Twenty-eight Sunday in Ordinary Time – We Will Not Be Bystanders
Last week Citizen Action of New York celebrated the efforts of different social activists. Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard was honored for his advocacy for poor and disadvantaged people. A group of fast food workers — teens, single parents, retirees — were commended for going on strike, lobbying the NYS Wage Board, fighting for $15.00 an hour salaries. In another recent event, parishioner B. J. Costello was honored for years of advocacy at The Next Step, an addiction treatment center for women.
Today is the feast day of Pope John XXIII. We remember him in our collection of icons. In his encyclical on human rights (Pacem in Terris, 1963, 11) the pope wrote that human beings have the right to bodily integrity and to the means required for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest and necessary social services.
Advocating for human rights is an age old practice in all faith traditions. To think that people of faith are not engaged in the political sphere is to misunderstand the role religions played throughout world history. While subject to scrutiny, what a religion teaches regarding human dignity and moral development most certainly will have political as well as personal implications.
In today’s gospel, as in last week’s passage on divorce, there is another significant challenge. How does one get into heaven? There are diverse views on what the word “heaven” means so let’s imagine for now it is that ideal time and place where all creatures live in harmony.
Jesus shocked the wealthy man when he announced that following the commandments is not good enough to merit eternal life. You have to sell everything you have. The gospel also notes that Jesus loved the young man who apparently really wanted to follow the messiah. He just could not bring himself to leave behind his riches.
The words “sell what you have” at that time referred to leaving family, home and land. Also one scholar noted the word “rich” in the Mediterranean culture was strangely synonymous with the word “greedy.” The rich man’s problem was not that he was rich but greedy! 
This gospel does not set up a debate between socialism and capitalism. Ideologically those concepts did not exist back then exactly as we understand them today. In fact, a closer reading of this gospel suggests it is not necessary to renounce all material things to have eternal peace or peace of mind.  Jesus was not opposed to self preservation or personal development. Rather he was speaking against income inequality and every other injustice caused by poverty. Here’s a case in point. Earlier this year Oxfam International released a report saying that the richest 1% in the world will own more than all the rest of us combined by 2016.  How can this incredible imbalance be addressed?
Today in our parish a panel of local advocates will address (or addressed) income inequality.  To ensure the common good for all God’s people we are called to be agents of God in working for justice, peace, reconciliation. Pope Francis wrote in his first apostolic exhortation: “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor….” 
Perhaps the rich man in the gospel felt an “emptiness in his life.”  Maybe he no longer wanted to be a bystander and was looking to get involved. He thought he was doing OK until Jesus issued a stronger invitation to a deeper transformation that would redirect his entire way of living. The man was disappointed and perhaps even chagrined.
So, what gets us into heaven? Discipleship. This gospel implies that salvation for all people is real when we commit to make a difference in the lives of others in addition to ourselves. The idea is for us to pick up where Jesus left off. To do so what do we have to leave behind or give up? Are there addictions or presuppositions that prevent us from becoming better human beings ourselves?
The deeper question for 21st Christians, it seems to me, is this. How does the promise of Jesus in this gospel resonate with our contemporary cultural instincts for gaining instant gratification or developing a sense of entitlement? In terms of ending income inequality how can we develop an attitude that helps us live within our means at the same time we embrace the needs of strangers?
The response to the challenges posed by these gospels will be personal and different. Each of us however can reflect more deeply on what discipleship means for us. We can become more informed of the problems and then search for some small way in our lives to help.
In one of our Eucharistic Prayers (Masses for Various Needs IV) we ask God to “open our eyes to the needs of our brothers and sisters; to inspire us in words and actions to comfort those who labor and are burdened.” In that prayer we also thank God for walking with us on our journeys of life. With trust in God we can find ways to join hands with one another along the way. It makes the road to heaven a heck of a lot easier to travel.
1. Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1996, 148-150.
2. Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today. Third Edition (Collegevile: Liturgical Press) 2006. pp. 357-9
4. The panel discussion was held between our two liturgies
5. Pope Francis. “Evangelii Gaudium” (Vatican City Rome 24 November 2013, #187)
6. Byrne, Brendan. A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2008) 161 ff.