Scripture and the Liturgy

How Can I Live Forever? 28th Sunday of OT

(My commentaries on Year B are available in book form here, also upcoming Year C, and the unmovable Feasts and Solemnities.)

Very few of us want to die.  In fact, there’s an obsession in this country with staying young and looking young.  Entire industries have developed around cosmetics, nutritional supplements, plastic surgery, and fitness gyms, all for the sake of staying young and staving off the natural effects of aging.  I think it’s partly a refusal to embrace the inevitability of death.  Along one of the roads between Steubenville (where I live) and Pittsburgh, there is a cyrogenics warehouse that stores the frozen corpses and heads of persons who paid a lot of money to be preserved until medical technology is able to thaw them out and cure their ailments.  I suppose that’s the ultimate attempt to gain eternal life for those who believe we are composed of nothing but a physical body.

The desire to live forever is not new.  We see it in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, when a wealthy young man comes to Jesus to ask for the path to eternal life.  Jesus’ answer does not involve cyrogenics or nutritional supplements.  His answer is as relevant now as it was then.

1. Our First Reading is Wis 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.

The Wisdom of Solomon, one of the last Old Testament books to be written, provides perhaps the most thorough treatment of the final judgment, resurrection, and eternal life of any book prior to the Gospels.  Some see it as a canonical answer to the agnosticism of Ecclesiastes: if in Ecclesiastes Solomon expressed skepticism about the life to come and despondency over the prospect of death, in Wisdom he has found faith that death is not the final answer, and righteousness finds its reward in the life to come. 

The Book of Wisdom was almost certainly written first in Greek, in the third or second century BC, probably in Alexandria, Egypt, the premier center of Hellenistic Jewish culture in antiquity.  Because of its late origin, Greek language, and Alexandrian connections, it was not received as canonical in Rabbinic Judaism, whose roots were in the Pharisee movement in Palestine.  However, it was received as canonical among Greek-speaking Jews in the diaspora and by the early Church.  Indeed, it was quite popular among the Fathers, who quoted it frequently and explicitly as Scripture.

In the Septuagint tradition, the book was called Sophia Salōmōnos (Wisdom of Solomon) and eventually found a stable place in the canonical order after Job, thus providing a robust vision of the life to come after Job’s struggles with the injustices of this present life.  In the Vulgate tradition, the book’s full title is Liber Sapeintiae Solomonis (The Book of the Wisdom of Solomon), and it was placed immediately after the “three books of Solomon” (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song) proper, because the pseudepigraphal nature of Wisdom was long recognized.  Falling in this order, the four books Proverbs through Wisdom present a kind of theological odyssey of the “canonical Solomon”:

In Proverbs, he attains the wisdom that leads to temporal success;

In Ecclesiastes, he despairs of temporal success because death renders it vain;

In the Song, he discovers that love is stronger than death (Song 8:6);

In Wisdom, he falls in love with Lady Wisdom and so attains immortality.

In the passage we read for Sunday, the voice of Solomon extols the value of Wisdom above any material wealth, because Wisdom is the way to eternal life: “the splendor of her never yields to sleep,” Solomon says, which is a poetic way of saying that the splendor of Wisdom is deathless.

Physical wealth is worthless compared to Wisdom: “riches are nothing in comparison with her.”  Yet, there is an irony: along with Wisdom also comes wealth: “Yet all good things together came to me in her company,and countless riches at her hands.”

We seem the same paradox in the Gospel reading!  One must give up riches in order to follow Jesus, the Wisdom incarnate.  And yet, the path of Jesus often results in obtaining various kinds of riches—sometimes even material wealth, sometimes even in this life!—that were unanticipated.

I often call to mind the example of a remarkable woman from my years in urban ministry.  For about ten years she had been supporting herself and her substance abuse habit by crime, but then had a radical conversion to Christ and began attending Church and studying the Scripture.  Since her only livelihood had been crime, she found it difficult to support herself, and was reduced to living completely on government assistance.  Nonetheless, she would take 10% of the very small amount of discretionary cash she received from assistance every month, and make sure to bring it to Church and put it in the collection plate.  Within four years, however, she was financially stable, and directing a ministry to other women transitioning from incarceration to society.  At the time of her conversion, turning to Christ seemed to be a complete material loss for her, but God so often shows us his generosity even in tangible ways.

P. Our Responsorial PsalmisPs 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17:

R. (14) Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!
Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
R. Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!
Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
Make us glad, for the days when you afflicted us,
for the years when we saw evil.
R. Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!
Let your work be seen by your servants
and your glory by their children;
and may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours;
prosper the work of our hands for us!
Prosper the work of our hands!
R. Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!

Psalm 90 is the only Psalm in the Psalter attributed to Moses.  In the canonical order of the Psalter, it follows Psalm 89, which ends disastrously with the destruction of the kingdom of David and the humiliating defeat and captivity of the Davidic king.  In the face of this “blow to the gut” for the Israelite believer, we return to Moses in Psalm 90 for some consolation and perspective in life.  Psalm 90 is a bit melancholy in tone, a reflection on the transience of life and the fleetingness of human existence.  Psalm 90 teaches us that it is pointless to try to gain material wealth for its own sake in this world, since our lives so quickly come to an end.  Moses leads us in a prayer to God, that he would help us make good use of our earthly lives: “teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  The wise heart is one that knows what is worth spending time on, and what is a waste of time. 

The prayer of Moses in this psalm is much like the request of the Rich Young Man to Jesus.  The young man also wants to gain a heart of wisdom.  He wants to know what to spend his time on, so that he can gain the ultimate goal: eternal life.  He was sincere in his request, and was trying to live by God’s law.  Yet he sensed there was something more. 

2. Our Second Reading is Heb 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 reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews, and we will continue to reading from this great treatise for the rest of the liturgical year.

Hebrews is a very unusual New Testament book, unique in many ways.  It is formally anonymous, a letter with no identified author—the only such letter in the NT.  Moreover, it is not so much a letter as a sermon or homily on the topic of the superiority of Jesus and the New Covenant to Moses and the Old, with an epistolary (letter-like) ending appended in Heb 13:22-25. 

The authorship of Hebrews has been widely debated.  The theology of the book has deep and important connections with the thought of St. Paul, especially with Galatians.  However, the style does not sound like Paul.  It’s more similar to St. Luke.  My preferred explanation is that it constitutes a theological treatise on which St. Paul and St. Luke collaborated.  St. Luke functioned as St. Paul’s stylist and “speech writer,” if you will.  Nonetheless, no dogmatic point hangs on the authorship of the Epistle.

This Sunday’s Reading is one of the more memorable passages from Hebrews.  The words can be applied to the study of Scripture: indeed, when we make a regular practice of reading and meditating on God’s word, it does penetrate into us and reveal to us things about ourselves that we had never seen before.  It is able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.  At the same time, these words of Hebrews can be applied to Our Lord himself, the Word in Flesh.  Jesus is our Judge and will be our Judge, one before whom we stand in complete transparency.  None of us can hide anything from Jesus Christ.  All our excuses and rationalizations are ineffective before him.  He knows our agendas and ulterior motives.  John 2:25 says, “he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man.”  We see that dramatically portrayed in this Sunday’s Gospel, where Jesus “sees through” the rich young man to discern what had actually gripped his heart.

3.  Our Gospel is 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.”

Let’s stop here and comment.  Let’s observe what Jesus does not say in response to the young man.  He does not say:

Why do you call me good?  Don’t you realize that everyone is good, at least deep down?  And why do you ask about eternal life?  Don’t you realize that everyone goes to heaven—at least like, if you haven’t killed anyone, you know?  So go on your way and relax.  Don’t be so uptight.  Be nice to people and you’ll be OK.

That’s the way many of us, perhaps, would have preferred Jesus to respond, because that’s the worldview we espouse.  Heaven is easy to attain.  The path to salvation is undemanding.  Everyone is pretty much good, except of course, maybe ISIS, Boko Haram, and rigid, bigoted people.  But God will probably forgive them, too, since they are just ignorant.  A good God wouldn’t send anyone to hell.

Of course, this isn’t what Jesus teaches about salvation.  Jesus keeps bringing up the subject of hell.  He says the way to salvation is narrow and the way to destruction is broad.  He says that no one comes to the Father except by him.  And following him involves denying oneself and  taking up one’s cross daily.

But maybe we’ve moved beyond Jesus.  After all, he was just a first century Jew—an inspiring teacher, but a man of his times, bound by his own cultural biases.  No one takes seriously the idea of hell anymore.  We’ve matured in our ethical thinking in modernity.

Those who think in this way perhaps should find better things to do with their time than come to Mass.  For myself, I think of Jesus as more than a wise first-century Jewish teacher.  I think of him as the Son of God, as God himself in human flesh, as the final revelation of God the Father to humanity.  I’m not interested in moving beyond his teaching or improving on it. 

When Jesus responds, “Why do you call me ‘good’? No one is good but God alone,” Jesus is doing two things: First, he is subtly asking the young man, “Are you acknowledging me as God?” 

Secondly, he is pointing out that, as St. Paul will later teach, that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  Thus, we are not all good, even deep down.  Rather, we are sinful, even deep down.  As Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things.  Who can know it?”  Pride and selfishness so distort our internal thinking that often we don’t even recognize our true motivations, though sometimes they are apparent to others.  If we speak of the “goodness” of human persons, it is not a moral goodness that everyone possesses, but a created goodness that stems from the fact that every human being is made in God’s image, even if that image is distorted by our behavior. 

Jesus does not point out our sinfulness in order to cause us depression or despair.  He points it out so that we will turn to him to get help. 

In responding to the young man, Jesus rehearses the Law of God for him.  By this Jesus indicates that following the Law of God is a necessary part of gaining eternal life. 

I didn’t always recognize this.  As a Protestant, I thought Jesus only recited the Law to the young man in order to point out to the young man how impossible it was to follow the Law of God, and so that the young man would just cling to faith in Jesus.

However, that is a kind of Lutheranizing reading of this Gospel.  I began to break out of that way of reading when I encountered John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which concerns morality.  We used this encyclical at my Protestant seminary in the 1990s in order to learn moral theology.  That’s right, my Protestant professor used a papal encyclical to teach moral theology.

One of the things that surprised me, when reading JPII, was that the Pope took seriously the obligation to follow God’s Law as part of the path to eternal life.  This is something I had never seriously considered before.  Of course, I was no scandalous sinner.  I did try to follow the moral law as far as I could—but I did not see it as having any direct connection to gaining eternal life.

Like many Christians, I saw Jesus as coming to save me from the consequences of sin, but not as saving me from sin itself.  I wanted Jesus to keep me from going to hell, not keep me from sinning.

It reminds me of a story Cyrus Gordon, the renowned American Jewish Bible scholar, tells in his autobiography.[1]  One time Gordon was traveling in Italy, where he had an Italian Catholic friend, who was a close relative of a devout religious sister who had been beatified.  Gordon’s friend, who was a handsome middle-aged man of the world, used to boast to him about his connections in the Church and his relationship to his Blessed relative.  One time Gordon was traveling with his friend (I believe on a train) and Gordon observed him chatting with an attractive young woman—in fact, trying to persuade her to spend the night with him.  Despite all his powers of persuasion, however, the young woman declined the offer, and the older man returned to Gordon frustrated.  “Perhaps,” Gordon suggested with a smile, “your Blessed relative intervened in that situation!”  “Her job is to forgive sin, not prevent it!” the Italian shot back, quite unamused.

I think that’s how many of us often feel about Jesus.   His job is to forgive sin, not prevent it.  We want to be saved from hell, not sin.  We enjoy sin.  We don’t think we will enjoy hell.

The problem is, we have such an adolescent view of sin.  We don’t realize that every sin is a choice of self, an act of selfishness.  We don’t realize that sin is the opposite of love, that heaven is complete love, and being in heaven is not compatible with continuing in the selfishness of sin.  Unless we overcome sin, we will not even be able truly to want heaven!  We will just want what we imagine heaven to be, some amusement park of pleasures, rather than the unimaginable experience of the love of God for eternity.

So, following God’s Law can be a first step on the road to salvation, as we learn to stop at least with the most obvious and external sins.  However, that alone is not enough.

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.

When Jesus recited the Law to the young man, he deliberately only related what we call the “second table of the Law,” that is to say, the commandments that refer to our duties to other human persons, not our duties to God.  When the young man asks if there is anything further he needs to do, Jesus addresses the man’s relationship to God.  Jesus, penetrating between bones and marrow and discerning the thoughts of the heart, perceives that the young man’s heart is not captured by the love of God, but by the love of his own wealth. 

Jesus loves the young man, and wants to enter into communion with him—a heavenly communion.  And Jesus knows that communion cannot be established as long as the man’s affection is directed to his wealth.  So he calls him to a radical conversion: “sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”  This is based on Prov. 19:17: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.”  Giving to the poor is a way of giving to God.

Not every disciple is called to give everything away.  There were wealthy followers of the Lord, such as the women (Luke 8:3) who helped support His ministry from their own means.  But Our Lord knew in this man’s case, something more radical was necessary. 

At the same time, Our Lord’s call has two parts.  It is not simply “sell all you have and give to the poor,” but also, “then come, follow me.”  Acts of social justice or charity are good in themselves, and a necessary part of conversion.  But charity can be done for wrong motives, and does not necessarily lead us into a relationship with God.  There are atheists who work for the Red Cross.  So it is not enough, for eternal life, to become detached from the love of things, but we must also develop an attachment to God Himself, here present in Jesus.

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 teaching on poverty we now take for granted, but the disciples are “amazed” when Our Lord says it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Why?  Because among many Jews (and later, Christians, too) wealth was considered a sign of God’s blessing.  Moreover, the wealthy had the leisure and the resources to fulfill all the rituals of the Law of Moses, including the burdensome sacrifices and washings, which were time-consuming and expensive, far beyond the means of the average day-laborer.  So many considered wealth to be, more or less, an unmitigated good, a sign of God’s blessing and the potential to follow the Law. 

Jesus reverses this scenario.  Knowing the weakness of human nature, he recognizes that wealth exerts such a pull on our loyalties and affections, that it can be humanly impossible to detach from goods and attach to theGood One.

Such has been the story of Israel and the Church.  Reading the Old Testament in my youth, I saw how, whenever Israel prospered, she forgot God and went after idols.  Christian societies have been only a little different, if at all.  Since World War II, the Western world has experienced a level of prosperity that is unique in human history.  Never before have so many people lived so well and so long.  If it seems that the economy is bad and conditions poor, it is because our expectations and standards have risen outrageously.  If there is widespread unemployment, often it is because our children will not work at jobs our ancestors would have fought to obtain. 

This has not been good for spiritual life or for the Church.  In much of the developed world, people speak of the extinguishing of Christianity.  In the Netherlands, the land of my grandfather, as recently as 1950 a bastion of both conservative Protestantism and Catholicism, only about 44% of the population continues to identify as Christians, and the numbers keep falling.[2]

“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  Unprecedented wealth has helped to empty the Church.  For the poor, the Gospel is Good News of peace and joy with God in the life to come.  For the rich, the Gospel is Bad News about moral laws that limit their ability to satiate their pleasures.

Can any rich person be saved?  “With God all things are possible.”  The gift of the Holy Spirit can enable even the rich to live detached from their goods, becoming stewards of their wealth for the sake of the kingdom, in love with God and not with Mammon.

But how is it that those who have “given up house or brothers or sisters  … for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age … and eternal life in the age to come”?

It is through the Church.  By entering into the Church, which is the manifestation of the kingdom on earth, we become part of a family that owns an impressive amount of property, albeit all for common use.  We see this especially in the religious life, where we find—ironically and paradoxically—that men and women who have given up claim to all worldly wealth end up administrating huge complexes—farms, monasteries and convents, hospitals, hostels, schools, universities—with an enormous throughput of capital.  How sad if any—after having given up Mammon to follow Christ—should be tempted to return to Mammon when they find true what Jesus said: “a hundred times more now, in the present age.”  Nonetheless, it can happen that one who gave up everything at age twenty becomes unwilling to give up anything at age fifty.

How do we gain eternal life?  It is not by having our bodies preserved in dry ice.  Jesus gives us three basic steps in today’s Gospel.  Follow the Law of God, which weans us from our selfishness.  Then, give up the idols of the heart: possessions, pleasure, power, pride.  Then, “come, follow me.”  Attach the heart to Christ.  None of the three steps are possible without the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us in Baptism and refreshed within us at this Eucharist.

[1] Cyrus Gordon, A Scholar’s Odyssey (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature Press, 2000).

[2] According to Statistics Netherlands as of 2015. See Hans Schmeets, De religieuze kaart van Nederland, 2010–2015 (Den Hague, NL: Centraal Bureau voor der Statistiek, 2016), 5.

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