19 August 2010

The Wrong Questions

20th Week OT (Tues)
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Priory of the Holy Spirit (Blackfriars, Oxford)

When you ask Christ the wrong question, you still get the right answer. A wealthy young man asks Jesus, “What good work must I do to enter heaven?” To answer, Jesus reels off a laundry list of conditions, including with the deal-killing requirement of abject poverty, and concludes by saying, “Follow me.” The disciples ask, upon hearing Jesus say that a camel will gallop through the eye of a needle before a rich man enters heaven, “Who can be saved, then?” Jesus responds, “For men, this is impossible, for God everything is possible.” Wrong questions, right answers. But why are these the wrong questions to ask? What's so wrong about wanting to know who will be saved, and how one goes about being among those saved? Let's say that you are possessed by a holy curiosity, a truly inspired need to explore the mysteries of salvation. If you understand anything that Jesus teaches about the possibility of enjoying the Beatific Vision, you know that to ask what must be done to enter heaven reveals a deep misunderstanding of the Good News. To ask who can be saved, implies an even deeper misunderstanding. There is nothing to be done. And the invitation to live with God eternally, an invitation made by the cross and the empty tomb, is delivered to everyone without conditions. The young man and the disciples do not yet understand what Jesus means when he teaches that salvation is a gift, eternal life freely given.

That the young man and the disciples see their entrance into heaven in terms of What Must Be Done and Who Can Do It should not surprise us. They were born and raised in a religious tradition that made salvation contingent on the completion of specific works completed by specific people during specific times of the year. Jesus regularly claims that he is fulfilling the Law not abolishing it, so it is only sensible to wonder exactly what requirements of the Law has he fulfilled and how his potential followers are to do their part in following along behind. The answer that Jesus gives the young man mirrors the young man's expectations regarding the work to be done for salvation: keep the commandments, sell all you have, give the money to the poor, and then follow me. 

The answer he gives to the disciples, however, is not what the disciples expected, “. . .for God everything is possible.” Peter, obviously dismayed, pipes up, “Oh really? Well, what about us? We've left it all behind for your sake. What are we to have, then?” Jesus says, “For all that you have forsaken you will be repaid one hundred times over and you will inherit eternal life.” Then, just to make sure that his students get the lesson, he adds, “Many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” In other words, young man, disciples, what you count as sacrifice and treasure here do not count as sacrifice and treasure in heaven. It is not your own power—or treasure or sacrifice or good works—that wins the victory but the grace of God that snatches you from the final defeat. 

The Good News—for the young man, the disciples, for all of us—is that all things are possible for God and He desires our salvation. Left to ourselves we might or might not follow the all commandments, make all the right sacrifices, pray all the right prayers, and give away all our treasures. However, none of this really matters when it comes to whether or not we will dine at the heavenly feast. We have the invitation. So let's not waste our time asking the wrong questions. We have the only answer we need: “. . .for God everything is possible.”

Follow HancAquam ------------>


  1. Father Phillip, you told me a few years ago when you were still in Dallas: "You are alone because nobody loves you". I never forgot that.... I still cry over it and although I found a man I thought loved me, cared for me, I found out I was wrong. I helped him in his time of need. Now he no does not need me, but because he loved me I didn't care.... I was wrong...Today your words ring in my hear and open the the raw wound "You are alone because nobody loves you". Does this apply to God and I just don't see it like I didn't see it with this good man before either?

  2. Rebecca, I would appreciate knowing a little more about the context of my comment to you...it doesn't sound like something I would say.

    God loves b/c Love is Who God Is. . .love is what He does. We experience His love most intensely in the love we have for others. Read 1 John for the best explanation of this.

  3. I know God loves me, but obviously my sins have gotten me where I am. I have always believed that if I didn't sin, good things will come. You disagreed with me. That was part of the conversation we had. I have always felt that my calling was for marriage... it was then that you said, "You are alone because nobody loves you." I thought I found someone that did love me at last.... and I was wrong. I think it has to do with my sins... because although I consider myself a good person, I wasn't good enough. Father Robison always said that God would never give you a vocation and then deny you the ability to achieve it..... but that is what has happened, I am alone because nobody loves me.... nobody loves me because I'm a sinner.... I'm not good enough. It doesn't matter that I help people as a counselor, that I teach student at a college, that I don't cheat people, etc.... "I'm alone because nobody loves me". I was wrong in my vocation like I have been in so many other things...