All of us who pray are psalmists at heart. Our prayers to God tend to have all the elements of the Psalms that the faithful have prayed for millennia—including Jesus. According to a book Father Pete is using in his class on the Psalms, these prayers have several elements in common, coming from places in our hearts that express laments in hard times and prayers of confidence and thanksgiving when things are going well.
Sometimes it seems our prayers are forms of bargaining with God; “I’ll give you this if you give me that, Lord.” That certainly seems the case in this Sunday’s gospel reading (Mk 10:17-30) when a man comes to Jesus and, with the heart of a psalmist, asks:
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Notice how he starts his entreaty with praise, addressing Jesus as “Good Teacher.” As someone who was steeped in the psalms from childhood, Jesus recognizes this gambit and answers:
“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
Maybe he was testing the man, considering that Jesus is indeed one with God. Then, in answer to the man’s question, Jesus lists all the commandments—all the laws that everyone familiar with the psalms would already know in his heart. But then he throws in another surprise for this seeker of paradise:
“Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
This, evidently, was a higher price than this disciple-in-the-making was expecting to pay, and Jesus evidently knew that. It seems Jesus could read what was in his heart, and he customized his lesson so that it would hit home with him. Our second reading from the book of Hebrews (Heb 4:12-13) explains why Jesus was such an effective teacher:
“The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.”
Shortly after the man described in today’s gospel slinks away, witnesses to this interaction ask themselves “Then who can be saved?”
This gets right to the heart of many a psalm’s lament, and probably explains why so many psalms are complaints that God doesn’t seem to be listening. Citing this man’s vain attempt to bargain for paradise, Jesus makes the nature of salvation clear to those who witnessed this pitiful man’s exit:
“For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
Then Peter takes up a psalmist-like lament:
“We have given up everything and followed you.”
Jesus offers something the psalmists of old rarely received: an answer direct from God:
“Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age.”
The author of psalm 90 (Ps 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17), from which we read this Sunday, seemed to anticipate Jesus’ promise of salvation, praying that all faithful people witness God’s great works so as to inspire continued good works on man’s part.
Let your work be seen by your servants and your glory by their children; and may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours; prosper the work of our hands for us! Prosper the work of our hands!
This goes beyond the quid pro quo sought by the man in our gospel reading. As the Book of Wisdom makes clear to us in today’s first reading (Wis 7:7-11), wisdom is the inspiration that gave birth to the Psalms, and is a divine gift in itself.
“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.”
So what can we learn from the man who sought to bargain with Jesus for paradise?
That pride is the most lethal of man’s deadly sins. It dresses itself in virtue’s clothing as we seek to justify ourselves in God’s eyes. We can’t earn our way into paradise by taking pride in following God’s laws to the letter. We can only pray for the wisdom to live forever according to the spirit of his word.