If you found yourself standing in the presence of a mighty prince, ready to give you a place in his kingdom, would you choose the fiefdom you already know?
This is the basic drama that plays out in today’s reading from the book of Mark. Chapter 10:17-30.
A Man Mis-reads His Moment
You know the story. A wealthy young man – earnest in his observance of the law and his desire to follow the good – comes up to Jesus. Drops to his knees. Asks him “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus tells him: observe the commandments. The young man says he has done so, from his youth.
Then we get this exquisite detail, recounted only in Mark’s Gospel (not picked up by Matthew or Luke – compare Mt 19:16-22 and Lk 18:18-23). Here is the detail:
“Jesus looking on him, loved him, and said to him…”
Literally, in the Greek: ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐμβλέψας αὐτῷ ἠγάπησεν αὐτὸν.
What that means is: Jesus gazed on him and agaped him. Which is to say he loved him with that love that is different than any other human love. Not friendship or affection (which the Greek denotes as philo). This is agape. In the text above it is ἠγάπησεν – the past tense form of the verb agape. Jesus looked on the earnest young man with agape, a word only used in the New Testament to denote the way God loves.
So this is the scene: Jesus looks on this man, loves him with the love God loves. And delivers a word only God would deliver. He says, in effect:
You have many good things; you have done many good things. But you seek the highest thing. One thing is lacking to you. Release the primacy that material possessions hold on your heart and come learn from me how to regard the gifts of the Spirit as the highest things. Come learn from me how to desire the greatest good and how to receive it.
This is the meaning that lay beneath the hard rabbinic saying: “Go. What you have, sell, give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Mk 10:21.
But the young man couldn’t discern the inner meaning of Jesus’ words. Because his surface interpretation of Jesus’ words was too terrifying! Sell my possessions? Let go of my hold on this carefully constructed kingdom I have built? My home? My clothes? My cars? My assets? My club memberships? My prized watch?
The young man can’t imagine a world where the goods he has accumulated might hold second place to a higher good. So, without asking a follow up question, without trusting in the wisdom and the agape of the Teacher, he turns and walks away. Sad. His heart knowing what his will and intelligence could not yet discern: that he was walking away from the highest good. From a good greater even than his greatest material treasure.
How Do You Value the Spirit of Wisdom?
This scene sets up a question that the first reading makes plain. From the book of Wisdom 7:7-11. (You’ll need a Catholic Bible for this book as it’s omitted by most Protestant Bibles. A Catholic Bible is worth having in your library.)
The question is this: the gift of Wisdom, how do we value it? Honestly.
Stop reading this post. Right now. Look up at the ceiling – and beyond it to heaven – and ask yourself, in the presence of God, how do I value the gift of your Spirit of Wisdom – this Spirit which is none other than the Holy Spirit? Is it my highest value? If not, where does it fit in the hierarchy of my values?
Because the writer of the Book of Wisdom is unequivocal:
“I preferred her (Wisdom) to scepter and throne.” I deemed “riches nothing in comparison with her . . . because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand . . . beyond health and comeliness I loved her and I chose to have her rather than the light.” Wis 7:8-10.
I wonder how many of us could say the same. I wonder how many of us look on these verses and say Hyperbole! Hypocrisy! He can’t really mean that! I wonder how many of us just skip past verses like this, lest they get too close. Lest they infect us with a deep question mark of how we regard material blessings on this earth and their interplay with the blessings of heaven.
I have an invitation for you. Schedule 15 minutes this week and read Chapters 7-9 in the Book of Wisdom. Here you can gaze through the eyes of a lover of Wisdom and hear how he describes this treasure. A treasure he holds in higher esteem than all his treasures.
The Spotless Mirror of the Power of God
Here I will cite just one of his radiant insights about Wisdom, whom he personifies as a lady. This is taken from a bit later in Chapter 7:
“She is a breath of the might of God, a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty … she is the reflection of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of his goodness.” Wis 7:25-26.
Read that again. Try to stand in the wonder of the writer’s gaze. Try to see what he sees. He is almost breathless in his effort at describing the exquisite wonder of Wisdom. These verses are like a prism of light. Five phrases all trying to capture one basic idea. He’s begging us to notice and listen. In a way, he is inviting us, like Jesus, into his gaze of agape – a gaze into the very heart of God. A gaze that settles upon the emanation of his light, a gaze that takes in the impress of his Spirit.
So many things one could say. I simply want to underline what Solomon writes. Wisdom is a she. She is the Breath of God. The pure Emanation of His glory. The reflection of uncreated light. The spotless mirror, the pure visual expression of God’s dynamic energy. The image of his goodness, pure and radiant as sunlight reflected off a still mountain lake.
A Treasure Discarded
Now consider this: This wisdom – Jesus was offering to the young man. This is what the rich young man walked away from, preferring his fiefdom to sonship in a Kingdom where Wisdom flows down from the mountaintop in a pure stream of living water. In a radiant emanation – like light dancing upon the water – light that sings of the glory of the Almighty.
Jesus was asking the young man to join the inner circle of those to whom he communicates the Spirit of Wisdom as their daily bread. He was calling him to be an apostle, to follow him up close. In the history of the Church – and indeed the history of humanity – there has not been and will not be so great an honor and privilege as to be one of those called by Jesus to close intimacy with Jesus, called to be an ambassador of his kingdom.
And yet the poor-rich young man (pun intended) couldn’t see it. Because he didn’t value Wisdom more highly than the fiefdom of his own possessions.
This is not to say that possessions are an evil and must be cast aside. This is also not to say the rich young man didn’t have a change of heart later. (A tradition holds – and I agree with it – that the rich young man was Mark. And that he later joined the apostles.) But it is to say – with Jesus and with the writer of the Book of Solomon – that the Spirit of Wisdom is a greater treasure than all else. And Jesus invites us to take the steps to express this truth in the way we order our lives.
What is my greatest treasure? What does the way I order my life say about what I treasure?
Jesus, in the upper room after your resurrection, you said to your disciples: as the Father sent me so I send you. You breathed on them your Holy Spirit. Breathe in me a breath of the might of God. Send toward me an emanation of the glory of the Almighty. Shine upon me a reflection of eternal light. Allow me to stand before the spotless mirror of the power of God, to see you and be seen by you. Press upon my soul, like soft wax, an image of your goodness. Amen.