Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Wisdom 7:7-11
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 90:12-17
Second Reading: Letter to the Hebrews 4:12-13
Gospel: According to St. Mark 10:17-30
The story of the rich young man is one to which we can all relate. You don’t have to be materially wealthy in order to understand the difficulty in leaving all behind in order to follow Jesus.
Yet, I don’t think that it is the ‘giving everything up’ part of the story that is central, and I don’t think that Jesus would disagree with me. I believe that the giving everything up is secondary to the point that Jesus makes.
The real question isn’t, “Can you give everything up?” The real question is, “What is life all about?”
The opening line of this week’s Old Testament reading from Wisdom states:
“I prayed, and prudence was given me;”
Prudence is usually seen as the ability to know when to act and when not to act; when to open one’s mouth and when to keep it shut. The prudent person, in common thought, is the person who is meek and mild and who doesn’t make waves.
That vision of prudence does a dis-service to both prudence and those who strive to be prudent in their lives. Prudence, according to the Catholic Tradition, is the virtue whereby we have a right relationship with reality. Prudence involves knowing what is true and right rather than false and wrong. It assumes that God made the universe in a specific way and that we can know that universe in a way that matters to our lives. Prudence, as the first of the Cardinal Virtues, is about seeing things as they really are and acting upon them in justice, courage and moderation (the other Cardinal Virtues).
So, when the young man asks how to inherit eternal life, the essential answer is not “sell all you have.” The essential answer is, “come, follow Me.” Following Jesus is not, at its core, the following of certain laws and commandments. Following Jesus is not, at its core, anything we do. Following Jesus entails, first and foremost, who we are. If we are people who know that the core of what it is to be human is to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves then we have the proper focus – we understand that it is who we are and not what we do that is primary.
This is not to say that what we do does not matter. But, Jesus wants us to get things in the right order. We do certain types of things because we are a certain type of people. The core question, the primary question, asks, “What is a human being?” The secondary question asks, “What should a human being do?”
It might be a really good thing for someone to be able to teach a dog Latin, but a question to ask before beginning this arduous task might be, “Is a dog the type of being who can learn Latin?” Knowing what type of being a dog is can save someone a lot of wasted effort as they try to teach a dog Latin.
Knowing that a human being is made in the image and likeness of God tells us what we need to know about what a human being is. From that knowledge we can move to asking what a human being should do.
So, a human should act like the Being whose image and likeness she or he is. The perfect image of God for us would be Jesus, since He is both God and human. So, how does Jesus act? Does he get angry with the rich young man who decides walk away? In one of the few moments in the Gospels where we see the emotive nature of the humanity of Jesus, St. Mark tells us:
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him”
So in the end, that is the only response that fits our image and likeness.
Why is it so hard for the rich, as Jesus says, to enter the Kingdom? It is the exact same reason for anyone, not just for the rich. It is because we misunderstand what it is to be human. To be human is not to be someone who is rich, who is powerful, and who is important in the eyes of the world.
What it is to be human is to look in the eyes of another – even, and maybe especially, one who disappoints us – and to love as Jesus loves.