Scripture in Depth
Reading I: Wisdom 7:7-11
The tradition of comparing wisdom and material wealth, to the disadvantage of the latter, goes back to Solomon’s prayer in I Kings 3:6-9. The comparison becomes a commonplace in wisdom literature (the price of wisdom is above rubies) and matches the gospel story of the rich young man.
Responsorial Psalm: 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17
Little is known about the origin of this psalm, familiar to many generations of Anglicans from its use at funerals (but less used today). As the first stanza shows, it is influenced by wisdom theology (“that we may get a heart of wisdom”). This is its link with the prayer of Solomon, and one might have expected the refrain to highlight this point.
Reading II: Hebrews 4:12-13
The New Testament teaching about the word of God takes for granted what is said about it in the Old Testament. There God’s word is an effective power that intervenes in human affairs, and particularly in Israel’s salvation history. It effects what it says (Is 55:10-11).
Today’s passage from Hebrews deepens the Old Testament teaching. The word’s effects extend to the very heart of the individual believer. And whereas in the Old Testament the word of God was primarily his word announced by the prophets—a word that had in the first instance to do with Israel’s contemporary history, interpreting it as judgment or salvation—the word of God in the New Testament is the gospel message. This gives us the context of our present passage.
The people to whom Hebrews is addressed are drifting away from the Gospel through boredom and stagnation (their behavior is typified by the murmuring of the Israelites in the wilderness). They are warned that the Gospel is not something to be trifled with. Failure to persevere in faith and to develop toward maturity incurs just as sharp a judgment as willful rejection of the Gospel in the first place.
Gospel: Mark 10:17-30
The long form of this reading represents a combination of three units of material: (1) the rich young man (this is the usual name of the pericope, though only Matthew calls him a young man) in Mark 10:17-22; (2) the comparison of entry into the kingdom of God to a camel going through the eye of a needle in Mark 10:23-27; (3) the saying on the rewards of discipleship in Mark 10:28-31. The shorter form is obtained by omitting the third unit.
These somewhat disparate pieces of tradition have been combined to form a sort of catechesis on the Christian attitude toward wealth. Of these items, the first is clearly the most important, and we will concentrate upon it. To begin with, we must dispose of a preliminary problem.
It has long been a difficulty for piety and orthodoxy that Jesus should have rejected the address “Good Teacher” with the reply that “no one is good but God alone.” Was not Jesus good and was he not God? Matthew already felt something of this difficulty, for he substitutes “Why do you ask me concerning that which is good?”
Once more, however, we have to remind ourselves that we run into difficulties if we approach the Jesus of history with the presuppositions of Christian piety or later dogmatics.
We have to approach him first as a real human being, reacting as a real human being—especially as a devout Jew would—to flattery or insincerity, and as a prophet confronting men and women with the goodness of God alone. Later on, piety and dogmatics will discover the sinlessness of Jesus and his deity in that true humanity.
In seeking to understand this episode, it is important that we divest ourselves of unconscious memories of Matthew’s version. There Jesus presents the renunciation of wealth and personal discipleship as counsels of perfection: “If you would be perfect ... ” (Mt 19:21).
In other words, it is not necessary to salvation to renounce all wealth and to follow Jesus in that particular way. Here, however, it is a challenge to radical decision in face of the coming of God’s kingdom. This absolute challenge is far more in accord with Jesus’ eschatological preaching.
Note, however, that the renunciation of wealth is not an end in itself but only a precondition for following Jesus. This particular man has to renounce what was an impediment for him in order to obey the command “Follow me.”
It is the life of discipleship, not the renunciation of wealth per se, that leads to eternal life. It is not enough to obey the Mosaic law in order to enter eternal life; beyond all that, it is necessary to accept Jesus’ eschatological message and to follow him in the way of discipleship.
This is one of the Gospel episodes that show the high degree of continuity between Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom and Paul’s preaching of justification.
Reginald H. Fuller