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Commentary to the 28th Sunday in the ordinary Time – B

Fernando Armellini - Sat, Oct 9th 2021

Leave your possessions, and you will have the good.


Chosen as the judge of the musical contest between the flute of Pan and the lyre of Apollo, King Midas awarded the victory to the former. Only a clueless person, one with the musical sensibility of a donkey, could have made such a judgment. He grew asinine ears and became the symbol of the foolish man. One day Dionysus, grateful for a favor received, allowed him to make a wish, promising to fulfill it. Midas, without thinking and guided by his proverbial foolishness, asked that everything he touched was changed into gold, and so it happened, but from that moment, he was no longer able to eat or drink.

Only those who do not realize that these myths reflect our reality and denounce senseless choices that are ours, smile at these myths. We are the ones who, between the sound of the Apollonian lyre, a symbol of harmony, the balance of passions, moderation, and the melody of the flute, an instrument of seduction and stimulus to excesses, prefer the latter.

The insatiable covetousness of gold, the greed for goods, the idolatry of money cause worry, restlessness, and anxiety. They take away one's breath and make life impossible, but they are still considered goals for which it is worth living. Everything you touch—your profession, scientific research, friendships, family, and sometimes religion itself—is valued... if it produces gold. That's the madness.

"Donkey-eared man" was considered by the sages of antiquity, "mad" was defined by Jesus as one who makes the accumulation of goods the purpose of his existence (Lk 12:20).

To internalize the message, we will repeat: "I do not want to aim my life at possessions but the Good."


First Reading: Wisdom 7:7-11

Intelligence, the ability to discover the mysteries of science and technology, wealth, health, beauty, power, can be inherited from one's parents. Wisdom cannot. Wisdom, which induces one to make sensible choices and allows one to obtain the fullness of life, does not come from people but heaven; it is a gift from God.

Solomon recounts his origin in this way: "I too am a mortal, the same as all the rest, and a descendant of the first one formed of earth. And in my mother's womb I was molded into flesh, from the seed of a man, and the pleasure that accompanies marriage. And I too, when born, inhaled the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; wailing, I uttered that first sound common to all" (Wis 7:1-3).

He was an extraordinary child; from an early age, he revealed exceptional gifts, but he lacked the most important quality, the one that no one can give himself, wisdom. Today's reading explains how he obtained it: "I prayed and it was given to me" (v. 7).

The reference is to the famous dream on the mountain of Gabaton where the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream, during the night, and said to him: "Ask me what I must give you." Solomon replied, "I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act. Give your servant, therefore, a listening heart to judge your people and to distinguish between good and evil" (1 Kings 3:4-15).

Teachers and preceptors provide education, culture, erudition; the ability to discern good and evil can only be obtained through prayer, through the encounter with God on the mountain where he reveals himself. If one remains low, if one does not raise his heart to God in listening to his word, one is conditioned by people's thoughts, lacking prudence (v. 7).

In the second part of the passage (vv. 8-10), Solomon sings the praises of the divine wisdom granted to him by heaven and comparing it to fascinating creatures, he concludes: all that people value, gems, gold, silver, in comparison are nothing (v. 8), they are a fistful of gold and silver, they are a handful of sand, mud (v. 9); health, physical beauty (sung by an entire book of the Bible, the Song of Songs) the possession of kingdoms, scepters and thrones do not deserve to be compared to them (vv. 9-10). Not even light, the most splendid of creatures, can stand comparison because wisdom "is fairer than the sun and surpasses every constellation of the stars. Compared to light, she is found more radiant" (Wis 7:29).

But is it necessary to renounce all that is beautiful in creation to choose wisdom? The author of the book of Wisdom shows no contempt for temporal goods; he is convinced that they are very good, and precisely for this reason, he compares them to wisdom. All that God has made is beautiful and good, but it is to obtain these goods that wisdom is necessary.

In the last part of the passage (v. 11), Solomon recognizes that the Lord has granted him all the other gifts because he has chosen wisdom.

Wisdom is a delightful bride. Whoever binds himself to wisdom out of love, whoever does not turn his eyes to other wisdoms, even if they are seductive, whoever introduces wisdom into his home, will make a surprising discovery: she will bring all good things as a dowry. Whoever becomes wise, whoever learns to give creatures their rightful value and makes choices that conform to God's plan, loses nothing, gains everything: he or she obtains true joy.


Second Reading: Hebrews 4:12-13

Empty talk produces nothing; it does not transform people's hearts. The word of God is entirely different, and the author of today's passage lists its characteristics. It is alive and effective. Once it comes out of the mouth of the Lord, it always produces some effect because it possesses in itself the life and strength of God. The prophet Isaiah compares it to the rain that never falls in vain and never returns to heaven without fertilizing the earth (Is 55:10-11).

If our communities always remain the same, if our families' lives do not improve, this depends on the fact that the word that preachers, catechists, and parents announce is neither alive nor effective; it is not the word of God, but only people's wisdom.

Then it is sharp and penetrating more than a sharp sword; it is hard and inflexible; it does not allow itself to be bent by the winds of new doctrines, and it penetrates inexorably to the depths of those who listen to it. It is not a feather that caresses or a crutch that one can lean on to get by even in conditions of spiritual paralysis.

Finally, it is the judge of every action. The word that leaves one quiet and calm that does not disturb, that allows one to live with bad habits, whims, animosity, resentments, is not the word of God.


Gospel: Mark 10:17-30

Mark placed the most challenging demands of Christian morality in the middle section of his Gospel, not before, because they can only be understood by those who have chosen to follow Christ in the gift of life. Last Sunday, Jesus spoke of the indissolubility of marriage; today, he confronts the disciples with the need to renounce all possessions to follow him.

In the first part of the passage (vv. 17-22), a rich young man enters the scene, running, who throws himself on his knees before Jesus and asks him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (v. 17). This man's behavior is genuinely singular; he seems like a sick person who approaches Jesus to implore the grace of healing. From the following account, we learn that he is a righteous person and aware of having led a blameless life. Yet we perceive a profound restlessness in him, an intimate and indefinite pain that makes him suffer as if it were a spiritual infirmity. He seeks Jesus because he has intuited that only a distinguished teacher like him can come to the word that communicates serenity and hope.

He is also prepared from a theological perspective: he does not speak of "conquering, deserving, having the right," but inherits eternal life. The inheritance is not earned, one does not receive it as a prize, as wages for work, but it is given freely. Like every pious Israelite, he is aware that from God everything is received as an "inheritance": the land (Ps 135:12), the law (Ps 119:111), the blessing, the promises (Heb 6:12), the kingdom of God (Mt 25:34), the Lord himself, Israel's inheritance (Ps 16:5). Nothing is granted as a reward for good deeds. Everything is a gift.

Despite understanding that eternal life is an inheritance, he asks Jesus what he still must do. He realizes that he must not only wait but that it is necessary to be prepared because the Lord does not force anyone to accept his gift.

As the rabbis used to do, Jesus answers him with a counter-question that can be paraphrased as follows: "You already have a distinguished teacher, God who instructs you through the Scriptures. What more do you want? Is it not written, 'All will be taught by God'" (Jn 6:45)? Then, to help him in his search, he reminds him of the precepts that the Lord has revealed to his people and constitute the minimum condition to accessing life. He mentions the Decalogue, but incompletely; he leaves out the first three commandments that concern God. For him, the observance of duties towards people is sufficient; in fact, the only way to show love to God is to share his plan for people, as the apostle John well understood: "Beloved, if God has loved us, we also must love one another" (1 Jn 4:11).

However, the observance of the commandments is not merit; it is a reason for gratitude to the Lord, the only good teacher who has given his people the law of life. The psalmist reflected: "Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commands" (Ps 112,1) and, with sharpness, the rabbis commented: the joy is found "in his commandments," not in the reward that the one who keeps them will receive. The good done is its reward, just as evil punishes those who commit it.

The rich man's response is surprising. He declares, convinced, that he has kept all the commandments since the use of reason (v. 20). John assures that "If we say, 'We are without sin,' we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). Some doubt about the rich young man's claim, therefore, seems reasonable.

He was probably not precisely without blemish, he too must have succumbed to some weaknesses, yet his serene and calm judgment contains a precious message: it is an invitation to evaluate one's own life with a certain optimism. Before God—John encourages us—we must reassure our hearts "whatever it may reproach us for, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things" (1 Jn 3:19-20). The presence of some shortcomings does not prevent us from considering a life spent for love as good. To be anxious, to feel rejected by God, to feel sorry for oneself because one is not perfect is not a sign of holiness but pride. It is not lawful to call good what is evil, but one cannot be cruel to oneself; otherwise, one ends up being abusive to others.

The rabbis taught that to be righteous was enough to keep the commandments. Jesus, hearing the rich man's statement, "looking at him, loved him" (v. 21).

Mark is pleased to recall the looks of Jesus: the one indignant against the Pharisees (Mk 3:5), those directed to his listeners (Mk 3:34), to the crowd that surrounds him (Mk 5:32), to the disciples (Mk 10:23), to the disorder that reigns in the temple (Mk 11:11). He looks at the rich man with affection, with complacency, because he sees him prepared to make the quantum leap, and then he throws out the decisive request: "Go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me" (v. 21).

The rabbis often spoke of the coffers of heaven in which the treasures accumulated by the righteous on earth are kept. They taught, "The righteous gladly await the end and leave this life without fear. For they have with God a treasure of works." Jesus takes up this image to highlight the insubstantiality of this world's goods and indicates how to use them according to God. We could paraphrase his proposal in this way: "Strip yourself of all your possessions, do not throw them away, but give them to those in need; you will remain poor, and God will be your treasure."

This is not a new precept added to those of the Decalogue but an invitation to adhere to an entirely new logic. It calls for the renunciation of any selfish use not only of money but of all possessions, intelligence, health, beauty, one's own time, all abilities received from God. One cannot be his disciple if he or she does not detach the heart from what he or she possesses. Those who jealously keep their possessions for themselves until the moment of appropriation inevitably arrives are foolish.

Cynical philosophers had also preached the radical detachment from property. Crates, a disciple of Diogenes, got rid of his considerable wealth by throwing it into the sea. Faced with the goods of this world, Jesus takes an entirely different attitude. He does not despise them, he does not invite people to destroy them, but he indicates how to value them: they must be given to the poor. He does not ask us to give something in alms but to renounce everything.

How to make this requirement feasible? An ingenious solution was devised. It was explained that this is not a prerequisite for being a disciple; it is advice reserved for some heroes. Christians were thus divided into two classes: on the one hand, the "perfect," those who, by taking a vow of poverty, commit themselves to practice thoroughly what Jesus had ordered; on the other hand, the "simple Christians," who can continue to possess their goods, resigning themselves, however, to remaining "imperfect."

This solution is a clumsy trick to escape the request that Jesus addresses, not to a restricted group of "perfect" people, but to anyone who wants to be his disciple. The Christian ideal is not misery, hunger, nakedness, but the fraternal sharing of the goods that God has made available to all. Sin is not to become rich but to enrich oneself. In the Gospel of the Nazarenes, an apocryphal book of the second century A.D., the episode is reported with some curious details. After the Master's request, "the rich man began to scratch his head; he was not happy. Then the Lord said to him, 'Many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, are drowning in filth and dying of hunger, while your house is full of every good thing, and nothing comes out for them."

In Mark, the story ends bitterly: the rich man chooses to stay with his goods; he does not dare to trust the proposal of Jesus, does not feel like risking, is afraid of losing everything, and is sad goes away. He is afflicted because he has not been able to detach himself from his goods. He did not realize that man's heart is made for infinite love, and if he is a slave to things, he can only remain disappointed and unhappy.

The grain of wheat, once sown, sprouts, grows, and produces the stem and the ear; this process cannot be different because it follows the nature of the seed. Man is made in the image of God, and in his heart, he feels an irrepressible need for the infinite. Even if repressed, silenced, forgotten, this desire resurfaces, and no creature is ever able to satisfy it.

The story is not concluded, but it is not difficult to reconstruct the sequel. The rich young man was not inexperienced, moved by the enthusiasm of a moment; he had grown up nourishing deep religious convictions, so it is unthinkable that, after meeting Jesus, he abandoned himself to evil, he began to transgress the commandments. He continued to be righteous, pious, and lead an impeccable life... but he did not become a Christian; he did not manage to make the leap.

The second part of the passage (vv. 23-27) reports Jesus' consideration of the danger of wealth. It is the most severe impediment for those who want to become disciples. It possesses the seductive power of a god because, every time one turns to it, it responds by granting what is asked of it. It constitutes an almost insurmountable obstacle for those who want to enter the kingdom of heaven. "It is easier—Jesus assures us—for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (v. 26).

Some have tried to interpret this strange image by explaining that it is not a camel but an elbow (the two words in Greek are very similar) or that the eye of a needle was a small gate of the city of Jerusalem. Better to keep the paradoxical image employed by Jesus that speaks of an impossible decision (v. 27). Detachment from all that one possesses requires an act of generosity such that only a miracle from God can help accomplish it.

The disciples to whom the Master addresses himself are not rich, yet they are stunned by his words. They understood that even those who are poor must strip themselves of everything. It is not a question of giving much or little, but offering all that one is, and all that one has, whether it be much or little.

The last part (vv. 28-31) lists the people and things from which the disciple is called to detach himself. About this double list, placed first on Peter's lips and then on Jesus', we note first the unexpected presence of family members among the goods to be renounced. It is easy to confuse love with morbid attachment. There is personal selfishness, but there is also more subtle selfishness, which can cloak itself in virtue, and this is family selfishness. He who thinks only of himself, his wife, and children remain selfish; he is incapable of looking beyond the threshold of his own home. He cannot be happy because he has atrophied his heart, repressing the universal love for which he is made.

Among the people to be renounced is not included his wife. The reason is that Peter and the other apostles did not leave their wives. They did not break up their families; that would have been neither right nor humane. When, for apostolic reasons, they had to move and change their residence, they always acted by mutual agreement with their wives, who generally agreed to accompany them (cf. 1 Cor 9:5). Commitment to the Gospel cannot be set in opposition to duties towards family members.

Finally, it is significant that among the things the disciple receives a hundredfold, the father does not appear. Already in this world, generous love is compensated with a hundredfold in houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields, but not in "fathers." There should no longer be "fathers" in the Christian community because all our brothers and sisters; the only Father is the one in heaven (Mt 23:9).


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