Scripture scholars remind us that the historical Jesus was more radical than His followers, even those who gave us the Christian Scriptures. Yet Sunday’s Gospel contains a very radical teaching which most modern Christians ignore. In this case, the first three evangelists seem to have passed it on exactly as the historical Jesus presented it.

Like all Scripture passages, we best understand this Gospel (Mk 10: 17-30) when we put it back into the environment which created it. During the Second Vatican Council’s initial reforms in the 1960s, many Catholics wanted to know how the post-conciliar Church differed from the pre-conciliar. “What do we have to do now,” they asked, “that we didn’t have to do before?”

Jesus heard similar questions. His goal wasn’t to found a new religion; He was a reformer of the religion He already professed: Judaism. He and His first followers often dealt with people who wanted to know the difference between old and re-formed Judaism.

God’s kingdom

That’s why the Gospel begins with the rich man asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus basically responds, “If you do what the law of Moses tells you, you’ll achieve eternal life. But you won’t be a Christian. My followers are concerned with more than eternal life. They’re committed to recognizing and being part of God’s kingdom right here and now.”

The kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven) is how Jesus refers to God working in one’s everyday life. To experience that phenomenon and freely take part in it was the major thrust of His reform.

It didn’t take Him long to figure out that peoples’ attachment to wealth was one of the obstacles stopping them from entering God’s realm. “How hard it is,” He points out, “for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”

Since Jesus ministered in a culture and religion in which wealth was regarded as a sign of God’s blessing, His disciples were “amazed at His words.” But instead of backing down, Jesus states His belief in even stronger terms: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” He agrees that giving all to the poor and making Him their only security is impossible for humans. Yet, He encourages His disciples to remember, “All things are possible for God!”

Possibilities

Jesus’ demands for reform go far beyond either ancient Judaism or modern Christianity’s demands. Forgetting that Jesus addressed these words to all His followers, we sleep content tonight knowing there are a few religious men and women out there who are vowed to practice poverty. Or we brush the whole passage aside by misinterpreting Jesus’ statement about all things being possible for God, falsely thinking God will permit us to keep our wealth and still let us enter God’s kingdom.

No wonder the author of Hebrews (Heb 2: 12-13) refers to God’s word as “living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.”

As we hear in the Gospel, carrying out that word separates the men from the boys and the girls from the women. Yet as both Jesus and the author of Wisdom remind us, if I’m faithful to that word, “all good things together come to me...and countless riches” (Wis 7:7-11).

Jesus was driven to share His insights about life with His followers. He wanted us to experience more than just a surface existence, to reach a level on which we could be part of God working in our lives. To accomplish that, Jesus preached a reform which later developed into Christianity.

Perhaps so few today reach those same insights because we spend more time concentrating on the institution of Christianity than we do on reform.

(10/9/03)