ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

What Stands In Your Way?

WISDOM 7:7-11
HEBREWS 4:12-13
MARK 10:17-30

A few months ago, basketball enthusiasts were thrilled to witness as an obviously very ill Michael Jordan pulled himself from his sickbed to rally his fading energies and lead his Chicago Bulls team to a stunning victory over the Utah Jazz. Stricken with a virus and unable to stand on his own at the end of the game, Jordan had once more borne witness to his conviction that “obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it or work around it.” For Jordan, on that night in June of 1997, the obstacle, the wall that stood in his way, and that he worked around, was illness.

Today’s gospel also features a young and gifted man who was challenged to overcome an obstacle. No doubt, his was an obstacle with which many of us would like to be burdened, viz., riches. Unfortunately, the young man was not up to the invitation Jesus extended to him. His riches stood between him and a share in everlasting life. Whether or not he eventually overcame his attachment to his wealth and opted to follow Jesus is not ours to know. Suffice it to say, the rich man’s experience, and others like it, should cause us to consider what stands between me and God. . . what obstacle hinders me from becoming all that I have been called to be?

Recall the parable of the guests invited to a great feast (Luke 14:15-24). Two begged off because of work (“I purchased a field and must go and examine it. . .”, “I have brought five oxen and must try them”). Another begged to be excused for personal business (“I just got married”). The point of Jesus’ parable was to teach that nothing and no one should stand in the way of those called to participate in the reign of God. Elsewhere in the gospels, other obstacles to Jesus are in evidence. The Pharisees allowed their rigid interpretation and rigorous observance of the law to stand between them and the truth Jesus taught. Others erected a wall of resentment against Jesus because he had disappointed their messianic expectations. Still others permitted their familiarity with Jesus (“he is Joseph the carpenter’s son!”) to be an obstacle to their acceptance of his words and works. Some hid behind a barricade of propriety, dismissing Jesus as “a drunkard, a glutton and a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34).

In contrast to the rich man in the gospel, Solomon, to whom the first reading from Wisdom is attributed, did not allow anything to stand between him and God. Although he was far from perfect, Solomon had his priorities in order when he came to God in prayer. His considerable riches, power, prestige and physical well-being did not cloud his vision or obstruct his resolve. He, who enjoyed a lion’s share of everything the world had to offer. prayed for the one gift that only God could give, viz., wisdom.

While considering the different ways in which Solomon and the rich man dealt with the obstacles which stood between them and God, the gathered assembly is invited to consider the insights of the second reading from Hebrews. Rather than rationalize the ethical demands of the gospel in order to justify the confortable way we live our lives, we are called to allow the word of God in all its vital power and effectiveness to challenge us. Eech time the word is proclaimed, it penetrates to the heart of who we are; it seeks us out to confront us where we live, sifting our values, questioning our goals and the means by which we attain them.

When we are tempted to erect a wall against the compelling power of the word or to become frustrated and hide from its seemingly impossible demands, we will also find within it the encouragement necessary to remain faithful to its challenge. Notice the gospel word that tells us “Jesus looked at him (the rich man) with love.” Notice also, Jesus’ words to his disciples, “With God all things are possible” and “I give you my word. . . you will receive a hundred times as many homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and property. . . and in the age to come everlasting life.” Bolstered by the fact that Jesus’ challenges are never proferred without love, that his power within us makes all things possible and that we are assured of his presence in the midst of every adversity, we find the courage to face whatever obstacles we shall meet this day.

WISDOM 7:7-11

Ala’ Ad-Din is the Arabic title of one of the best known stories in The Thousand and One Nights. The chief protagonist of the tale, Ala’ Ad-Din, or Aladdin, chances upon an African magician who claims to be his uncle. At the magician’s request, Aladdin retrieves a lamp from a cave and discovers that he can summon up powerful jinn or genies to do his bidding. “Your wish is my command,” Aladdin is told and he satisfies his desires for wealth, power and long life. Aladdin’s adventures and good fortune have left many young readers dreaming of sharing similar experiences.

Imagine that you are Aladdin and that magic lamps and genies do exist. . . what would you ask for? Solomon found himself in just such a situation, however, magic did not factor into the equation. In 1 Kings 3:5-14, Israel’s great king was told by Yahweh in a dream: “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” When Solomon asked for wisdom, i.e. for “an understanding heart to judge the people and to distinguish right from wrong,” he was praised by God. He had not asked for long life or riches or for the life of his enemies; because of this he was given the gift of wisdom and all the rest as well. Today’s pericope from Wisdom is based upon this incident.

Purported to be part of Solomon’s petition before God, this text is actually an excerpt from a longer soliloquy in praise of Wisdom. Identifying himself with Solomon, who ruled Israel in the tenth century B.C.E., the first century (ca. 60 B.C.E.) author described his quest for wisdom as a search for a treasure more valuable than any found in a king’s coffer. Moreover, he invited his contemporaries, who were being tempted to seek for wisdom in Hellenistic and/or other pagan sources, to persevere in their quest within their own Jewish traditions and heritage.

A concept with a long and fluid history, wisdom was a term associated with: those who were skilled at fashioning and tailoring vestments (Exodus 28:3); carpenters who plied their trade with precision (Exodus 31:3-5; 36:1); sailors who had learned to travel the seas (Psalm 107:27); dirge singers whose talents were put to use at funerals (Jeremiah 9:17). Without discrimination, wisdom could be manifested in the sage who was in service at the royal court (Jeremiah 50:35) as well as in the silver-haired old woman advising Joab on a point of military strategy (2 Samuel 20:16). Those with an ability for coping well with life (Proverbs 1; 5; 11; 14) as well as those who observed proper ethical conduct (Proverbs 2:9-11) were also called wise.

Identified with the law (Sirach 24:23), the concept of wisdom evolved to the point that it was understood as a subsistent entity (Wisdom 7:22-8:1), a being with understanding (7:22) who has come forth from God (7:25) and is God’s image (7:26). Wisdom loves humankind (1:6) and dwells among them (1:4), making them friends of God and of the prophets (7:27) by leading them (9:11; 10:10), preserving them (10:1, 5), and rescuing them (9:18). Present with God at creation (9:9), Wisdom directs the course of the world (7:23, 24, 27; 8:1). As Johannes B. Bauer (Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology, Sheed and Ward, London: 1976) has explained, “in the last analysis, Wisdom is God himself in his work in and upon the world” (sic). Therefore, the prayer which comprises today’s first reading could be understood as a request to become privy to the very ways and will of God. Christians believe that this prayer has been uniquely answered in the person and through the mission of Jesus, who is the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24, 30) incarnate among us.

HEBREWS 4:12-13

In one of her 1,775 poems, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote, “A word is dead, when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.” Although she received rigorous religious training at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Dickinson remained a professed skeptic all her life. Nevertheless, her poem on words lends itself to the believer’s understanding of the word of God as reflected in this short pericope from Hebrews.

Among the keepers of the first or old covenant, words were considered as viable entities. Once spoken, words had an independent existence; more than mere sounds or symbols for things, words had power. Blessings, once uttered, could not be revoked; unfortunately, neither could curses. According to an ancient Hebrew aphorism, “a word is like milk, which, being once drawn from its original source, can never be returned again.” If human words could be so characterized, how much more so the word of God!

The unknown author of Hebrews begins by asserting that the word of God is living. Unlike any other words ever spoken or written God’s word lives to speak to all people for all time. Ever new and relevant, ever abreast of the “signs of the times” (a term first coined by Reinhold Niebuhr in 1946 and used frequently by Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris and by Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes, # 3-4), the word of God lives to confront, chastise, encourage, challenge, nourish and inspire all who would attend it.

So also is the word of God effective. Attested by the prophets (Isaiah 55:10-11), the efficacy of God’s word has been understood as the driving force within the still unfolding story of salvation. More than an account of human deeds and accomplishments, salvation history is a point-counterpoint dialogue between the creative, redemptive, provident and reconciling word of God and its human respondents.

Living and effective, the word of God has the power to penetrate, dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow. Like a double-edge sword, the word has the dual capacity of (1) revealing God to the believer and (2) revealing the believer to him/herself. In the face of this dual revelation, everything and everyone is drawn into the light. In other words, there is nothing in our spiritual, intellectual, physical or emotional existence which is not known to God. Before God, all is tetrachelismenos, i.e. laid bare and compelled to meet God’s eyes. As William Barclay (“Hebrews”, The Daily Study Bible, The St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1976) once explained tetrachelismenos is a vivid term which was used in three different ways: (1) it described the way a wrestler seized an opponent by the throat in such a way that he could not escape; (2) it was a culinary term used for the flaying of animals; (3) when a criminal was being led to judgment or execution, a dagger with its point upwards was so fixed below his chin that he could not bow his head but had to show his face and accept the dishonor of the onlookers. When used in association with the word of God, tetrachelismenos means that there is no escaping its revelatory power; it exposes who we are and lays bare what we would hide to the light of its truth; and it must be faced head on in humility.

While the prospects of such an encounter with the word may seem daunting and even fearsome, we are assured that this same living, effective and penetrating word is also loving, forgiving and life-giving.

MARK 10:17-30

In this gospel, a rich man encounters Jesus, the incarnate word of God. He is looked upon with love, he is challenged to go further than the basic requisites of the law. The word he hears meets him where he lives; it is effective in penetrating to the one thing that stands between the man and everlasting life. He hears, he listens and yet his face falls and he goes away sad. How many times a day does such an encounter occur. How many times are God’s loving overtures understood but not accepted. How many times do believers allow something to stand between themselves and God. Today’s gospel with its three pronouncement stories, on renunciation (vv. 17-22), on the pitfalls of riches (vv. 23-27), and on the cost and rewards of discipleship (vv. 28-30) present the gathered assembly with a triplet of overtures framed in a catechesis on the proper, i.e. Christian use of and attitude toward wealth.

In the first pronouncement story, the conversation between Jesus and the man of means underscored Christian discipleship as a way of life and commitment that presumed the law as a basic requisite but was more demanding. The fact that the man could say “I have kept all these since my childhood” and yet was still searching affirmed the inadequacy of the law to challenge or to change the depths of the human heart. “Go and sell what you have and give to the poor” required a faith and trust that looked beyond the bounds of legality to the bonds of love; in a word, the demands of Christianity can only be met by those who let nothing stand between them and God, and who are willing to exchange their base of security from the goods of this earth for the blessings of the kingdom.

Following the departure of the rich man (“he went away sad,” v. 21), the second pronouncement story is comprised of special instructions for those who had chosen to stay in Jesus’ company as disciples. Jesus does not temper his demands but he assures all would-be followers that they are not left to their own devices. Discipleship (“What must I do?. . .,” v. 17) and salvation (“who can be saved?!. . .,” v. 26) are not mere human achievements but God-given and grace-filled realities. For human beings on their own “it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” (v. 27).

Even something as seemingly improbable and impossible as a camel passing through a needle’s eye falls with the range of possibilities for those who rely on God. In exploring this strange figure of speech, some have suggested that the needle referred to a short narrow gate to the city or temple precincts, through which a camel might be able to pass, but not without great effort. Others have suggested that kamelos (camel) could have been a scribal or copyist’s error and should have read kamilos or cable. In either case, the difficulty of dealing carefully and conscientiously with riches is clearly affirmed.

The final section of this gospel and its third pronouncement story enumerates the rewards of discipleship. Those who have not allowed anything (riches, home, property) or anyone (father, mother, brothers, sisters, children) to stand between them and God and who have made the kingdom their first priority, will be well compensated. Rich in unquantifiable blessings, viz., family, friends, fellow disciples, etc., Christians are also heirs to everlasting life. Nevertheless, these blessings do not obviate the very real and harsh reality of the cross. The phrase “and persecution besides” (v. 30) reminds all readers of the gospel that suffering is a concomitant aspect of discipleship. Just as the cross loomed large and necessary in Jesus’ life, so also will it be an inevitable companion for those who seek to share in everlasting life.

The dialogues, between Jesus and the rich man, and between Jesus and his first disciples, reach out to speak to contemporary disciples. As he looked at the rich man, Jesus looks at each of us with love; as he assured his disciples, Jesus assures us that we are not alone in our struggle. . . with God, all things become possible. . . with God we have the strength to overcome whatever stands in our way.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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