Brief synopsis of the readings: The Book of Wisdom (accepted as Scripture by Catholics but not Jews or Protestants) describes the writer praying for understanding and receiving the gift of Wisdom. He valued this above power and wealth: “In [Wisdom’s] company all good things come to me, at her hands riches not to be numbered.” Mark’s Gospel describes a scene where a man knelt before Jesus and asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him that he must follow the 10 Commandments. In response the man told Jesus he has done all of that. Jesus then “looked steadily at him and loved him, and he said: There is one thing you lack. Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. But his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.” Jesus then told his disciples that it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Astonished, they asked him “who can be saved?” Jesus responded that “for men [and presumably women] it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.
In the Gospel two weeks ago Jesus spoke about how if part of your body causes you to sin you should cut if off. I’ve often pointed to this reading as a reason I’m not a biblical fundamentalist. I don’t think Jesus meant for us to gouge out a wandering eye because we find someone attractive who isn’t our spouse.
When I read today’s Gospel I’m thinking much the same. From the earliest days of Jesus’ public ministry his disciples have asked the question we’ve asked ever since: What must I do to be saved? It’s not a simple question and in the last 2000 years we followers of Jesus have argued, fought, and even died in search of this question.
After centuries of heated debate it came to a head in the early 1500s in Germany when an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, demanded clarification. Rightly, he found offense with the idea that wealthy Christians could donate money to the Church and “purchase” salvation while poor Christians were on their own.
Luther argued that salvation didn’t depend on wealth but instead on faith. Anyone who accepted the belief in the divinity of Jesus and desired salvation fulfilled God’s command and would be granted salvation.
For all of Luther’s wisdom, Christian churches have spent most of the last 500 years bickering. When I grew up in the Catholic Church I was told that Protestants believed that as long as you believed in Jesus you were saved, regardless of your moral compass. All you had to do was profess belief in Jesus and you were saved, regardless of your choices and how you lived your life.
Meanwhile, Protestants were told that we Catholics believed that salvation rested on a good report card and belief didn’t matter. Catholics worship Mary and the Saints and this meant we don’t fully put our faith in God and Jesus. This made us pagans and meant our lack of faith will deny us salvation. In other words, salvation depended on an algorithm based on good deeds and donations.
I write this against the backdrop of today’s Gospel where a man approached Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus didn’t tell him that he needed to do the things we talk about today. Instead he told this man he needed to follow the Ten Commandments.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say something controversial: like this man, most of us can fulfill these commandments. We love God, honor our parents, haven’t killed anyone, etc. When this man told this to Jesus, I think he hoped Jesus would tell him he was gold. But Jesus didn’t.
Instead Jesus raised the stakes. He told this man that he needed to sell all his wealth, give it all to the poor, and follow him. This was too much and the man walked away. Jesus told those gathered how it was harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a wealthy man to enter the Kingdom of God.
For those of us who have followed the 21st Century wisdom to save for our future, for those of us who receive quarterly statements, this reading may disturb us. And in fairness, priests all over the world will tell their parishioners that Jesus didn’t really mean it and we are safe in donating to the current building plan.
But I think it goes deeper than that. When this man left, Jesus’ disciples asked how anyone can be saved. And then Jesus gave us the line that we too often overlook: “For men [and presumably women] it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.”
Let’s face it: we live our lives in the world of what we need to do. We are evaluated in our ability as parents, spouses, employees, friends, etc. Our lives face constant benchmarks on how well we do.
But when Jesus gives us an impossible benchmark, he doesn’t want us to come away discourage. He wants us to listen to the next line: “[I]it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.”
So what if salvation isn’t dependent on our behavior? What if God simply wants us all to be saved? What if we’re told that our salvation depends on what we do, or what we believe, and both of them are wrong? What if salvation does not depend on us, but on God’s desire to save everyone?
For our entire history we’ve looked at God as some sort of judge. Sometimes we’ve seen God as a benevolent judge and sometimes we’ve seen God as a harsh judge. When we ask what we need to be saved we’ve seen ourselves as sitting in judgement to this benevolent or harsh judge. But what if God isn’t benevolent or harsh but instead is generous?
The end of this Gospel tells us that “everything is possible for God.” Maybe this means that God can change the speed of light or the effect of gravity. Or maybe it means that God can ensure that all of can ensure God’s Kingdom includes all of us.
Years ago I studied under Dr. Peter Kreeft at Boston College. He suggested to us that when we die God opens the door to Heaven and the door to Hell and asks us to choose. Now if you’re Hitler and the door to Heaven provides a glimpse of 6,000,000 Jews, perhaps he would choose Door Number 2. But for those of us who choose Door Number 1, it speaks not only to God’s generosity but also to our moral compass.
I don’t know anyone who doubts God’s ability to save everyone. Perhaps we should consider God’s desire to save everyone.