The world has forgotten the power of Jesus’ words to His disciples: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” In those days, riches were seen as a powerful sign of favour with God. Old Testament Scripture is full of the lives of individuals who were rewarded for their faith in God by riches, health and prosperous families. Conversely, illness, poverty and the petering-out of the male line of a family was seen as separation from God, a kind of punishment.
Suddenly, along comes a new kind of teacher, who blasts this widespread understanding out of the water.
St Marks goes on: ‘The disciples were astounded by these words, but Jesus insisted, “My children,” he said to them, “how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” They were more astonished than ever. “In that case” they said to one another “who can be saved?” Jesus gazed at them. “For men” he said “it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.”
Even today, we learn from His teaching that Jesus will challenge us to the core. The essence of the challenge is direct enough: we are being invited to follow Him, to turn to Him, and to put our trust in Him alone. But to live in this way, to fall and rise again every week – every day – every few hours – is a life’s challenge. To place such trust in the Kingdom of God is the kind of gift that only the Holy Spirit can bestow. To put it another way: if it was up to us, we’d fail every time, but everything is possible for God.
There is a sense of redemption in knowing that we are not the primary ‘doers’. What mankind condemns, Christ is ready to forgive. What humanity rejects as unforgivable, Christ pardons. When we strip everything else away, He is asking just two things of us: that we trust Him, and that we remain open to Him in love. If we remain as the open, willing vessel, He will provide the volume. The grace is His, the healing is His, the wealth – yes that true wealth of the love of God – is His, the forgiveness, the joy, the forbearance during trials, the peace amidst adversity: all are His gifts into the vessel of the human form. We are His instruments. But we must remain open enough to receive them, and we must be trusting enough to continue on that narrow road to God.
We have all heard of the Saint to whom the prayer ‘Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace’ is attributed. St Francis of Assisi was that most Christ-like of saints. Just as St Paul writes in today’s Second Reading at Mass, Francis too knew that the Word of God ‘is something alive and active’. This well-loved young man born of a noble family remained open, voluntarily taking on the poverty of the poor, leading people to Christ through his own electrifying example. He set the world on fire with the love of God. It was his openness and His trust which allowed the Holy Spirit to work through Francis and, like all the saints, he recognized that it was not his own doing, but the glorious work of God.
When the rich man asked what must he do to enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus ‘…looked steadily at him and He loved him.’ Perhaps we might place ourselves in that young man’s position for a moment, and contemplate how we react to the same message of Jesus. Our Good Lord 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.” Just like the rich man in the Gospel, we might go away, crestfallen, knowing that we can’t achieve what Christ is asking of us.
But we need to return to that steady look from Christ, that look of all-knowing love. It is the kind of look only Love can give, the kind ‘…that cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely…’ This is St Paul’s description of the action of the Word of God. Jesus is The Word, and He looks into each of us in this way. Yes, we might be frightened by the idea. But turn it around for a moment, and forget that God of condemnation and punishment. Try and remember that, even in our weakness, He looks at us with love. Even knowing, as He does, our weakest places, He is asking us to follow Him. He loved us first, He placed His trust in us first, He seeks us before we seek Him. His wonderful work goes on in us despite our not being able to reach high enough – despite our stumbling.
‘Come, follow me’ He says. When it comes down to it, when we turn to follow Christ, we are giving ourselves completely to that single New Commandment, which is to love one another. To love one another is not the icing on the cake, not an optional extra to be indulged in only when we’re in a good mood or when it’s convenient. The word ‘command’ is a strong word. He knew from experience how hard it is to love, especially when it is directed to those who don’t love us. Perhaps nothing is more challenging than this. We experience it in families, in work life and in community life. Christ’s command to love one another should be a constant and profound measure in all our actions, in the way we treat people, and in the way we treat ourselves.
Do we believe that God is Love? Do we respond to Him with openness and ask Him to transform us? Do we believe that, through the Holy Spirit, our broken nature can transmit the coming of God’s kingdom in the hearts of those around us? You see, it’s not enough to simply believe in Christ. Even Satan himself believes in Christ, but it doesn’t make him a Christian. What St Francis did was become Christ-like. With the other saints to whom we look for inspiration and faith, he responded to Christ and became the instrument of His love in a dark and frightening world. And he was able to ‘respond’ to Jesus, only because he had developed a real relationship with Him. The saints trusted, and by no means was it easy for them to do so – they were human just like us. But in the face of discord, they made a decision to sow concord. In the face of darkness, they cast light. When they were fed on a diet of hatred, they became the Christ of that moment by responding in love.
It is the same for us. Or, at least, the invitation is there. Faith is itself a gift, and we pray for the gift of faith and trust, to follow Him, and to learn to love and be loved. The greatest opportunities for these ‘moments’ of the Kingdom of God are everywhere around us. They are in the abuse we receive by a road-rage driver, the angst directed at us by family or friends when we’ve done little nothing wrong; they are in the homeless person we might be about to ignore, or in our response to gossip about someone we know. All of these opportunities ask us to be His ambassadors. These are the times when we shall be known and recognized as Christians. Perhaps the young man in today’s Gospel saw the way the disciples loved each other, how they acted in Christ’s presence, and he wanted to be part of that. People will see how we love each other, and they will want to be like us. It is how St Francis set the world on fire.
Many times, we are faced with a decision: am I going to hold fast to the wealth of the world (riches, money, influence, power, ego, selfishness, greed, etc.), or am I going to sell what I have and follow Christ? If we follow the saints in these little experiences of life, we enter in a real way into the poverty Christ is asking of us. It doesn’t necessarily mean giving up all our worldly goods, because to love does truly mean giving up something of our selfish ways, so as to make way for the ways of God. It means becoming fragile, standing unprotected before God, and allowing Him to work through us.
When it is difficult to be His witness inside the tumult that is life, it’s good to remember what Our Lord did when the rich man asked Him how to come to the Kingdom of God. In these moments, Christ looks steadily at you – steadily, because He looks at you, personally. Yes, it may seem too much to take in, but Jesus responds to you in a real, living, personal way. Knock, and the door shall be opened. It is a one-to-one, personal thing to let someone into your house. When you knock, He is there, the real man, the real Word of God. And, looking steadily at you, it becomes clearer and clearer – even in the darkness of night, that He knows you. His love is active in you. Christ loves you. Yes, He is actuallyin love with you. At such times, He is telling us, just as He told His disciples before, that His ways are not the ways of the world. Yes, everything is possible for God.
In the words of the Desert Father Abba Joseph, ‘You too can become all fire.’