Commentary on the Readings
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
Leave the goods and you'll have the good
Chosen as the arbiter of a musical contest between Pan’s flute and Apollo’s lyre, King Midas had attributed the victory to the first. Only an inexperienced, one with the musical sensitivity of a donkey could become unbalanced in such a judgment. He would grow donkey’s ears and would become the symbol of the reckless man. One day Dionysus, grateful for a favor received, allowed him to express a wish, promising to fulfill it. Midas, without thinking, and guided by his proverbial folly, asked that everything he touched would change into gold. Thus it happened but from that time he was no longer in a position to either eat or drink.
Of these myths only one who does not realize that they reflect our reality, and denounce our foolish choices, can smile.
It is we who, between the sound of the Apollonian lyre, symbol of harmony, the balance of passions, moderation, and the melody of the flute, an instrument of seduction and stimulus to excesses, preferred the latter.
The insatiable longing for gold, the greed for the goods, the idolatry of money are cause for concern, anxiety and shortness of breath. They take the breath away and make life impossible. They continue to be held objectives for which it is worth living. Everything that one touches—the profession, scientific research, friendships, family and, sometimes, religion—is appreciated… if it produces gold. This is madness.
“A man of donkey’s ears” was considered by the sages of antiquity, “crazy.” Who accumulates assets as the purpose of his existence is defined a fool by Jesus (Lk 12:20).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“I do not want to bet life on the goods, but on the Good.”
The intelligence, the ability to discover the mysteries of science and technology, wealth, health, beauty, power, can be inherited from one’s parents. It is not so with Wisdom. The wisdom that leads us to make sensible choices and allows to reach the fullness of life, is not from men, but from the sky, is a gift from God.
Solomon tells thus his origin: “I, too, am a mortal man like others, a descendant of the first human being formed from clay. My flesh was molded in a mother’s womb, from the seed of man, given in a pleasure, the companion of sleep. Once born, I breathed the air common to everyone, my first cry was like that of other infants” (Wis 7:1-3).
He was an extraordinary child. From childhood he revealed exceptional gifts, but he lack the most important quality, that which no man can give, wisdom.
Today’s reading explains how Solomon obtained wisdom from God: “I prayed, and understanding was given to me” (v. 7).
The reference is to the famous dream of Gibeon on the mountain where the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream at night and said to him, “Ask what you want me to give you.” Solomon said, “I am a young boy who does not know how to undertake anything. Give me therefore an understanding mind in governing your people that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Kgs 3:4-15).
Education, culture, scholarship are provided by teachers and tutors. The ability to discern what is good and what is bad can only be achieved through prayer, through encounter with God “on the mountain” where he reveals himself. If one stays below, does not raise the heart to God in listening to his word, he is conditioned by the thoughts of men, devoid of “prudence” (v. 7).
In the second part of the passage (vv. 8-10), Solomon weaves the praise of “divine wisdom” given him from heaven, and comparing it to the most fascinating creatures, he concludes all that people appreciate, gems, gold, silver, but in comparison they are nothing (v. 8). They are a handful of sand, mud (v. 9); health, physical beauty (sung by an entire book of the Bible, the Song of Songs) possession of kingdoms, thrones and scepters do not deserve to be compared with her (vv. 9-10). Not even the light, the most beautiful of creatures, can hold the comparison, because wisdom “is more beautiful than the sun and surpasses all the constellations, she outrivals light” (Wis 7:29).
But really to choose wisdom must one give up all that is beautiful in creation?
The author of the Book of Wisdom does not show any contempt for worldly goods. He is convinced that they are very good and that’s why he compared them to wisdom. Everything that God made is beautiful and good, but to get these goods wisdom is needed.
In the last part of the passage (v. 11) Solomon recognizes that, just for having chosen wisdom, the Lord has given him all the other gifts.
Wisdom is a lovely bride. Who binds oneself to her in love, who does not turn his eyes to other wisdoms, although seductive, who introduces her to his own home, makes a startling discovery: a dowry she will bring with her all the best.
Who becomes wise, who learns to give the creatures their proper value and makes decisions in accordance with the plan of God, does not lose nothing, but gains everything, gets real joy.
The empty talks do not produce anything; they do not transform the human heart. The word of God is entirely different and the author of today’s passage lists its features.
It is living and effective. Once out of the Lord’s mouth it always produces some effect because it has in itself the life and the power of God. The prophet Isaiah compares it to the rain never falls in vain; it does not return to heaven without having fertilized the earth (Is 55:10-11).
If our communities remain always the same, if the lives of our families do not improve, this is because the word that preachers, catechists and parents announce is neither alive nor effective; it is not the word of God, but only the wisdom of humans.
Then it is sharp and penetrating more than a sharpened sword. It is hard and unyielding, is not bent by the winds of new doctrines and inexorably penetrates to the core of the hearer. It is not a feather that caresses nor a crutch on which one leans on in order to go on even in conditions of spiritual paralyses.
Finally, it is a judge of every action. The word that leaves one still and quiet, does not disturb, allows one to live with bad habits, quirks, animosity, resentment, is not God’s word.
Mark has added the challenging demands of Christian morality in the middle section of his gospel. They are not placed before, because they can be understood only by one who has made the choice to follow Christ in the gift of life. Last Sunday, Jesus spoke of the indissolubility of marriage. Today he puts the disciples before the need to give up all possessions to follow him.
In the first part of the passage (vv. 17-22) a rich young man enters the scene fast. He throws himself on his knees before Jesus and asks him, “Good Master, what must I do to have eternal life?” (v. 17). The behavior of this man is truly unique. He looks like a sick man who approaches Jesus to implore the grace of healing.
From the continuation of the story, we learn that he is a just person and is conscious of having led a blameless life. Yet one feels that there is a deep concern in him, an intimate and indefinite anguish that makes him suffer as if it were a spiritual infirmity. He seeks Jesus because he realized that only from an outstanding teacher like him the word that communicates serenity and hope, can come.
He is also prepared from the theological point of view. He does not speak of “conquering, meriting, being entitled to,” but “to inherit” eternal life. The inheritance is not earned, not received as a reward, as salary of a job, but is given free of charge. Like every pious Israelite, he is aware that from God everything is received in “inheritance”: the earth (Ps 135:12), the law (Ps 119:111), the blessing and the promises (Heb 6:12), the kingdom of God (Mt 25:34), the Lord Himself, the inheritance of Israel (Ps 16:5). Nothing is given as a reward for good deeds. Everything is a gift.
Although he understood that eternal life is a legacy, he asks Jesus what he must do more. He is aware that he must not only wait, but he needs to dispose himself because the Lord does not force anyone to accept his gift.
As the rabbis used to do, Jesus responds with a counter question that can be paraphrased thus: You already have “an outstanding teacher, God” who instructs you through the Scriptures. What else do you want? Is it not written: “They shall all be taught by God” (Jn 6:45)? Then, to help him in his quest, he reminds him of the precepts which the Lord has revealed to his people and which are the minimum requirement for admission to life. He cites the Decalogue, but not completely, leaving out the first three commandments, those that pertain to God. For him the compliance with the duties to man is sufficient. In fact, the only way to express love for God is to share his project on behalf of man, as the apostle John understood: “Dear friends, if such has been the love of God, we, too, must love one another” (1 Jn 4:11).
Keeping the commandments is, however, not a merit. It is a cause for gratitude to the Lord, “the only good teacher” who gave his people the law of life. The Psalmist reflected: “Blessed is the one who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commands” (Ps 112:1) and, with precision, the rabbis commented: joy is “in his commandments,” not in the reward that the observer will receive. “The good done is a reward in itself,” as evil punishes one who commits it.
The response of the rich young man is amazing. He declares, convinced, of having observed all the commandments right from the use of reason (v. 20).
John assures us that “if we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). Some doubt on the claim of the rich young man therefore seems reasonable.
Probably he was not exactly spotless. He, too, must have succumbed to some weakness, yet his serene and calm judgment contains a valuable message. It is an invitation to evaluate with some optimism one’s own life. Before God—John exhorts—we need to reassure our hearts “whatever reproaches us, God is greater than our conscience, and he knows everything” (1 Jn 3:20). The presence of some misdemeanor does not impede to consider good, on the whole, a lifetime of love. To agonize, to feel rejected by God, to punish oneself because one is not perfect is not a sign of holiness, but of pride. It is not permissible to call good what is bad, but one cannot even be cruel to oneself, otherwise one ends up becoming it also with the other.
The rabbis taught that, to be fair, it was enough to keep the commandments. Jesus, having heard the statement of the rich, “looked steadily at him and loved him” (v. 21).
Mark is pleased to remember the eyes of Jesus: that outraged look against the Pharisees (Mk 3:5), those addressed to his listeners (Mk 3:34), and to the crowd around him (Mk 5:32), to the disciples (Mk 10:23), at the disorder in the temple (Mk 11:11). He looks at the rich young man with affection, with satisfaction, because he sees him prepared to make the leap. He then throws out the decisive demand: “Go, sell what you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me” (v. 21).
The rabbis often spoke of the coffers of the sky in which the treasures accumulated by the righteous on earth are kept. They taught: “The righteous await the end with pleasure and leave this life without fear. In fact they have with God a treasure trove of works.” Jesus takes this image to highlight the inconsistency of the goods of this world and to show how to use them according to God. We might paraphrase thus his proposal: “Strip yourself of all the assets you have, do not throw them away, but give them to one in need. You will remain poor and God will be your treasure.”
This is not a new commandment, added to those of the Decalogue, but the invitation to adhere to an entirely new logic. It asks to give up any egoistic use not only of money, but of all goods, intelligence, health, beauty, one’s time, all the abilities received from God. One cannot be his disciples if he does not detach the heart of what one possesses. Foolish is he who jealously withholds the goods until “the time of expropriation” inevitably will arrive.
Even the cynical philosophers had preached the radical departure from property. Crates, a disciple of Diogenes, had got rid of his considerable riches throwing them into the sea. In the face of this world’s goods, Jesus takes on a completely different attitude. He does not despise them nor invites to destroy them, but shows how to value them: They are to be donated to the poor. He does not ask to give something as alms, but “to give up everything.”
How to make this demand feasible?
An ingenious solution was devised. He explained that this is not a necessary condition for discipleship; it is a counsel reserved for certain heroes. The Christians were so divided into two classes: on one part the “perfect”—those making a vow of poverty—commit to adhere fully to what Jesus commanded; the other—the “simple Christians”—who can continue to own their properties, resigning, however, to remain “imperfect.”
This solution is a clumsy trick to escape the requirement that Jesus addressed, not to a small group of “perfect,” but to anyone who wants to be his disciple.
The ideal of the Christian is not misery, famine, or nakedness, but the fraternal sharing of the goods that God has made available to everyone. Sin is not getting rich, but to enrich only oneself. In the Gospel of the Nazarenes, an apocryphal book of the second century A.D., the story is told with the addition of some curious details. After the request of the Master, “the rich man began to scratch his head; he was not happy. The Lord remarked: many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, sink into the dirt and die of hunger, while your house is full of all good things and nothing comes out for them.”
In Mark, the story bitterly ends: the rich young man chooses to stay with his goods. He dares not trust the proposal of Jesus, not bringing himself to take risks, afraid of losing everything and sad, he walks away. He was afflicted because he could not break away from the goods. He does not realize that the human heart is made for infinite love and as long as one is slave of things he cannot but be disappointed and unhappy.
The grain of wheat, once planted, sprouts, grows and produces the stalk and the ear. This process cannot be different, because it favors the nature of the seed. The human being is made in God’s image and in one’s heart he overwhelmingly feels the need for the infinite. Although repressed, silenced, forgotten, this desire emerges and no creature is ever able to satisfy it.
The story is not finished, but it is not difficult to reconstruct what follows.
The rich young man was not a novice, driven by the enthusiasm of a moment. He had grown nourishing deep religious convictions, so it is inconceivable that, after an encounter with Jesus, he abandoned himself to debauchery, begun to transgress the commandments. He certainly continued to be just, holy and live a flawless life… but he did not become a Christian; he could not make the leap of quality.
The second part of the passage (vv. 23-27) relates the consideration of Jesus about the dangers of wealth. She is the most serious impediment for one wishing to become a disciple. She has the seductive power of a god, because every time one resorts to her, she responds by giving what one asks. It is an almost insurmountable obstacle for one who wants to enter the kingdom of heaven. “It’s easier—ensures Jesus—for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Someone tried to interpret this strange image, explaining that this is not a camel, but a hawser (the two words are very similar in Greek), or the “eye of the needle” was a small door in the city of Jerusalem. It’s better to keep the paradoxical image used by Jesus than talking about an “impossible decision” (v. 27). The detachment from all that one possesses requires an act of generosity that only a miracle of God can help one do it.
The disciples to whom the Master addresses are not rich, but are astonished by his words. They understood that one who is poor must divest himself of all. It is not about giving a lot or a little, but to offer all that one is and what one has, much or little it is.
In the last part (vv. 28-31), the persons and things from which the disciple is called to be detached are listed. About this dual list, placed first on the lips of Peter, and then on that of Jesus, we notice the unexpected presence of family members among the assets to which we must give up.
It is easy to confuse love with morbid attachment. There is a personal selfishness, but there is also a more subtle selfishness, which can clothe itself in virtue, and it is the familiar selfishness. Who thinks only of himself, his wife and his children remains an egoist. He is unable to look beyond the threshold of his home. He cannot be happy because his heart is atrophied, suppressing the universal love for which he is made.
Among the people that one must give up, the wife is not included. The reason is that Peter and the other apostles did not give up their wives. They have not broken up their families. This would be neither just nor human. When, for apostolic reasons, they had to move and change residence, they have always acted in agreement with their wives who, generally agreed to accompany them (1 Cor 9:5). The commitment to the gospel cannot be placed in opposition to the duties towards the family.
It is significant that, finally, among the things which the disciple receives a hundredfold, the father does not appear. Already in this world generous love is offset by a hundredfold in homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields, but not the “fathers”. In fact, in the Christian community “fathers” must no longer exist because all are brothers and sisters; “the only Father is the one who is in heaven” (Mt 23:9).