Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 11.)

Did you ever run into an unexpected road block? Many people have and it can be frustrating. You are trying to get to a destination then all of a sudden you have to halt. It’s especially annoying if you’re trying to get somewhere on time.

The readings for Mass this Sunday deal with some potential road blocks and some advice on avoiding them on the journey of life. The theme in this section of the Gospel of Mark actually started a few weeks ago and continues today.

The passage begins with the story of a man asking Jesus that perennial question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds quoting several of the commandments from the covenant: “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.”

The man replies that he has observed these from his youth. Jesus looks on him with love and says: “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

St. Mark tells us that when Jesus says this the man’s face “fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” The first part of this encounter sets the stage. The question, once again, is “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The commandments are a good starting point on that journey but they are not the end itself. It seems there was something lacking in the man that Jesus could read from their encounter. The path to life has God at the center of one’s life. He is the source of life as well as the sustainer. His presence gives us counsel, support, challenge, encouragement and direction.

Jesus senses some sort of barrier in the man that was not allowing God to be at the center. In this case it was his material possessions. When Jesus invites him to trust in God by selling these in support of the poor, the man hits the road block and goes away sad. Telling in this encounter is that Jesus offers his direction with compassion and love. He knows it will be difficult for the man to respond. The man himself goes away “sad,” which may indicate an inner realization that he needs to do what Jesus is asking but cannot summon the faith to respond.

At this point Jesus addresses his disciples. He speaks of the road block of riches and wealth using the well-known saying: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”

Jesus is not speaking here of material objects in and of themselves but seems to point to an excess of material things. Material things are good. God created the world and gave it to humanity for proper stewardship and use. However, if an individual, or society for that matter, loses sight of the origin and purpose of these then they can easily start to stray from the path to life. Accumulation of wealth can easily become consuming.

Jesus’ observation is based on a not-too-infrequent pattern in human life. When this happens the journey to the Kingdom of God can either get thwarted or in extreme cases the person may end up on a different path completely. The effects of such direction can alter not only one’s relationship with God, but also with family and community. We see this in our own day when marriages are broken when one or both of the spouses get “off track” with regards to work and the accumulation of possessions, seeking to “keep up with the Joneses” or similar goals. It can be devastating.

At this point we see that “wealth” may become a “road block” if certain things are not in place. To avoid this and other road blocks, we are given three points of guidance through the readings for today’s celebration.

First, when the disciples ask: “Who can be saved?” Jesus responds: “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.” God is the one who saves us, not ourselves. Many people who accumulate wealth come under the false or deceptive notion that wealth can bring happiness and life. This is an illusion that Jesus is seeking to correct. In the accumulation of possessions, the person actually becomes the focus of his own salvation – seeking happiness through their own device or effort. Jesus’ teaching reminds us that life comes from God, as does our salvation. Living life by relying on God will keep us on the right track.

Second, the first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, reminds us of the non-material gifts that God gives and can cultivate in us. Wisdom encompasses the gifts tied to making good decisions and living a life accordingly. God gives us reason and intellect to help us know the path of life and to encourage us on the journey.

Third, God likewise gives us the Scriptures, the word of God, to help us know him and his way. The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews describes the Scriptures as “living and effective, sharper than any two-edge sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” God speaks to us through his word and leads us on the path of life.

We are reminded today that the journey we are on is a good one. It leads to a rich and abundant life now and the fullness of life in eternity. “Road blocks” are ultimately a pain in the neck. They get in the way of our journey. The Word of God helps us to avoid “road blocks” in this all-important path so that we may enjoy the life that has been given us, to the full.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.