A passage in Deuteronomy recounts Moses’ last words to the Israelites: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life.” While it is a sharp admonition, it is also rather curious. The choice seems so obvious. Who would choose death over life?
Today’s readings offer us a similar kind of choice. For the author of Wisdom, it is between wisdom and the trappings of royalty; for the man in the Gospel who came to Jesus, it is between renunciation and possessions. For both, the choice is just as stark as it was for the Israelites. But it is not at all curious, for the options are clearly delineated.
In the first reading, the choice is not between good and evil; it is between good and good. Scepter and throne suggest authority and governance over others. While such power can certainly be abused, it is meant to be exercised in service. Of itself, it is good. Although wealth and prosperity can be acquired fraudulently, in the wisdom tradition they are usually regarded as rewards for righteous living. Even today, health is considered a blessing from God, and beauty is always admired. The writer claims that compared with wisdom, none of these has any value. Therefore, to choose any of them over wisdom is to choose emptiness. This is not far from Moses’ admonition.
The man in the Gospel story does not ask merely for life; he asks for eternal life. He has been faithful, but he is not satisfied with having lived according to the Commandments; he wants to do more. This is a good man. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” In response to his own petition, Jesus admonishes him: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor.” The man was startled. He could not accept the challenge. What Jesus asked was too much. The man was willing to do more, but he was unable to do with less.
Today we have two examples of how difficult choosing life can really be. The short reading from the Letter to the Hebrews underscores this. The word of God does indeed cut to the bone. It is incisive and probing. It leaves our inner being naked and exposed to ourselves. But each reading also includes a glimpse of the ultimate consequence of making the right choice. In the end, all the good things that were sacrificed in favor of wisdom came along with the possession of wisdom, and Jesus promised that those willing to forego earthly treasures will have treasure in heaven.
Is this a kind of Pollyanna, pie-in-the-sky attempt to persuade us to choose the difficult path? Ask those who have made the choice. They tell us that despite what wealth and prosperity might afford, they do not guarantee fulfillment and happiness. We ourselves have often experienced a sense of well-being after rendering service to others. Parents and friends are rewarded when they are able to help their loved ones to thrive. Teachers and health care personnel, engineers and carpenters give their time and talents freely to make life better for those who have little or nothing. They often enjoy personal satisfaction and even the gratitude of those whom they have helped. In a very real way, they are blessed with a hundredfold of brothers and sisters whose lives they have touched.
Such unselfishness is real, but it is difficult. “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.” Jesus uses a graphic example to illustrate how hard it is for those who are encumbered to squeeze through a narrow opening. Nowhere in his teaching does he say that wealth is bad, but it can be a hindrance; it can get in the way if we hug it to ourselves.
Today’s readings describe situations in which holding possessions is one of the options. But there are other “treasures” that we might be inclined to choose over wisdom or selflessness. Reputation is high on that list. How many people have not been tempted to fudge a bit in a business venture so that they might appear successful? What personal values are sometimes compromised for the sake of celebrity? What force might we be exerting against others in order to emerge as the undisputed “number one”?
Personal comfort could also be the “camel” trying to squeeze through the eye of the needle. After all, why should we be the ones who are always called on to “go the extra mile”? Why should we have to worry about the children of someone else’s war, or about the elderly poor who live their lives alone? If we are faithful to our obligations, if “all of these [we] have observed from [our] youth,” shouldn’t we be allowed to enjoy the fruits of our labor?
The readings challenge us: “I have set before you reputation and wisdom, comfort and eternal life.” What will we choose?