28th Sunday in Ordinary Time B

I was blessed to have Fr. Frank Matera a renowned scripture scholar as a teacher and a couple of times I got to interact with him in a smaller setting.  We were talking about this Gospel passage and I suggested that the rich man’s face fell because he had so many possessions, but he still gave it all up and followed Jesus.  Fr. Matera looked at me with something less than the compassion that Jesus showed the rich man and said, “Bob, that’s not what happened.”  But that makes such a good ending!

We all want the bible to say what we think it should say.  It is especially true with the “hard sayings” of the bible, such as “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.”  People having been trying to get around this since the apostles first heard it.  Some have suggested there was a narrow gate in the Jerusalem wall called the eye of the needle through which a camel could just barely maybe squeeze through.  In the great comic novel The Book of Bebb by Frederick Buechner, his character Brownie, who had a talent for making “the rough ways of scripture smooth” claimed the true translation is, “It is as easy for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a needle to pass through the eye of a camel.”  We always want scripture to bend to our will rather than our bending to the will of scripture.

And that makes sense for there is a lot on the line.  Our ego is tied to our possessions; we define ourselves by what we do and have.   Ultimately, Jesus is asking us to surrender.  To surrender the stuff that we use to identify ourselves so that we may take our identity from him.  The problem is no one wants to surrender, give up or give over.  We argue against it.  “Never give up.”  “Never surrender.”  After all, only victors build monuments at places of surrender, not those who surrendered.

Yet, Jesus dares to ask for all of us.  To shed whatever prevents us from joining him on the journey of mercy, redemption and love.  What is it that you hold onto?  It need not be material things.  We refuse to surrender our grudges, our anger, our lack of forgiveness and our pride.  We claim, almost always rightfully so, that we have a right to these things.  But they do not travel well on the journey of love.  We have a right to be angry, but living in our anger is self-defeating.  We have a right not to forgive and should not forgive too soon, but a world without mercy grows only in coldness.  We have a right to be proud, but it limits our relationships.  All these attitudes are nothing more than a choice.  If we hold onto them, we cannot explore the path to peace and salvation.  If we give them up, we walk with Christ.

I read this from an Instagram poet so let’s first deal with the fact that there is such a thing as an Instagram poet.  “Your life should consist of making yourself happy before giving your laughter away to someone else.”  Well the thing that makes me happy is giving away my laughter to someone else.  My sense of self comes not from my possessions, but what I have surrendered; what I have given away to love, to care, to be vulnerable with and for another for there is no moving forward without leaving something behind.  I say this to couples all the time.  “When you married your spouse you rejected literally billions of people, many of them smart and attractive.”   There is a reason we say we “fall” in love, a definitive surrender to a power bigger than ourselves.

Of course, isn’t this the story of Jesus, the one who was hailed by a choir of angels at his birth, who had kings leave gifts at his manger, who healed with such formidable power and then gives himself up on the cross?  He has nothing because he has given it all away.  Jesus promises his anxious apostles that they will receive a hundredfold for all they have given up.  Surrender the possessions that stop you from journeying toward love and you will find mercy, justice, and peace in heavenly measure.