In the Letter to the Hebrews (4:12), we read: 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.
This famous passage from Hebrews about the power of God’s Word to penetrate, to cut through phoniness and self-deception, and to challenge us in most sweeping ways is not merely informative, even sublime truth, but a PERSON who intends to possess us completely and make us fall in love with him.
And that Person is Jesus Christ.
Today, he confronts us in a very forceful way and demands a radical choice of each one of us. This primary challenge should be considered against the background of the Israelites’ understanding of riches.
Riches, as it was commonly believed since the time of Abraham, were interpreted as a clear seal of God’s approval of one’s conduct, of his being pleased with that person. This fundamental challenge should be considered, nowadays, also against the subculture of dreaming about living the glamorous life of the rich and famous. In our consideration we should wonder what kind of power money, glamour, fame, recognition seem to have on people, and how these dreams might control people’s lives.
Echoing the book of Wisdom, Jesus dares to turn that view on its head. He looks us straight in the eyes and makes a counteroffer: in its place he offers the wisdom of insignificance, of powerlessness, of surrendering control of our life over to God, of being childlike. For a month now, he has been inviting us to embrace the life of the insignificant and the powerless, i.e. of the childlike, precisely. To put it in a more granular way, today, Jesus challenges us to shake off not only the fetters of riches, but also those of religiosity and false piety and to embrace evangelical poverty (in the sense of complete emotional detachment from material possession) so as to find joy in total, unconditional surrender to the Father.
The evangelist Mark illustrates this radical challenge by introducing a believer, who had dug a spiritual rut for himself and, once confronted by the loving mercy of the Lord offering him true freedom and genuine joy, at the end, opts to stay in his religious rut and walks away from Christ very sad.
So we ought to wonder: how good does this man make himself out to be? His outer demeanor is correct: he kneels before Jesus; he showers compliments on him and calls him: Good Teacher. He is also open to do anything (at least this is what he claims at first) in order to make it to heaven…on his own. He feels confident because, he has been in the habit of silencing God’s voice by acting like the first of the class, doing extra praiseworthy things for good measure, and he has his possessions to prove that God is pleased with him.
Jesus’ response catches him completely off guard. Jesus sees right through his self-made religiosity, through the hollowness of his praises and his misplaced self-reliance.
Goodness is God’s very nature. And God bestows goodness on whomever He pleases. Goodness and eternal life are beyond one’s best efforts and one’s best performance. In other words, we cannot merit heaven, we cannot get any leverage off the good we do and say to God something like this: “Listen Lord, I obey all your commandments, I am a Catholic in good standing, I am a loving wife, a responsible husband, a dedicated priest, an industrious student, whatever, so give me a break, you owe me this much. If you are willing to let into heaven the others, you know, those who do not obey your commandments, I must be a shoo-in.”
The stark truth is that, even after we might have observed all the commandments interconnected to our relationship with God and our neighbor, we still have the most important thing to do: We have to embrace the “child” that Jesus has been offering to our consideration the last few Sundays. That means that we ought to surrender control of our life over to God and to be comfortable in our insignificance and powerlessness. Clearly, we can buy into this outlandish bid only if the Lord gives us a share in his wisdom.
We see this unique type of wisdom displayed before our eyes and celebrated every Sunday with the Eucharist: it is the wisdom of the cross. By partaking of God’s flesh and drinking His blood under the humblest species of a wafer and a little sip of wine, we would claim that we want to be physically imbued by its apparent powerlessness and insignificance. Since it is so hard to embrace that “child,” we need to celebrate the Eucharist as often as possible, longing for true wisdom.
Facing this daunting challenge, I should point out that the Lord calls us children, even before we have fully embraced the “child,” even before we are comfortable with insignificance and powerlessness, even before we are convinced that without the Lord we can do NOTHING (see John 15:5). However, we must share with the poor our possessions, i.e. the false evidence of God’s approval.
In honesty, we can say that we have already given to the poor, several times and generously. But, then, why is he still insisting? I dare to submit a plausible reason for his insistence. The poor are a big bother. We try to ignore them. They are everywhere, all around, but also on TV and on the front pages of the newspapers 24/7. After our occasional and/or seasonal (usually around Christmas) donation to charitable causes and to the foreign missions, we basically absolve ourselves of any further obligation.
I submit to myself, first, and to you that, today again, Jesus insists about our obligation towards the poor for several reasons.
- Because they are a most forceful reminder of his presence among us (2 Corinthians 8:9). For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
- They are the ones; even if perhaps only by necessity, more disposed to rely on the Lord (Psalm 69:34). For the LORD hears the poor; He does not spurn those in bondage.
- And, in their many and incessant needs, the poor are the immediate and constant settings of our attending to the Lord’s needs (Matthew 25:40). And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
- To Judas Iscariot, his future betrayer, who was very attached to money and feigning interest in the plight of the poor so as to cover his avarice, the Lord Jesus replied by stating something very poignant (John 12:8). You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.
Intellectually, we profess that Jesus is always with us in a variety of presences (in the Eucharist, in Holy Scripture, in our presiding priest, in our communal gatherings, etc.). However, until we open our eyes and recognize him in the poor near and far; until they occupy our thoughts habitually and until we shift from an attitude of annoyance to one of acceptance, sincere concern and caring, we would be fooling ourselves about being close to Jesus and it would still be impossible for us to begin to follow him.