Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction on these reflections and here are the readings which will open in a separate window for ease of reading:
Reading the small print is all-important when we are reading the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is the difference in detail between the three which highlight their distinctive message. The three are known as “Synoptic Gospels”, synoptic meaning “with one eye”. Such was the traditional reading of the three, that they could be harmonised into one eye, one story of Jesus, with John’s very different version added as well, though with some difficulty. We are fortunate today that we have learnt to read the four Gospels as having four different eyes on Jesus. Each Gospel presents us with a different portrait of Jesus. Portraits may be of the same person but the artist will see that person quite differently as is evident with the many portraits of Queen Elizabeth.
Following the traditional reading of the Synoptics, today’s Gospel is usually known as that of the rich young man. However, he is only young in the Gospel of Matthew while for Luke he is a ruler. In Mark this Sunday we have just a man. It is quite simple and perhaps an eye-opener to compare the versions of this story in Matthew and Mark and note the differences. For example, the detail which is special to Mark is that Jesus looked at the man and Mark adds “he loved him”. In Matthew at this point, the call is to be perfect, a regular theme in his Gospel. Mark’s Gospel is notably full of special phrases and comments which have not been properly recognised in the past.
This Sunday’s Gospel begins therefore with the man running up to Jesus. As he is introduced simply as a man, he becomes everyone, someone perhaps we might identify with ourselves. Eternal life is our destiny and that means living the commandments concerned with loving our neighbour. Jesus then demands of the man the further step of selling up completely. This extra challenge proves too much for him and so he goes away sad. It is only now that the wealth of the man is revealed forming a dramatic climax to the encounter.
Here we must consider Jesus’ response to being called good. Often it has been thought was not Jesus good and was he not God? We need to see Jesus in the Gospels as a real human being, reacting as a real human being—especially as a devout Jew would—to flattery or insincerity, and as a prophet confronting men and women with the goodness of God alone. We need to avoid the tendency which developed later to regard Jesus as God even in the Gospel stories.
Few may be called to follow the gospel quite so literally as Jesus requires of the man but the demand is there and that has consequences as Jesus now stresses to his disciples. We may think at this point of St Francis of Assisi whose feast was last week. His father was a rich merchant but it was by choice and by his call from God, his vocation, that Francis followed the path of complete poverty.
The real issue is then the exchange between Jesus and the disciples, as it was last week. Wealth for the ancients was a sign of God’s blessing so what Jesus has said to the man was for the disciples completely counter-cultural. There have been many attempts to rationalise the camel going through the eye of the needle but it must be taken with its literal meaning. Peter not surprisingly is left wondering what it was all about, just what it means to leave everything in order to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus replies in effect that the demands are total but so too are the final rewards.
Living all this in practice is far from straightforward because we are still very much part of this world, persecutions are specifically mentioned in the Gospel. An example of this was evident at the weekday Masses last week with the readings from the book of Jonah. This is the funny story of the Bible, and it may surprise some that there is humour in the Bible. Here, whatever God asks of Jonah, Jonah does precisely the opposite. He runs away as far as he can from God’s call to go to Nineveh. Those who behave properly in the story are the unexpected people, the crew of the ship or the king of Nineveh. Behind all this is God getting Jonah where he wants him to be. The unexpected happens and Nineveh repents. God’s will is done, but Jonah is then indignant and sulks. He has much to learn and accept about the ways of God.
As Jonah struggles with God, we can perhaps see Jonah reflecting those who struggle with their faith and their following of Jesus. Some like Saint Francis appear to be completely confident. Others, including many canonised saints, have found the life of faith a far from easy path to follow.
The best path to follow is the path of wisdom. The Wisdom of Solomon is probably the last book of the Old Testament. Written in Greek, it bridges the world of the Bible and of the Greek culture of the time. The attribution to Solomon is therefore a convenient platform especially for the lengthy section of the book which extols wisdom. We hear this Sunday just a few verses advocating wisdom as worth more than earthly riches. As such, it places Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel in a rather different context, a good way of living Jesus’ demands in our lives. Wisdom may have begun in Israel as the best practice for daily living but it soon became seen as originating in God. This can be seen in the early chapters of the book of Proverbs.
Following the way of Wisdom allows Jesus who is the Wisdom of God (especially in the Gospel of Matthew) to enter our lives as the Word of God (the reading from Hebrews and the Gospel of John). In that way we can make our prayer with the psalm: Fill us with your love that we may rejoice