The child, the rich young man, and the eye of the needle

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28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Oct. 14, 2012
Wis 7:7-11; Ps 90; Heb 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30

“How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” our Lord Jesus declares in our Gospel reading today. “How hard!” You didn’t think that it would be easy, and that everyone would automatically be entering heaven, did you? Because that is not Jesus’ message. As he says in a different passage:

“The gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Matt 7:13-14)

And yet, in last week’s reading, immediately before this week’s passage starts, he welcomes the little children and says, “Do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” These form an interesting pair: the children and the rich young man in today’s passage. What is the lesson here? What does it mean to accept the kingdom of God like a child?

There is a story from when I was 3 years old that may help to illustrate this. At that time my family lived in Southern California, and my dad was a music teacher who directed a school marching band—so we went to Disneyland with some regularity where his band would perform. And on one visit, when we encountered Captain Hook—so I’m told, because I don’t actually remember it—I went up to Captain Hook and said, “I’m ready to sign up and join your band of pirates!” This took my parents completely by surprise, for they had no idea that their 3-year-old was thinking of leaving home to become a pirate! And the poor man inside the Captain Hook head had to quickly think of something to say that would turn me away without hurting my feelings.

But isn’t that the way that children can be? Ready to leave it all behind and just follow, on a grand adventure! “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” And how does the rich young man in today’s passage measure up?

His life has of course gotten much more complicated since he was a little boy. He has many possessions, and is surely enmeshed in many different cares and commitments of adult life. And yet he has not been satisfied with this. He has been searching—all his life. He has observed all the commandments that Jesus lists, having to do with love of neighbor, since his youth. But he has longed for more. And now he runs up to Jesus, kneels down on the ground before him, and asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus, looking at him, loves him. How could he not, when this man’s heart is so completely devoted to loving his neighbor and searching for God? And he is ready to give him what he has been searching for all this time. The man just needs to empty his hands of all that he is holding onto so tightly, so that he can then receive from Jesus what he has been searching for. And so Jesus says: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

And the man can’t do it. He has gotten all the way to the finish line, all the way to the playoffs; and he chokes. As a child, surely he could have done it; but now he cannot bring himself to open his hands and let his many possessions go, in order to finally receive what he has been seeking for so long. Because those possessions mean too much to him: comfort, pleasure, status, influence, meaning, identity. He can’t let them go.

“Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”  “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples are stunned to hear Jesus say this. Aren’t riches a sign of God’s favor and blessing? Aren’t the rich able to perform many deeds that God appreciates, like giving alms to the poor, offering many sacrifices, having leisure to worship and study God’s word on the Sabbath? Aren’t they free from the pressure to commit crime to survive? Don’t the rich have the best chance of entering the kingdom of God?

But Jesus insists. “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.” And the disciples, in their astonishment, respond: “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus agrees: It is impossible. “For human beings it is impossible.”

Does this worry you, in the 21st century, in Bethesda, Maryland? In this most powerful country in the world; in this wealthiest and most educated metropolitan area of the country; in this golden zip code 20817, with the 11th most expensive home sales out of all the hundreds of zip codes in the greater DC area? “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! … For human beings it is impossible—”

“—but not for God. All things are possible for God.” It is God who must make us saints; it is God who must make us worthy of heaven. And it is faith—the total, courageous faith of a child—that opens our hands so that we can receive the gift that he wants to give us, that we could never generate on our own.

This past Thursday we began the Year of Faith, designated by our Holy Father Pope Benedict, which will last until Christ the King Sunday in November of next year. So this year will be an important opportunity for all of us to consider again the many aspects of faith and the place it should have in shaping our hearts and lives.

So what does faith ask of us? What does our Lord require? A lot; a large amount? If you give a large donation, will that be enough? Can you hold onto the rest of your life? No: he asks simply for everything. How much that everything is doesn’t matter, as long as it’s everything. In a few weeks we will hear again about the poor widow who gave just two coins, but it was all she had; so that Jesus declared that she had put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. (Mark 12:43)

And it is not as if our Lord wants just your money, or your marketable skills, or whatever your kids are expecting of you these days. No, he also knows and loves the secret abilities and joys that he has placed in you; and the special spiritual gifts he has given to each of you. He wants to make use of those as well. What he asks for is the everything of faith; all of you. And that is simply what he himself has also given. For we see him with open hands and open arms upon the cross, giving everything to the Father in complete abandon. He asks us to join him in this total self-gift, and in return he promises a hundred times more now in this present age, and eternal life in the age to come.

St. Therese of Lisieux has said: “You cannot be half a saint. You must be a whole saint or no saint at all.”

“The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. For God, all things are possible.”

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