Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the Old Testament Book of Wisdom (again, a book Catholics recognize but Protestants and Jews don’t). Here the author speaks of asking for understanding and Wisdom and it was given. This was greatly valued: “[F]or compared with [Wisdom], I held riches as nothing…for compared with her, all gold is a pinch of sand.” In Mark’s Gospel a man approached Jesus and knelt in front of him. He asked Jesus what must he do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to follow the commandments and the man told Jesus he had always done that. Jesus then told him to sell everything he had, give it all to the poor, and follow him. Saddened, the man walked away because he was wealthy. Jesus then told his followers that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. They then asked who could be saved. “For men it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.”
How high can you count? It’s a silly question for us, but it’s a point of pride for toddlers. They will proudly hold up 10 fingers or tell you they can count to 20. In fairness they have a right to brag. They’ve had to memorize those numbers and it’s a heavy lift. Eventually they memorize 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 and 100.
And then something amazing happens: they figure out counting. They understand how numbers work and they no longer have to memorize anything. From there they can understand addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and on and on. Obviously there is memorization along the way, but they made the leap from “what” to “how.”
I thought about this when I read today’s Gospel. The man asked the question we’ve been asking for as long as Jesus began his ministry: what must we do to inherit eternal life? Because Jesus promised that there is a life after this life, a kingdom with all the good things we have (love) without the bad things (pain). So it’s a logical question: How do we get there? Jesus never said that everybody gets there which, let’s face it, would have been wonderful.
Interestingly enough, when Jesus told the man that he needed to follow the commandments he could easily have said: “Cool, I already do that.” But there was something in the man who must have wanted more. On some level he must have desired something more. And so Jesus followed him up with something he didn’t want to hear. Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and follow me. And he walked away with sadness because he was a wealthy man.
So what did he want? We’re not sure, but we can assume he had memorized the commandments, and not just the 10 Commandments. In the first 5 books of the Old Testament there are 613 commandments and scholars of that time knew all of them. Perhaps this man was looking for more commandments that would make him better than the others.
Regardless, Jesus told him to do something that is, let’s face it, virtually impossible. We know that he and his followers did a great deal of traveling from city to city but they couldn’t have been without anything. They must have depended on either their own resources or help from family and friends. And while we may feel slightly guilty at this command to sell everything, we clearly can’t do this (for one thing, who would we follow?).
When Jesus tells us this I believe he is challenging us to move from memorizing numbers to understanding how numbers work. Commandments don’t exist as an end to themselves: they are stepping stones to an understanding of how we are to treat each other. When we commit to love one another and live our lives with this moral compass the commandments begin to fade, not because they don’t matter but because our behavior encompasses them. We don’t kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, defraud, etc. not because we are told not to but because these actions don’t fit into our commitment to love.
At this point I’d like to look around and say “mission accomplished” but I can’t. Sadly we continue to live in a place obsessed by rules. As I write this in the United States I recognize that we are bombarded with news stories about our dysfunctional Congress. According to our Constitution they are tasked with writing the rules about even the most inconsequential events. Our representatives constantly announce that they favor this and oppose that, all the while claiming they are moving toward a better future.
Nobody from the government has asked me for advice, and I’m not waiting by the phone, but I would this: spend less time making rules and more time teaching civics. Talk with us more about what our founders meant when they said:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Interestingly they didn’t attempt to form a “perfect union” but a “more perfect union and I think Jesus approves. When he told the man to sell all he has, give it to the poor, and follow me, it wasn’t just another commandment but instead a recognition that we can’t do this on our own. We can’t do perfection, only God can.
We can follow the rules but only God can set us on the moral compass we need and keep us there. We can make “more perfect” but only God can make perfect, and only our faith in God can fulfill what God tells the man in the Gospel.
Our faith cannot make us perfect, but neither can following the rules, no matter how many. But if we commit to love one another and depend on God to strengthen, encourage, and lead us, we can become more perfect.
God wants us to count to more than 613.