28th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year B)

There was a phrase that made the ‘rounds’ on t-shirts and bumper stickers for a while, that read, ‘whoever has the most toys when he dies, wins.’ Hardly a surprising sentiment in our materialistic world; but when we really think about that statement, it’s really quite sad. As if the sum total of our life and existence is the amount of material wealth we have or have not accumulated. As people of faith, we know that this mindset is very narrow; our hearts and our souls tell us that there is much more to our life and our passage from it than a bank statement or a list of possessions.

In our Gospel passage this week, we read of an encounter between Jesus and a rich man; we are given an insight into the reaction of the human heart when we deny ourselves a deeper, closer relationship with Jesus.

The man asks Jesus what he has to do to gain eternal life – which is an eternity with God. St. Mark tells us this was a person who practiced his religion, but only to a certain point; Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, and then lists some major ones – no murdering, stealing, committing adultery – And in response to this list, the man says , “ I have kept all these things since my youth,” as if simply by not killing or stealing or committing adultery is sufficient to enter into the Kingdom of God. He’s proud, it seems, in being able to hold up a checklist of ‘major’ offences and presenting a clean slate.

But the words St. Mark uses to describe what happens next are so crucial to understanding just what kind of exchange is happening here between Jesus and the man. It says, ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said, ‘You lack one thing,’…” That phrase is very important – ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him…’ It suggests to us something deeply personal and intimate is happening here; Jesus is now telling the rich man to go beyond a simple observance of ‘major’ commandments; that he needs to consider an attitude like ‘just because I haven’t killed anyone’ is not sufficient when it comes to being united to God.

Because Jesus, ’loved him’, it tells us that Jesus is inviting him, in love, to move even closer – that the rich man has potential, but he still needs to detach himself from his wealth, his prestige, his privileged position, his social and political views – anything that keeps him from entering more deeply into relationship with Christ. The depth of that relationship is reflected in Jesus’ instruction to sell what he owns, give the money to the poor, and come follow Him.

It isn’t sufficient to give away some of his belongings, or to make a small donation, and leave his journey of faith at that and assume that’s enough. Jesus says, ‘it’s not enough.’ He invites the rich man and all of us to completely put Him first – to stop placing priority on power, property and privilege ahead of our love of God and love of neighbour.   If we truly want to gain eternal life, then that is the path we must follow, the gate we have to enter through; it’s not a popular gate, it’s not an easy gate – but it’s the gate that Christ Himself invites us to take.

Two interesting things happen when this ‘unpleasant reality’ is presented to the rich man.

One is Jesus’ reaction; the other is the man’s reaction.

Jesus doesn’t diminish or reduce the radical nature of what He has just said. He doesn’t say, ‘oh, is that too hard? Well okay, I was only kidding. You can keep all your wealth and just say a couple of extra prayers.’ He doesn’t say,’ okay, if that doesn’t work for you, just sell half of your possessions and give some of the money to the poor, and visit me when I’m in town.” He says give it all away and follow Him. He emphasizes the point made time and again in the Scriptures, that God is not a god of percentages – ‘give fifty per cent of your heart to me’ or ‘surrender thirty per cent of your life to me’ or ‘give me seventy per cent of your love’; God expects all – all of our heart; all of our life; all of our love – because He has given all. Everything we have, everything we are, all has been given to us by God in the first place.

As for the man’s reaction, he leaves saddened; although it is not a violent reaction, he rejects Jesus’ invitation to follow Him, to come closer to Him and to continue to journey with Him, rather than ‘holding onto’ his possessions. The man chooses material wealth and privilege over a deep and intimate union with Christ. If he has a lot of money, and this has kept him happy up to now, why is he suddenly saddened? Because on the most basic level, his soul knows it has come close to God, has been very close to a deep friendship with God in Jesus, and has turned back to cling to ‘things’ that can never satisfy the soul’s longing for union with God through Christ. His wealth will never completely satisfy him, and on some level, he knows it. But he cannot stop clinging to ‘things’ long enough to open his heart to accept the real treasure – he’s afraid that if he opens his heart he will lose what he has accumulated; he focuses on what he might lose, rather than what he will gain. And what he stands to gain is a personal union with God; he stands to gain eternal life.

It’s worthwhile for each and every one of us to reflect on the two reactions – both from Jesus and the rich man; we need to reflect on how uncompromising Jesus is in calling us to deepen our relationship with Him. Just as important, though, we need to reflect on those times when we have chosen to cling to those things and situations that distance us from Christ, and consider how, in the depth of our own souls, we too may have walked away, like the rich man, ‘saddened and grieving’.

The great news is that the story does not end like that for us, unless we choose that ending. That if we surrender everything to follow Christ, then we can turn that ‘bumper sticker’ mentality around, because the truth is, when it comes to a deeper relationship with Jesus, and to eternal life with God, ‘whoever lives without the most toys, wins.’

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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2nd Sunday Ordinary Time (A)

We all have a desire to be recognized – to have our accomplishments acknowledged by others – to be affirmed in our place in the ‘order of things’.  Especially when we approach things like the Olympics, we hear constantly how important it is not to ‘come in second place’. That’s a completely natural quality of our humanity – but it can be overdone.  If we allow that desire to become dis-ordered, to grow to the point where it consumes our thinking, we can delude ourselves into a mindset where we come to think and believe and act as if everything and everyone revolves around us; “it’s all about me!”  Anyone with even a tenuous grip on reality knows full well, that as individuals, the world does not ‘revolve around us’ and that we are not always the centre of things; that very rarely in life, is it “all about me”.

And yet we have a culture and society that has evolved to the point where we are constantly encouraged and enticed into this way of thinking.  ‘All things have to cater to my convenience, to my tastes, my personal views’ as if ours are the only needs that are important, no matter how –at times- trivial they may be.

We can all see how easily we can be manipulated into this thought process- and how disordered it really is; “buy this or that product or wear this or that fashion or listen to this or that style of music to show your individual personality – and fit in by being just like everyone else.” 

For the children of Israel, the coming of the Messiah was a matter of tremendous importance – it had been the subject of prophecy, of study, of faith and hope for centuries upon centuries.  The Messiah, in salvation history, really was the ‘centre’, around which the relationship for the people with God was all about. Whether perceived as a mighty political or military leader, or as God’s servant who would right all wrongs, the Messiah was even bigger than any king or prince or ruler that Israel had encountered in their entire history.

There were those who had suggested that John the Baptist might very well be this Messiah, long foretold in sacred Scripture; imagine how tempting that would have been for him to entertain.  The religious leaders had previously sent people to John to ask him that very question; and yet John not only denies that he is the Messiah, he actually takes an opportunity to publicly point out the one who is the fulfillment of the words of the prophets! 

And he does it, not grudgingly, but with great joy! “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (other translations use the word, “Behold” which is more of an introduction with a flourish!) – words we echo during the Holy Mass just prior to the distribution of Holy Communion.  John is not simply saying, “it’s not me, go look somewhere else.”  He actually points out the one who he says, ‘ranks ahead of me’. We are invited into this same attitude when it comes to Holy Mass or to our prayer lives.  If we are bored at Mass or prayer, perhaps it is because we put our preferences first, and the point of our prayer or celebration – Jesus – second.  Our Holy Father, Pope Francis has been quoted as saying, “If your prayer life is boring, you’re focusing on yourself, not Jesus, not the needy.”  

John, in acknowledging that Jesus is the one upon who the Spirit of God rests, immediately places himself in a subordinate role.  John is not the Son of God; but he is His messenger, and that role, that place ‘in the universe’ is more than enough – it is a place of friendship, of relationship, of trust and yes, even a place of honour. 

Putting the other ahead of ourselves is the Christian posture.  Acknowledging that Christ is the head, Christ is the priority, rather than our own desires, ambitions or preferences is the first step in a deep conversion experience.  John the Baptist provides us all with an example of how each of us can be open to molding or fashioning our lives more in keeping with the life of Christ;  he points to Jesus’ primacy, and bears witness – testifies- that Jesus is the Son of God, the centre of salvation history! 

Viewing our world through the lens of Jesus, rather than through the lens of popular culture or even personal desire, puts everything into perspective; when viewed in that way, we really see that Christ is the ‘centre of the universe’, not us. We can begin to see how Christ, reflected in others and reflected through our actions, truly illustrates where the centre of our world is. 

By placing Christ first, and placing ourselves second, we can truly find our own place, our place of honour as adopted children of God, in our world.  If we consider Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first; then ‘coming in second’ is not such a bad place to be.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!