Oct 14, 2018: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

1st Reading – Wisdom 7:7-11

I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.
Yet all good things together came to me in her company,
and countless riches at her hands.

Today’s reading is a reinterpretation of King Solomon’s prayer from 1 Kings 3:5-9.

I prayed, and prudence was given me;

Prudence is empirical wisdom, gained through thoughtful reflection on life experiences.  This kind of wisdom would enable a king to rule judiciously.

I pleaded and the spirit of Wisdom came to me. I preferred her to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her, nor did I liken any priceless gem to her; because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand, and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.

Wisdom has been personified as a woman, praised as a priceless treasure beyond compare.

Beyond health and comeliness I loved her, and I chose to have her rather than the light,

Solomon prefers Woman Wisdom over the things that we normally cherish.  In his eyes, Wisdom is a cherished companion who brings extraordinary meaning to life — the most precious treasure.

because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.

Wisdom never ceases to exist (Wisdom 7:29-30).

Yet all good things together came to me in her company, and countless riches at her hands.

Despite his conscious choice of wisdom over riches, in the end he received both.  This follows the wisdom tradition, which holds a direct correlation between one’s manner of living and their relative prosperity.  Following the path of wisdom and righteousness will abound in blessings; a life of foolishness and sin will bring punishment.

Choosing wisdom over everything else is, by definition, the wisest action one can take.  Correspondingly, here it results in the greatest blessings.

2nd Reading – Hebrews 4:12-13

Brothers and sisters:
Indeed the word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.

Last week we began our study of the Book of Hebrews, as did our Episcopal and
Lutheran brothers and sisters.  However, their readings will deviate slightly from ours over the next two weeks, and then we’ll come back into sync with them.

Our reading today extols the creative and judicial force of the word of God.

Indeed, the word of God is living and effective,

The word of God is living and effective because it is the expression of God, who is living and effective.

Some commentators see this as a reference to Jesus incarnate (John 1:1-15), but that interpretation is not necessary to understanding this passage.

sharper than any two-edged sword,

A two-edged sword cuts no matter which way you swing it; this is a common metaphor (Isaiah 49:2, Proverbs 5:4, Wisdom 18:16).

penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.

God’s word is incisive and probing, able to pierce the inner recesses of a person.  It cuts cleanly between soul and spirit and body, penetrating the most secret thoughts of the heart.

No creature is concealed from him,

The focus now shifts from humans to all of creation.

but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.

The comprehensive scope of God’s influence is further revealed: everything is exposed, everything stands open for judgment before the greatness of God.

Gospel – Mark 10:17-30

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good?
No one is good but God alone.
You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother.”
He replied and said to him,
“Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
“You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
“How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words.
So Jesus again said to them in reply,
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
“Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.
All things are possible for God.”
Peter began to say to him,
“We have given up everything and followed you.”
Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.”

This week’s gospel reading illustrates the corrupting power of wealth.

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him,

Only at the end of the story (verse 20) do we learn that the man is wealthy. The parallel in Matthew (19:16-22) tells us the man was young; Luke (18:18) tell us he was a “ruler.”

Such a man running up and kneeling before Jesus is a significant gesture of humility.  He had an opportunity to consult this great prophet, and he was not going to let his pride get in the way.

and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The question implies that he believes he can do something to deserve eternal life, rather than it being a gift from God.

Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

At first glance, it appears that Jesus rejects the man’s salutation.  But note that he does not deny his own goodness — Jesus is good, not because he is a good man, but because he is God.  He is affirming the divine authority with which he speaks.

The man does not realize the depth of the truth he has spoken.

You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.’”

Jesus then recites the second part of the Decalogue (the ten commandments), those that
deal with our relationships with each other (Exodus 20:12-17; Deuteronomy 5:16-21).

“You shall not defraud” could be a restatement of “you shall not steal,” or it could be a
reference to the ninth and tenth commandments, which address coveting.

The point here is not the commandments themselves, but the opportunity to display the integrity of the rich man.  He has evidently acquired his wealth honestly, as we shall see.

He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”

The man’s righteousness is important, as it shows that even the virtuous find it difficult to respond to the radical demands of discipleship.

Jesus, looking at him, loved him

Jesus was pleased to find that the man had lived inoffensively, and pleased to see that he was focusing on eternal life and not material things.  This young, powerful man was earnestly and humbly seeking Jesus’ instruction.

and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Recall that Jesus’ disciples were to travel light (Mark 6:7-9) and to imitate the powerlessness of a child (Mark 10:13-15).

Nowhere in Jesus’ teaching does he say that wealth is bad.  Riches can, however, be a diversion from the real goal of life, which is entrance into the reign of God.  The power and security found in material wealth can obscure the need to trust in God.

Jesus is asking the man: Do you value eternal life more than you value your possessions?

At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus’ answer was too difficult. Even this very righteous man could not renounce his riches.  The gifts we cannot bear to release back to God are the ones that hold us in a grip of sadness.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,

Note that Jesus did not call the man back or soften his statement.  He will keep no one against their will.  Instead, he took this opportunity to provide further instruction privately to his disciples.

“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

The text does not specify whether Jesus said these words harshly or sadly.

The disciples were amazed at his words.

Jesus admits the difficulty of this teaching with a statement that shocked even his disciples.

Remember, the disciples themselves fell into the trap of seeking power and prestige (Mark 9:34, 10:37). From childhood they have been taught that riches are a reward and a sign of favor; Jesus has just told them they can become an impediment.

So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus doubles down on the difficulty of his teaching by painting the image of a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle.  There has been much discussion throughout the generations about the meaning of this statement; however, regardless of its origin, it suggests an unnavigable journey, an impossible task.  We must somehow become small, rather than big, to pass through a needle’s eye.

The danger of wealth arises not so much from having it as from trusting in it.  If we rely on our material wealth for confidence and security, we are not relying on God.

This can happen at all levels of prosperity.  The rich who do not trust in their wealth, who see its insufficiency fulfill their souls, have overcome this difficulty and can easily part with their wealth for Christ.  If those with little set their hearts upon that little and place their happiness in it, it will keep them from Christ.

They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?”

Wealth was not only considered an indication of divine favor and a reward for piety — those who were rich had greater opportunities of giving alms to the poor and doing other good deeds.

It’s no wonder that the disciples are surprised to learn that it should be so difficult for rich people to enter heaven.  Consequently, they now see salvation as an impossible goal.

“The rich man ‘went away sad,’ as you have heard, and the Lord says: ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ At length the disciples became very sad when they heard this and they said: ‘If this is so, who then can be saved?’ Rich and poor, listen to Christ: I am speaking to God’s people. Most of you are poor, but you too must listen carefully to understand. And you had best listen even more intently if you glory in your poverty. Beware of pride, lest the humble rich surpass you. Beware of wickedness, lest the pious rich confound you. Beware of drunkenness, lest the sober excel you” [Saint Caesar of Arles (ca. A.D. 542), Sermons 153(2)].

Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”

The answer to “then who can be saved?” is a firm “no one.”  Not by one’s own providence and power; it is impossible for humans.

Jesus quotes Genesis 18:14, which recalls God’s power to fulfill his promise to Abraham.  Rich people cannot by their own skill or resolution overcome these difficulties, but by the grace of God, it can be done.

This is the key to understanding the entire passage.  While those who wish to inherit eternal life are undoubtedly bound to the commandments, only divine grace can actually enable them to enter into the reign of God.  We must do both: live lives of moral integrity and rely completely on God.

Peter began to say to him, “We have given up everything and followed you.”

Peter is the usual foil in Mark’s gospel for misunderstanding.  Here, as spokesman for all the disciples, he is saying: We have done what the rich man couldn’t.  What’s in it for us?

Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:

Jesus responds by outlining the reward Peter and the disciples can expect.  Those who have given up the security of family and property (the basis for identity in those times) will receive a new kind of security: a new family and identity grounded in faith in Jesus.

houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions,

This new and alternative way of life — and the non-materialistic values it is built upon — will threaten the current values and existing social order in the community.  Because of this, the disciples will be persecuted.

All who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. — 2 Timothy 3:12

and eternal life in the age to come.

When we pattern our lives after Jesus, the Son of God, we share in his cross, and later share in his glory in eternal life.

There are far deeper values and far deeper joys than great possessions can assure.

Connections and Themes

  • This week’s readings are all about choices.
    • The first reading describes Solomon’s choice of wisdom above all else.
    • The second reading reminds us that we will be held accountable for the choices we make.
    • The gospel reading provides a detailed example of an individual choice, framed by the teaching of Jesus, and juxtaposed with the disciples, who were given the same options.
  • We all want the same basic things in life: love, security, peace, health, intellect, beauty, power, the possibility of success.  The challenge is knowing which path to choose to achieve these things.  For that, we need wisdom.
  • Wisdom informs us that beauty is fleeting, health can be lost in an instant, and money does not buy joy.  Many of the world’s greatest intellectuals are burdened with miserable lives.  Even successful, self-made people can be unhappy and judgmental of others who have not done as well with their endowments.  We desire all these things, and they are good, but do they satisfy the deepest yearnings of our heart?  Are we making choices that will stand in light of the word of God, which is as sharp as a two-edged sword?
  • Every choice has a price.  To choose one option usually means relinquishing another.  The young man in the gospel reading wanted eternal life.  However, the price required was more than he expected, and he walked away saddened at the heavy cost.
  • One of the incomprehensible attributes of God is the boundlessness of his generosity.  If, like Solomon, we choose wisdom instead of all the good things of the world, we receive all those things alongside wisdom itself.  We are asked to relinquish all of the things we value, and we get them back a hundredfold.
  • We make these choices in faith, unsure of the outcome until we make the decision and see what happens.  We step into the unknown.  Perhaps the faith required to take such a step also provides the ability to see everything as a hundredfold blessing.
  • God demands much but gives so much more.

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