Sapientia (Wisdom), c.1170s, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA.
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.” Mark 10:26-27.
Words highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
In today’s gospel, Jesus announces that 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.” His apostles were astonished at this, wondering in that case who can be saved? That is remarkable, because there could not have been too many who were rich in those days, yet they wondered who, in that case, could be saved? That seems to suggest that there was a significant number of rich people at that time, numerous enough for them to question Jesus’ words. In fact, their words seem to suggest that everyone was rich enough to be excluded from God’s kingdom! Remember that wealth was considered to be a sign of God’s favor back then. Poverty and illness were signs of God’s displeasure, all of which probably sprang from the near universal belief in Sheol, the place everyone went to after death, good and bad alike, a place of half-life where nothing happened, forever. So goodness and badness were confined to life here on earth. God’s favor resulted in wealth and health for the pious, poverty and illness for the impious. It was logical, but clearly Jesus did not accept that interpretation. In fact, he upended it completely, stating that those clinging to money were not destined for heaven, a comparatively new concept at that time.
There was a huge contemporary disputation raging in Jesus’ time about the afterlife, that the good in this life would be admitted to the presence of God, the bad to the fires of hell. Today’s gospel clearly and unmistakably shows Jesus’ position in that argument. Hence the amazement with his disciples. Everyone was out to make a fortune for themselves in their day, as this would show God’s blessing – or not. If that were not the case, then who could be saved?
Remember Tevye’s song in that most Jewish of all musicals, “Fiddler on the Roof”:
Lord, who made the lion and the lamb
You decreed I should be what I am
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan
If I were a wealthy man?
Today’s gospel story of the young man Jesus invites to become his follower provided he relinquishes his wealth, which he is unwilling to do, shows the strength of this conviction. In the mind of most people at that time, to give up your wealth would mean you are rejecting God’s blessing on you. Jesus was therefore asking for the well nigh impossible! He then equates such a mind set as an almost total barrier to eternal happiness in God’s presence. It’s easier to pull a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God! Jesus’ disciples had probably never heard the like before, hence their consternation. This was an entirely new teaching, revolutionary even. Then who, indeed, could be saved?
Jesus, seen from today’s reading, was quite a revolutionary figure. He was upending a very old tradition and belief, but one which was not really based on Scripture but rather life experience and the need to make sense of one’s life here and now. Lacking the new revelation in today’s gospel, it does make sense that success in this world suggests you are in God’s good graces. Jesus it would seem, is enlarging that thought to align it with his own thought: it’s what you do with wealth that is important. Today’s first reading declares the importance of wisdom over wealth,“all gold, in view of her, is a little sand…”, over “health and comeliness”, over power “scepter and throne” and so on. With wisdom comes something much more, “all good things together came to me in her company, and countless riches at her hands”. And this wisdom is the knowledge of God, of goodness, of right living. And now the Son of God is declaring what exactly that all means.
Our second reading reminds us that nothing is concealed from the eye of God. Our motives, our inner truths, what we hold most dear, all utterly clear to God who knows all, whose wisdom pervades everything. Remember the Old Testament concept of wisdom is, I believe, a prefiguration of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, God’s Holy Spirit, and encapsulates the feminine aspect of the Divine. In Aramaic, Jesus’ language, God’s Holy Spirit (Ruach HaKodesh) is feminine, and by rights we should say “she” whenever speaking of the Holy Spirit. It is only through the quirks of linguistic gender that, in English, we say “he” for the Holy Spirit, from the Latin word Spiritus, which is masculine or, worse, the Greek πνεύμα (pneuma) which is neutral. That denies an entire ethos of divinity, and renders our understanding of God diminished. I contend that thinking of God in this expanded fashion makes it easier for us to grasp Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. Looking at the popular understanding of wealth, which Jesus is challenging today, and then meditating on the first reading which contemplates divine wisdom, it is easier to understand Jesus’ position. He is bringing the two visions together, and thereby changes our notion of wealth as power, superiority, worldly success. It is, rather, one further aspect of how we are to act as children of God: an aspect, not a be all and end all. That presumably was a revolutionary concept to his followers, whose bewilderment shows up clearly in the gospel: “Then who can be saved?” Ah, now comes the answer. For you? Impossible. For God? Well, that’s another matter. Stay tuned, Jesus seems to be saying.
The Holy Trinity, Demetz Art Studio, Urtijëi, Italy.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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