Moses Smashes the Tablets of the Law, Rembrandt, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.
“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…….. Mark 10:17-19
In the children’s classic The Secret Garden, there is a moment in the movie when our young heroine is told “not to go poking about”. Well, at that very moment, the whole plot is revealed, because, of course, that is exactly what she does, and we are off and running. Over my many years of teaching, I found that young people do not like to be told what not to do. It is almost an invitation for them to do exactly that. After all, if it’s forbidden there must be something exciting about doing it (whatever “it” is). Today Jesus lists the 10 Commandments, which I take to be the foundation of our very civilization. But the language of the Decalogue is quite negative: “Thou shalt not…” So I took it upon myself (Parce mihi domine) to rephrase the list in a more positive light. They ended up looking like this: 1. I am your one and only God; 2: Use my name with honor and care; 3: Remember to come to me and say Thank You (which in Greek is Eucharist) on Sundays; 4: Honor your father and your mother; 5. Respect all life because all life comes from Me; 6: Respect, obey and strengthen the vows and friendships you have made with others; 7: Respect other people’s property; 8: Tell the truth; 9: Honor and respect those people vowed and joined to others; 10: Rejoice in the success and achievements of other people. These, then, are the counsels of perfection for this week (remember the list in last Sunday’s reflections?). But what kind of world would we live in if all those commands were taken to heart and obeyed by everyone? Wonderful? For example, commandment number one; aren’t there people who have money, or power, or sex or drugs as the dominating god in their lives? There should only be one God, who would destroy the others and hence restore an individual to freedom.
But this week’s gospel goes even beyond this list of to-do’s. The young man pushed Jesus further. He had obeyed the commandments for as long as he could remember, but presumably felt some kind of void there. What else should he do? Well, he got the answer, but did not like it: “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.” That was one bridge too far, and off he went sad and dejected “for he had many possessions”. Then Jesus delivered his thunderbolt: “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.” Well his disciples were staggered at this as it would apply to so many people; who could be saved in that case? And Jesus is quite clear on the point – it is impossible for us, but luckily, all things are possible for God. However, these words obviously had a huge impact, because in the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the early Christian church, they did exactly that, giving up their possessions and holding them in common and distributing their wealth to those who needed it (Acts 2:44-45). That is still found today in the religious congregations of the church; it is typical for Franciscans, Carmelites, Jesuits, Carthusians and all the other orders to bring nothing of significance with them when they enter. All is held in common. But for everyone else, all must rely on God’s mercy. Remember the definition of mercy: compassion on someone who does not deserve it.
The divine mercy of God can spread far and wide, thankfully. But bearing in mind Jesus’ words, we must never forget the needs of the poor, and if we have the means, we have to do something about it. In fact, God asks us to accept and act in today’s first reading, and conduct ourselves with the wisdom of God, which will bring us riches beyond the world’s imagination (note also in passing that Holy Wisdom is “she”, the Hebrew word being feminine; the Old Testament feminine conception of Wisdom is clearly a foretaste of the Christian revelation of the Holy Spirit of God in the Trinity). And the second reading is a call to spiritual arms. God knows everything, all our thoughts, our motivations, our innermost desires. So it is up to us to ensure that what God finds there is pleasing, clean, obedient to the divine commands, and that we are doing all in our power to be God’s good children. We, of all people, mustn’t go “poking around” in places that are contrary to God’s wishes, no matter what the temptation might be. In that, we have Jesus with us to help and guide us all our days to the end….
“….and come, follow me.
Ancient Byzantine manuscript, Ancient Answers.