and mother ? Pretty ordinary stuff, really. Cancel the fireworks !
But in this movie, Jesus challenges our hero to something more ; in effect, he offers him an opportunity for a second act. The text tells us that “looking at him, he loved him.” As we know, Jesus’ love isn’t sentimental - he doesn’t tell this man how great he is for having kept the commandments. Instead, Jesus’ love comes in the form of an invitation to discipleship : “sell all you have, give it to the poor. . .then come, follow me.” This is an invitation that others had wanted - think of the demoniac or the blind beggar of Jericho - and not received. It’s special, directed uniquely to him. And he can’t do it. He goes away sad, “for he had many possessions.” Cue the violins.
Jesus seizes on this teachable moment to take us and the disciples into Act III. As he explains that a camel has a better chance of passing through a needle’s eye than a rich person has of entering the Kingdom of God, the disciples - and we, too, most likely - begin to feel uneasy and alarmed. Who can be saved ? And then, lest we begin to feel too camel-like, he gives us THE ANSWER : “for human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
Think again about the question of our hero of Act I : “what must I do to enter the kingdom of God ?” Meaning, “how am I going to save myself ?” Or even, “how will I initiate eternal life for myself ?” In other words, entering the kingdom of God is all about me and my efforts. In a sense, and perhaps without even knowing it, the rich man had already decided on THE ANSWER.
Despite his bumptiousness and presumption, the rich man’s desire seems to have touched Jesus so much that he expressed a desire for him in return. But he could not accept it. Why ? Because according to his ANSWER, it was “impossible.” Unable to look beyond himself and his own strength, our hero can’t surrender to Jesus’ desire for him. He goes away sad, and his “movie” ends unhappily. Roll the credits.
Before we leave the theater, however, let’s take another minute to think about what we’ve just seen and heard. Like all stories in Scripture, this one is as much about ourselves as it is about that rich man. It reminds us that even though it’s good to desire and seek it with all our hearts, eternal life is not about our making it happen on our own. Rather, it’s about responding to God’s desire for us, a stance that is quite possible for human beings. In fact, we were made for it. Taking such a stance will almost surely lead us to places and situations we never thought “possible.” Eventually, it will bring us to the final credits of our own movie. Thanks to God’s loving initiative, the words on the screen will not be “THE END,” but rather, “JUST THE BEGINNING.” And for music, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
Sr. Nuala Cotter, r.a.
Worcester - USA