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OCTOBER 14, 2012: TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Wisdom 7:7-11
Hebrews 4:12-13
Mark 10:17-30

Those who claim Jesus of Nazareth primarily came on earth to get us into heaven must deal with today's gospel pericope.

The man asks Jesus a simple question: "What do I have to do to get into heaven?"

Jesus responds just as simply: "Keep the commandments."

When he answers, "All these I've observed from my youth," Jesus could only have said, "Don't worry! You're going to go to heaven." He seems to have presumed good Jews were already getting into heaven without his help. But it's clear Jesus wanted to take his followers beyond this bare minimum of just getting into heaven. His ministry revolved around helping people experience the "kingdom of God" long before their physical death; making them aware of God working effectively in their everyday lives, the one experience the young man lacks. We can keep all the laws, get into heaven, but never experience God here and now.

Why would anyone reject a call to step up into such a fulfilling, fascinating level of life?

Already in chapter 1, in his first public proclamation, Jesus spoke of the repentance necessary to experience God's kingdom: a complete change in one's value system. Throughout his ministry his goal is to help his followers focus on people and things they had barely noticed before he came into their lives. It's this "metanoia" - this complete reshaping of one's life - that this man rejects. He simply can't make people more important than his wealth.

When the disciples respond to Jesus' "snowball in hell" example by asking, "Then who can be saved?" they're not referring to getting into heaven - Jesus already assured the man that he was on the road to eternal salvation - they're referring to being saved right here and now by entering God's present kingdom. Thankfully Jesus assures them that God can make the impossible, possible. God can help anyone "go against type" and focus on the things and people on which God focuses.

The Wisdom author is certainly on the same path as Jesus. By "wisdom" he means an ability to find patterns in the way God works in the world. Nothing, not wealth, health, or good looks, should stop his readers from engaging in such a quest. "All good things together came to me in her company, and countless riches at her hands." Poverty with wisdom is much more rewarding than wealth without wisdom.

But no one sums up Jesus' teaching better than the author of the letter of James in today's pericope. The historical Jesus, like the historical Deutero-Isaiah, based his whole ministry on God's word. He had no power, no authority. He simply delivered God's word. People either accepted or rejected it. Yet, as our writer discovered, that word is "... 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." No matter how you grab that word, it cuts - for better or for worse.

Spiritual author Jack Shea perfectly summed up the historical Jesus' ministry. The Galilean carpenter simply answered three questions. What do you want out of life? Where do you get it? How much does it cost?

If you want to experience God working in your everyday life, he'll tell you on what and whom to focus. But, of course that Jesus-focus will demand a complete change in your life's orientation. No wonder Robert North, the famous biblical archeologist is so adamant that Jesus never expected his followers to be more than a small minority in the community. Everyone wants to get into heaven. But only a few are willing to pay the price of beginning that heaven before they actually enter the pearly gates.