“And when he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” In the name of the Living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
You know, if there’s someone in your life that you’d really like to get rid of, there are a number of ways to make them feel unwelcome. You could ask them to help you scrub the grout on your tile kitchen floors. Or, you could invite them out to dinner at the all you can eat liver buffet. Or, you could ask them to come to your parish and give a stewardship sermon. And so, when my good friend, your priest, the father of my godson, invited me here today, well, I took the hint. But we’ll get to that stewardship thing in just a bit.
For now, let’s look at that young man in today’s gospel. The Gospel tells us that Jesus was setting out on a journey, when a man runs up to him and kneels down. So, from the very beginning, we know that this story concerns an interruption, a profound interruption while Jesus was about to do something else. It’s interesting how many of the gospel stories work like that, and how our own spiritual lives work that way too. Woody Allen famously said, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”
So this young man comes to Jesus and asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies with a stark statement: “No one is good but God alone.” Jesus begins by reminding him, and us, that God is the source of everything that is good. We acknowledge that in our liturgy every Sunday when we sing “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” Or perhaps we say, “All things come from Thee, o Lord, and of Thine own have we given thee.” The point in all three is the same: all goodness, all that is, comes from God alone.
Jesus then tells this young man “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” And the young man tells Jesus, “Rabbi, I have kept all of these commandments since I was a child.” Of course, Jewish tradition held that no one other than Abraham and Moses had been able to keep the law.
But I want us to look at this man carefully. He’s not a bad guy, not a bad guy at all. In fact, I think he’s a lot like you and like me. When we get to that part of the service where we confess our sins, sometimes we’re kinda scratchin’ our heads and lookin’ at our shoes and thinking, “Surely there’s something bad, some minor infraction, I’ve committed this week.”
This young man comes to Jesus mostly for an affirmation. What he wants, like what we want, is for Jesus to tell him that everything’s okay, that he’s doing everything he’s supposed to, and when it comes to him, eternal life is pretty much a shoe-in. That’s what he wants, and I think that’s what we want, too. But that’s not exactly what’s going to happen.
The next line is often overlooked when we hear this story. “Mark tells us Jesus, looking at him, loved him and spoke.” Somehow, despite his self-assurance, despite his remarkable confidence in his own spiritual maturity, Jesus loves this young man. Just like He loves us. There’s only one authentic response to that kind of love: gratitude.
Our Savior tells him, “You lack one thing; get up, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” That phrase Jesus uses, “get up”, it’s a phrase often used in the stories of Jesus healing people. In Capernaum, when Jesus heals the paralytic, he tells him to “get up, take your mat and go home.” In the 5th Chapter of Mark, when he casts demons out of a man by the shore, he tells him to get up and go home and tell your friends what God has done for you. He uses the phrase again and again. And so, we begin to wonder, is Jesus trying to heal this man, too?
Yet, like so many of us, this man can’t take this teaching. Scripture tells us: “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Jesus often taught about the cloud that our possessions, our wealth, place over our spiritual lives. The only subject he talked about more was the Kingdom of God, and in today’s reading He talks about both.
I want to suggest to you that one reason that young man went away sad is that he had betrayed his own true nature. You know, it’s one of the first things we learn about God in Scripture. He gives us a world, he gives us a garden, he gives us freedom and gives us a promised land to live in, and then, he gives us a son. God is by nature a giver, a giver who teaches us again and again how to be generous. Each breath I draw, I draw because of God. The car I drove up here in this morning, very early this morning, that came from God.
Someone might say, “No, that car came from the money you made at your job. That didn’t come from God.” But the simple truth is, that job came from God, as did my education, which flowed out of the parents God gave me. Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Everything, my family, my friends, and my godchildren: all of these things came from God.
You may remember that just last week, Jesus told us that to receive the kingdom of God, we must receive it as little children. Children, particularly little children, can’t make their own way in the world. Rather, most everything they have, they have gotten as a gift. Somehow, we’ve managed to forget that. In a culture that perpetuates the myth of the self-made man, we’ve forgotten that we are utterly dependent on God for our very lives.
And when the Book of Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God, I think it means, in part, that we were made to be givers. We were created to be generous creatures. And that’s part of the reason why that wealthy young man went away so sad. He had betrayed his real nature, the purpose for which he was created. He had revealed that his heart was with his treasure, the things he owned. He had denied his real nature, revealing that his heart lay in a wealth he could not part with.
We might well ask ourselves, what are the things of which we are not willing to let go? What’s getting in the way of our relationship with the God who sustains our lives in every moment? This young man who came up to Jesus lived in a world of scarcity. Perhaps he wondered, who’ll take care of me when I’m old, or what happens if the economy takes another turn for the worse? You see, it’s largely a question of who we trust. Do we trust in our real estate holdings, our financial institutions, or our ability to make a living, or do we trust in the God who spun the world into existence? Learning to give is important for our spiritual lives, in part, because it’s a matter of learning to trust. Like many of us, this rich young man comes to Jesus with reverence, but without much trust.
On the other hand, most of us know that giving is in our very nature. We give to our children, our spouses, our friends, and this giving brings us joy. When we give to the Church, however, we also engage in a liturgical act. We know that our word liturgy means “the work of the people.” It is a private sacrifice for a public good. And so, when we write those checks on Sunday morning, it’s not the same thing as writing a check to the grocer, or the dentist, or the landlord. Our giving to God becomes a sacrament, just like the sacrament we’ll receive at the altar shortly. And we’ll gather those offerings together, and ask God to take them and make something holy out of them. And in that, I hope we also can find our joy.
As a congregation, our treasure reveals itself in all sorts of acts of liturgy, acts which are both spiritual and material. When we baptize a child or tend to the sick or serve food in a shelter, we are make an offering of a materialism of the sweat and tears of our days, not a materialism of furniture or jewelry or 401ks. Becoming a disciple of Jesus means that we have been adopted into this new life.
Our giving, our charity, is both a spiritual event and a denial of the materialism that the world embraces. We choose a radically different kind of materialism. In that sacramental moment, as we make our gifts to God, I hope we can hear Jesus’ voice, wondering if we might do just a little more, just as he asked that rich young man to do so long ago.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis