28th Sunday of the Year
‘Our revolution comes about through tenderness,
through the joy which always becomes
closeness and compassion,
and leads us to get involved in
and to serve the life of others.’ Pope Francis
To the question of the young man, ‘Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus does the unexpected. Rather than give the usual response that he should repent and establish a personal relationship with Jesus, the young man is told to keep the commandments which includes selling his possessions and distributing them to the poor. It is too high a price to pay!!
The important message is how we interact with the poor and how we respond to the poor. It is about always going to the edges. It has nothing to do with power and privilege, nothing to do with machismo, whiteness, or economic class, or benefiting from oppressive structures. Jesus wants to move us from an abstract belief (orthodoxy) to a material and practical response to people who are hungry, thirsty, naked, alien, sick and in prison. It is about loving justice (praxis). Worship and belief apart from commitment to those called ‘the least’ amounts to complicity with the overarching structures of oppression that exist along gender, race and class lines. The mere fact of his wealth, the rich young man automatically links him to the poor.
Our world is full of ‘shadow people’ – unseen sufferers who struggle daily with poverty, dread and infectious diseases, lack of clean water and sanitation, few resources and fewer opportunities. For many, these people remain unseen even when they live next door, are ‘out of mind.’ The many who have been killed in Afghanistan to name one country are ‘shadow people’ whose names most of us will never know. A powerful healing work of justice is to really notice the ‘shadow people,’ to see them and acknowledge and honour their humanity by responding in friendship and solidarity. We can only experience traces of God in our lives but this God shows up explicitly and concretely in one specific place – the ‘other,’ the friend, the neighbour, the stranger, whom we encounter daily, and whose needs impinge upon us.
Anti-Poverty Week begins next week (October 17-21) and again we are reminded of increasing inequality in this country and around the world. The children going hungry, people being homeless, more and more missing out on crucial medical care and vaccinations around the world are not statistics but human beings, each with a face, relationships, and dreams that are continually being dashed as countries close their borders, communities erect walls, deprived of social care and welfare because we spend more on weapons of war, and suffer neglect people affected by climate change. All these add to people living in poverty.
Today’s Gospel contains an ‘inconvenient truth’ if we listen. Jesus told the man who wanted to inherit eternal life: ‘Go sell what you have and give to the poor.’ Some years ago, a prophetic Melbourne priest, Bob Maguire, was accused by ‘head office’ for using too many resources on behalf of the poor and needy rather than handing them over. Jesus constantly calls us to be people-focused. Jesus, and Maguire, point to the real treasures – the people - within the community and possessions be at the service of people - especially the poor. Pope Francis also constantly calls us to do the same thing. It is their voices, their cries, their suffering that needs to be heard as the gospel call to us. In the same vain, another minister said that the church should go to ‘hell.’ He meant that it should be at the edges or the peripheries – the hell-holes – of the world to be in sorority and fraternity with people. It is not just possession that can isolate, but status, power, need for recognition. The challenge for the rich man, the churches and ourselves is: ‘in what do we ultimately trust? Is it money, possessions, status, power, need for recognition or being vulnerable and trusting in God?
Jesus touches on another inconvenient truth today. That our possessions are a source of power and can hide the faces of people from us. Possessions can isolate us from others. They can buffer us from the suffering of others. Rampant individualism can cause people to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the cries of the poor and the cry of the earth. Unfortunately, many people justify themselves by saying ‘we earned our wealth,’ ‘we worked hard,’ and ‘the poor are just lazy.’ This buffering and negativity applies to people seeking asylum, people who are homeless, people in prison and the First Peoples of this land. Power and wealth can turn us away from responding with compassion to asylum seekers, the First Peoples, the aged, many youth and migrant workers. Possessions (which may not always be material) can steer us inwards rather than outwards. Our ability to hear the pain of others correlates to the ability to experience God’s goodness. The young man’s focus was on himself, his eternal life, without concern for that of others. ‘What must I do.’ He does not see that experiencing ‘eternal life’ was not about piety points, whereas Jesus only recalls the commandments that refer to our neighbour. Anti-Poverty Week also calls us to reflect how we benefit and continue to benefit from Aboriginal dispossession; from pushing free trade rather than fair trade; support cutbacks in health and other social benefits; downsizing at the cost of unemployment; and cuts and continue to wages from people in very vulnerable sectors of the community; forcing people into insecure work arrangements or casualisation. Reflecting also on our poor Earth, the 15th century priest Erasmus words still challenge, ‘Nowadays the rage for possession has got to such a pitch that there is nothing in the realm of nature, whether sacred or profane, out of which profit cannot be squeezed.’
The call to be people-focused includes us as well. Any wealth or power cannot fill the void that resides within the human heart. This is also the sadness about the young man. Jesus loved this man. The sadness in Jesus’ heart may be that we let things/stuff (wealth, ambition, work) isolate us from other people. Every community has suffering people, but often these people find themselves feeling isolated and marginalised even within our churches. Standing with them and acknowledging them is often a far more powerful gift than any material help we can offer which in many circumstances can be disempowering. For us too, it is important to have the humility to receive the help and compassion of others, and not embrace a proud, stoic aloofness. It is only as we walk through suffering together that we can really experience and reflect the mercy and compassion of God.
When hurting, poor people come to church, do they find God present in the congregation? How many young people, how many homeless and hungry people, how many people living with a disability or mental illness, how many gay and lesbian people, how many unemployed and unemployable people find God there? How many single parents, unwed mothers and fathers can find God in our houses of worship? We are expected to notice others to be in solidarity with people in a future where there is enough for all. It means working together to overturn the tables of control and divisive systems. Today’s gospel story must also be interpreted today as an invitation to transform systems and structures that create wealth and poverty, that maintain privilege within our own society or in our world.
It is difficult for us to opt out of so many large and intersecting systems that encircle us. Those systems are about human and environmental exploitation. The first reading offers us a way forward as individuals: it is to like differently, to cherish differently, to plan differently. ‘I valued Her even above my throne and scepter, and all my great wealth was nothing next to Her. I held no precious jewel to be Her equal, because all gold in the world was just a handful of sand compared to Her.’ (Wisdom 7:8-9).
May we have the wisdom to see more clearly what our true treasures are. Encountering a stranger, community, the biodiversity of nature; clean water; making music and dancing; enjoying nature; writing poetry; and friendship.