The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Homily: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis 7:7-11; Ps 90:12-17; Heb 4:12-13; Mk 10:17-30

One hot summer day in 1941, in the infamous death camp of Auschwitz, ten prisoners were sentenced to die by starvation in retaliation for an escape. One of the ten had a wife and children, so a 47-year-old Polish, Franciscan priest offered himself in his place. The man's number was crossed off the list and the priest's inserted: number 16670. That very day ten men entered the starvation bunker, just an underground pit -- no light, no air, no food, no clothing, nothing…nothing but the love of God radiating from one simple man.

Two weeks later, to make room for others, the priest was injected with a fatal dose of carbolic acid. The next day, on the feast of the Assumption, his wasted body was burned in a furnace. 30 years ago this week, Pope John Paul II canonized this man, St. Maximilian Kolbe. St. Maximilian lived the Gospel message of love to the fullest, conforming his will to God’s, regardless of the consequences. He answered God’s radical call personally, and without question.

Only a few are called to witness to God's love as martyrs, although their numbers have increased greatly in recent years. But we’re all called to witness, to lead Christian lives in the circumstances in which God places us.

Sometimes the Gospel message almost knocks us flat with its firm but unmistakably clear demands. Sometimes it shakes the very foundation of our world, turning everything we believe in upside down. Sometimes it forces us to question the honesty and depth of our response to God’s personal call, placing our lives into stark contrast with the lives we’re called to lead.

Today's Gospel passage contains just this kind of disturbing message. I know you heard it.

"It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Even allowing for hyperbole, the exaggeration so common in Jewish speech and writing in Jesus' day, it’s still quite a statement. And like so many of Jesus' words, it’s frequently misunderstood, misinterpreted and misapplied.

Some Christians, in an attempt to soften the metaphor and open Heaven's door a little wider, claim that the Needle's Eye was really the name of a small gate in Jerusalem's walls. But, so far as we can determine, this has little basis in fact; and, anyway, it misses the entire point of what Jesus is telling us.

Others take the opposite extreme. Jesus, they claim, says material wealth is the great disqualifier, that only the poor can enter the Kingdom of God. This, too, misses the point. It also ignores the relationships Jesus had with many who were certainly not poor.

Do you remember Zacchaeus, in Luke's Gospel – and how he proclaimed, "Lord, I give the poor half of my goods." Not all...but half. And still Jesus tells him, "Today salvation has come to this house."

And does Jesus tell His friends, Lazarus, Mary and Martha to dispossess themselves? Does He tell Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea that they’re excluded from the kingdom because of their wealth?

Even John the Baptist, dressed in animal skins and eating only honey and locusts, told the crowd, "If you have two coats, give"

So is Jesus trying to confuse us? Or do His words betray a deeper meaning, something not so obvious when taken out of the context of His teaching?  What did his words mean to these Jewish disciples? What exactly did Jesus have in mind? And what does it all mean to us today?

First of all, it's little wonder the disciples were shocked by what they’d heard, for Jesus had just contradicted a powerful and long-standing Jewish tradition, one in which wealth was seen as a sign of God's favor. The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were all wealthy men, blessed by God who enriched those He loved. And hadn’t Moses promised the Chosen People that if they obeyed God they’d prosper in a promised land where they’d lack nothing?

Indeed, this tradition permeates the Old Testament. Everywhere the message was clear: if you feared God, if you loved Him, you’d be blessed with the good things of the earth. Yes, the disciples’ astonishment and understanding of Jesus’ words are quite different from our own. We assume Jesus meant that entering God's Kingdom is hard, especially for the rich. But the disciples understood it as hard even for the rich. If the rich, whom God has blessed, find it hard, then who indeed can be saved?

So when the rich young man approached and knelt before Jesus, the disciples were surely excited that of one so favored might join their ranks. He was wealthy and respectable, an intelligent, self-assured young man who’d apparently led a blameless life in keeping with the Law. Yes, the disciples were impressed.

Jesus, too, treats him affectionately. When asked, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life," Jesus doesn't say, "Get rid of your wealth." No, instead he says, "Keep the commandments." It is only when the man persists, saying in effect, "I've done that, but I want to do more," that Jesus looks at him with love, and issues His unexpected and radical challenge:

"…one more thing you must do. Go and sell what you have and give to the poor; you will then have treasure in heaven. After that, come and follow me."

And the effect of this command? Mark tells us…
"At these words, the man's face fell. He went away sad, for he had many possessions."
He’d been so sure of himself, hadn't he? So brimming with confidence. So pleased with his irreproachable life. His boast was that he had done nothing wrong, that he had followed all the rules. He’s aware of his innocence before the Law, but unaware of his weakness before God. On this day, for the first time, a great sacrifice is asked of him. But he lacks the heart for it. The peace that he seeks is placed beyond his reach because he cannot let go of his possessions. He sees the way, but fears the renunciation. And this fear, this failure to follow God's personal call, always produces sadness.

Jesus, of course, knows the young man's weakness. As we heard earlier from the Letter to the Hebrews,
"Nothing is concealed from Him; all lies bare and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must render an account."
And what of this weakness? Is it the love of money and material possessions? Or are these merely symptoms of something else, something deeper?

The man's inability to shed his wealth results from his love of things over his love of others. But at the root of this disordered love is something even more serious: a deep-seated and stubborn self-love, a self-love that refuses to place God first. Such a person will inevitably turn his back on Jesus.

You see, Jesus doesn't condemn the rich solely because of their wealth. No, His concern is for those of us who place anything ahead of God. Material things, in themselves, are good. The sin lies in excessive attachment, in trusting in them as if they will solve all your problems, in failing to realize that they, like everything, are gifts from God which must be shared for the good of others. For such a belief will cause you, like the young man in the Gospel, to turn your back on God.

"I am the way, the truth, and the life," Jesus tells us. And therefore nothing, absolutely nothing, should take precedence over Christ in my life, over His right to rule over my heart.

What takes precedence in your life? Is it God's Will or like the young man, are you consumed by your possessions or your financial worth? Are you being asked to rid yourself of these obstacles to salvation? Or perhaps your life is centered on fame, power, or position. Even human friendships, or the love for another person, can manipulate us, strangle us, lead us away from God. For that which we place first in our lives – when it is not God – always becomes a prison. Only when we place God first do we experience true freedom.

God is calling each of us, brothers and sisters, and He never stops calling. In return for our response, for our submission to His Will, He promises a different kind of wealth, a treasure far greater than you and I can ever imagine.

But only arms that are empty of self can stretch out to receive that gift…just as St. Maximilian did when he held out his arms for the fatal injection.

And just as Jesus did when He emptied Himself giving everything on the Cross.

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