You’ve probably heard that today’s gospel reading about the camel going through the eye of the needle is about whether rich people can go to heaven. That is absolutely not what this story is about.
When Jesus refers to the Kingdom of God in the Gospels, he means a present reality, not what we think of as heaven. The Kingdom of God is here and now.
So then how can it be that we have the world we have? A place of hatred and greed, of vengeance and violence?
Are you familiar with the concept of alternate or parallel reality—the world of “The Matrix,” the shared dreams of “Inception,” the concurrent history of Narnia? These are examples of parallel realities with passageways that allow one to pass between them.
But not all examples of parallel reality are fictional. Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, the sixth son of poor Mexican immigrants, recorded two albums in the late sixties and early seventies. They failed. Rodriguez gave up on his dreams. He became a manual laborer, doing demolition work and living in a run-down apartment in Detroit with a wood-burning stove for the next 40 back-breaking years.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, a cultural icon held sway over the nation, selling more records than Elvis. He became, as many said, the soundtrack of a generation, young, enlightened white South Africans striving to overthrown Apartheid. His songs inspired them to march with their black neighbors in the streets against that evil system. His albums were in hundreds of thousands of homes.
The name of that South African hero was Rodriguez. South Africans had no idea he was still alive, and he had no idea anyone ever still knew his songs.
Which was the real world? The one where Rodriguez was a lonely, impoverished laborer in a dying city, or the one where he was the inspiration of a compassionate generation building a new society?
That’s what the Kingdom of God is like. It is a different world that exists in the same time and place as the world we all know. It is entirely different, but we can find passageways between the two worlds. Those passages are the places we encounter compassion, peace, justice, unconditional love.
What Jesus meant when he said that it is so hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven is that the wealthy have mastered the rules of this world. That’s what it means to be successful. But if I am wealthy, I have to give up everything I know about how the world works to enter the Kingdom of God. The rules I have mastered don’t apply there. And If I am comfortable, respectable, honored, I don’t want to start all over again. To me, the KIngdom of God is risk; to the poor it is security.
In October 1958 the cardinals seeking to elect the successor to Pius XII were tired of Pius’ liturgical and theological innovations. They elected an old man who would give them just a few years of quiet to think before he died so they could decide where to take the Church. They elected Angelo Roncalli, 77 years old, who took the name John XXIII.
Three months into his papacy, John had an inspiration. He decided to call a council of the Church. High Vatican officials considered him a fool for coming up with this ridiculous idea. Behind his back, they mocked him, calling him a fat idiot. He didn’t understand how the world works, how the Church works.
But John was plain spoken and endeared himself to the people. Once a journalist asked him how many people worked in the Vatican. “About half,” John replied.
The Vatican bureaucracy tried everything they could to prevent the council. Knowing John was old, they first tried to postpone it. They came to him and said there was no way they could prepare for a council within three years. John listened and said he understood the concern, so let’s get it done in two. Every time they tried a delaying tactic, John would shorten the deadline. They soon stopped trying that.
These Vatican officials felt they had to protect the Church from the foolishness of John. But let me tell you a secret. When I decide that the Church needs me to protect it against its enemies, I have denied the practical existence and action of the Holy Spirit, who guides us. And I become an enemy of the Church.
John XXIII is the greatest example we have in modern times of complete and total faith in the Holy Spirit. He had no agenda, no plan, only an inspiration to trust the Holy Spirit to guide all the bishops of the world, despite dire predictions by Vatican officials that the Council would be a disaster because of John’s supposedly naive faith. John famously said we are not here to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life. This made the Vatican officials angry. To them, their job most certainly was to guard a museum.
The Vatican officials had mastered the rules. They knew how the Church worked. But John chose to enter the parallel reality of the Kingdom of God, where the Holy Spirit exists and guides the Church despite what humans may do.
Fifty years ago this past week, on October 11, 1962, the Council opened. Immediately the bishops of the world, who had expected to come for a couple of months and rubber-stamp 70 documents prepared by the Vatican bureaucrats, instead took control and over the course of four years touched nearly every aspect of our life as a Church.
Bishops who were treated as princes in their home cities humbly acknowledged their ignorance of theology and brought in experts from around the world to teach them. They invited Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant observers to advise them. They renounced centuries of official Church anti-Semitism. They proclaimed freedom of conscience and separation of Church and state. Before the Council we were called the Church of silence. And now we won’t shut up!
John bet everything, the reputation of the Church, the everyday comfort level of believers, the influence of the Church in political life, the assets of the Church, everything, on the Holy Spirit. Because he lived in the Kingdom of God.
After only four and a half years as pope, he died June 3, 1963, in the early hours of Pentecost, when the entire Church was celebrating of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the first disciples.
We too, have a choice over what world we live in. Do you want to live in the world where might is right, where compassion is for fools, where you look out for number one, where wealth wins out over relationships and vengeance is honorable?
Or do you want to live in the Kingdom of God, where wealth is worthless, where the last is first, where others count more than you, where forgiveness gives joy?
When John made his choice to live in the Kingdom of God, he claimed the words of our first reading today, which sings the praises of Wisdom, the Holy Spirit:
I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.
Yet all good things together came to me in her company,
and countless riches at her hands.
Which world do you choose to live in?
Readings: Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30