Homily for 28th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B, 2021
Everything is possible for God.
We are living in a very complicated world. Many people throughout history have documented the problems that come with more complexity. Complexity leads both to the need to be across more fields and to increasing specialisation within those fields. These two developments cause quite a lot of tension.
First, the increasing specialisation can create feelings of inadequacy: I just can’t be an expert in all the areas I am supposed to be an expert in order to be an average member of society. I begin to feel like a failure. And when these feelings of failure begin to take root, there is a great temptation to give up on the game. We can see a lot of this in the increasing complexity of our legal systems. They have become so complicated, and sometimes so unable to rely on common sense – feeling the pressure to legislate on more and more, that we see increasing numbers of people beginning to ignore the rule of law.
Second, the increasing levels of specialisation lead necessarily to a narrowing of focus. If I want to be good at something, I have to forego a lot of other things. And as my field gets deeper and as society gets more complicated, it can begin to seem like I must give up quite important aspects of, what has up to now been considered, a life well lived. We see a lot of this behind the interminable debates about work-life balance.
Third, whether it be feelings of failure or increasing narrowness of focus, there is the temptation when it comes to conversation and political discourse a) to tune out what we don’t understand and b) to overplay what we do understand. On the one hand, I can barely understand my own life, and so I don’t have time to understand someone else’s. On the other hand, I have spent so much time getting good at something, I really need that expertise to pay dividends in the parts of my life I have neglected.
Now in a perfect world, the insight into my own fragility would encourage humility, while the effort at specialisation should undergird claims to authority, and both lay the groundwork for fruitful discourse. But that does not seem to be happening much in the public sphere. Likewise: my development of expertise against the background of a solid, holistic upbringing should allow me to extend my knowledge to other fields, while at the same time recognising the limits of any analogy between the fields. Again, though, defensiveness and consequent aggressive assertion seem to be more the order of the day.
We have said this before: our world seems to have a deficit of wisdom, wisdom being how to live, and especially how to live in harmony with God; and because God made the world, so in harmony with creation. And wisdom is the theme especially of our first reading and psalm. But the big question then becomes: what does wisdom look like? What does flourishing look like?
We see a familiar debate on this presented in our gospel. In fact, our gospel presents us with a very attractive picture of a flourishing life, namely, the rich man. Not only is he rich, but he also seems genuinely nice and interesting. He seeks out Jesus and even kneels before him. Kneeling is usually a sign of worship and therefore a recognition of divinity. He seems to know who Jesus is.
He also seems to be asking serious questions; he seems to be concerned with real things. It is easy to imagine him as a welcome dinner party guest – well presented, fluent in polite company and also able to talk about weighty matters. He’d be the person that can switch from pop culture to matters of more substance; and so make everyone feel at ease, but somehow also edified. He looks to have found that work-life balance, as well as being humble enough to seek out guidance. Our society would hold him up: perhaps the successful actor or sportsperson who also speaks out on social matters, but in a way that is acceptable, doesn’t cause controversy. As I said, a very attractive picture, and one that probably dominates our society.
And Jesus loves him. Jesus looks steadily at him, and loves him. Jesus’s eyes pierce the man’s soul. Our second reading tells us that Word of God can penetrate the deepest parts of our lives. Jesus can see what we want to hide. Jesus can illuminate the darkest corners. But when he does that, he loves us. He is love. Everything he does is love. This too is love.
But then Jesus begins to puncture the balloon. Jesus tears up this image of the flourishing life. Jesus asks the questions, like he always does, Jesus asks the questions on which everything turn. He pulls back the fantasy to show the reality.
At the beginning, Jesus has seen the man kneeling before him asking about the way to heaven. Jesus has pressed him on this. “You call me good, but God alone is good.” In other words, Jesus is asking him, “Do you really mean to kneel before me? Do you really believe that I am God?” Because we know that blessed is the one who hears the Word of God and keeps it. Does the man really want to hear God’s answer knowing that he must keep it? Does he really believe? We see later that he does not.
Isn’t this just like prayer? We know Jesus is God. We want Jesus to speak. We want Jesus to let us in on the secret to living. We want to know how to make sense of our lives. We know he is the truth and we want him dearly.
But we also don’t want him. We don’t want him to rock our boat. We don’t want him to upset the beautiful home that we are busy building on sand. We want him to affirm us, comfort us, not judge us. We want the Word of God to confirm our word to ourselves. We don’t believe that his judgment is love.
And Jesus slips between the soul and the spirit and pins us with his judgment. Out of love, he shows us what is lacking. We prefer ourselves to him. We prefer self-will to obedience. We prefer possession to gift. We prefer our wealth, our grudges, our hatred, our resentment, our failures, even our sins to God’s Word. So long as it is ours. My identity is bound up in what I hold onto, rather than flowing from God’s love for me and what I give away. And so I am not free to grasp Christ with both hands because my hands are full. My hands are juggling so many things rather than the one thing necessary.
As I said before, our world is very complicated. And we all know people are fraying at the moment. There is no quick fix and this all does add up. It creates social pressures in which poor decisions are made, both individually and in common. Our world desperately needs wise people. It desperately needs people fed on the word of God. This is us. This is who we are and who we are called to be. This is the very body of Christ.
So, today and this week, let’s spend some time putting ourselves in the place of the rich young man. Do I believe Jesus is God? Do I believe he loves me? Do I believe that he has the words of eternal life? Even if that word looks like the Cross? This might seem impossible, but we must always remember: with God all things are possible. So our primary task is to make sure that we are truly with God. Only then can we be of service.