A recent survey revealed that the vast majority of Americans believe in life after death. For Protestants and Catholics it is part of our creed: "We believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting." But also the majority of Jews--and even those who profess no religion--are confident there is a true personal existence beyond the grave. For us who hold that conviction the most important question, in some sense the only question is, "Where will I spend eternity?"
Eternity after all is a long time. As the song says, "When we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we've first begun." Any suffering, any sacrifice is small when measured against forever. But will we spend eternity praising God or separated from him? The rich young man in today's Gospel asked Jesus the right question, "Good Teacher, what must I do to have everlasting life?"
Many think Jesus responded, "Sell all you have and give it to the poor." Take a closer look. What Jesus first told him was, "You know the commandments." (Mk 10:19) Then he got real specific: "You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not lie, you shall not steal. Honor your father and mother."
To talk about the commandments can seems humdrum, a let-down. I have known young people excited about the possibility of giving their lives to the service of the poor, perhaps having a great adventure in a foreign country. They were disappointed when I asked them how they were doing as far as honoring their parents or living Gospel purity.
The rich young man protested that he had kept the commandments, ever since he was a child. Jesus looked at him with love, but it was the kind of love today's second reading describes, "The Word of God is a two-edged sword. It reveals the deepest secrets of our heart." Jesus told him that what he needed to do was sell everything, give it to the poor, then come and follow.
It's easy to misunderstand Jesus at this point - as if he were saying, "now that you've got those commandments taken care of, I'll give you something really substantial." Keeping the commandments becomes like passing a test in order to get into graduate school where the real action is. Such a view misses the breathtaking scope of the Sinai revelation. Jesus challenging the rich young man precisely in terms of the Decalogue. There is a commandment which says, "You shall not steal." As our Catechism points out, it means not only to respect the property of others, but to give to the poor. St. John Chrysotom said, "When you have satisfied your own legitimate needs," (and those "needs" are really much smaller than our consumer society tries to convince us) "everything else belongs to the poor."
The Old Testament in many places teaches what the Catechism calls "the social destiny of this world's goods." Perhaps Jesus is reminding the rich young man of the responsibility he has for the poor, something he was reluctant to accept.
I contrast his timidity with a woman who was raising four boys. She heard about the needs of people in Peru and in prayer was inspired to make a dramatic gesture. She sent her entire savings, $5000 to help them. Some would consider foolish. She should have thought of her own boys first, but did she not give them something greater than a used car or a semester at a university? She gave them precisely what Jesus wanted to give the rich young man.
The fact is, brothers and sisters, that in relation to the poor of this world, you and I are wealthy. If we can afford three good meals a day, a car and a warm home, we are affluent. Like the rich young man, we are called to give to the poor. This is not some new concept. We have already talked a lot about Stewardship or Sacrificial Giving. When all is said and done, it is really nothing so spectacular. It is simply living the implications of the commandments.
But unfortunately like the rich young man, we want to have our cake and eat it too. That is impossible. "He went away sad." Those are among the most tragic words in the Gospel. He could have been a great apostle, but he clung to his riches. In a real sense he was not willing to keep the commandments. He wanted to pick and choose.
The commandments--in their fullness--have become radical, counter-cultural. They go against the trends of our popular culture. I read about a television personality who is proud of her lesbianism. On her television show and evidently in real life she wants to live out that orientation. Our culture tends to say that what is important is "being true to yourself." Or "doing your own thing." This is nothing new. Last century the German philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche wrote a book called Beyond Good and Evil. He said we must be bold in questioning the old morality even if it shocks "conventional" folk. But what he really did was to pick out one aspect of the moral law ("thou shall not lie") and employ it to try to negate all the rest.
One hundred years later people are still using that kind of pressure tactic to promote what in reality is a narrow view of the moral law. The television actress who said she must be true to herself went on to say that those who do not accept her lifestyle are like those who discriminate against blacks and Jews. In other words, to not accept the practice of homosexuality is a form of bigotry.
No one wants to be considered a bigot, but the correct response to such intimidation is not "go ahead and do whatever you want." The person in question has an eternal soul. What we must say is, "I love you. I am concerned about you. It's great that you want to be 'true to yourself' but I do not want you to destroy yourself. That's why I am saying these things to you. I know it sounds 'narrow' to you, but it is not. I want you to take a broad, long-range view. If you do, you will discover your true self."
To refine this approach a bit more: It does not mean we become "moral traffic cops," judging other people, telling them what to do and what not to do. No, most of us have plenty to do just trying to live the moral law ourselves, repenting of our own sins, asking forgiveness and grace to continue on. At the same time we must stand up for the integrity, the fullness of the moral law we have received. To do less would be to turn our backs on Jesus, to ignore his clear words, "You know the commandmentments..." While we are not called to be moral watch-dogs, we do have a certain responsibility for those placed in our care, like a parent for his children or a priest for his parishioners. We also owe a truthful answer to those who in some way seek our guidance. Like Jesus, we must speak the truth in love.
A lot is at stake here. We are not just teaching a way of life. We are offering Life itself. If we want that Life who is a person, we must first recognize our need for Him. Jesus is the divine physician of our souls and he has told us, "The healthy don't need a doctor; sick people do." If like the Pharisees we think, "I'm just fine. Nothing wrong with me," we have no need for Jesus. But a person can have an agressive malignant tumor inside himself and not sense that anything is wrong. The only way we can know we are sick is if we examine our conscience according to the moral law, the ten commandments. I am sorry that I sometimes have to spend so much time on the diagnosis, but we have to know the nature of our illness before we can receive the cure--and the cure is Jesus Himself, receiving him as our savior and entering into a deep communion with him thru the sacraments. The very first step on that road to Jesus is acknowledging the moral law he has placed in our hearts--and which we find spelled out in the Commandments.
A priest friend of mine was accosted by a school parent. She said to him. "I am thinking of suing the school." "Why?" he asked. "Because they are ruining my daughter's self-esteem. They are telling her she is a sinner!" Now, there's a lot one could say, for example, that mom probably did not know her daughter very well. If our desire for self-esteem blinds us to the reality of who we are and our need for Jesus maybe we should refine that popular concept. Yes, we can have great "self-esteem," but because Jesus loves us, like he did the rich young man. Because of that love he challenged him to keep the Commandments.
As in today's reading from Wisdom we need to pray for guidance and prudence, especially when we are advising someone else. But the basic law that guides us is not so far away from us that we need to travel up into the heavens to bring it down. No, it is very near to us, already in our hearts. We only have to start obeying it. As Jesus said, "Do these things and you will have everlasting life."
From Archives (Homilies for 28th Sunday, Year B):
More about the Moral Law.
The Moral Law and the Confession of Sins.
A practical application of the Moral Law: the Abortion Question.
See also: An Eternally Unbridgeable Chasm
The Fiery Furnace
Jesus Teaching Concerning Heaven
Some Good News on Teen Pregnancy and Abortion
Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History
He Approached the Victim: "It's much more likely one of your relatives will lose his life by surgical abortion than by heart attack."
Germaine Greer on Birth Control
Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)
Boston Globe's Misleading Article on Catholic Church
Deflating Darwin's Dangerous Idea
Stephen Jay Gould: Gorbachev of Darwinism?
Test Tube Offspring Want to Know Father
Erickson vs. Bartell Drugs
Call No Man Father
What is Original Sin of Sex?
Bicentennial Man (Hidden Assumptions)
Bogus Knights of Columbus Oath
Ossuary of James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus