This Sunday, You Get What You Give and You Lose What You Take
Jesus tells a young man who he is in the Gospel for this Sunday, the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Who is this young man? He is called to greatness, a chosen companion of Christ on earth, made to live forever in glory with the greatest people (and angels) of all time in the eternal rest of heaven that follows the hard work of earth.
What does the young man do? He walks away into obscurity, because he would rather just be comfortable now rather than great later.
He is telling us the same thing and asking each of us: How will you answer?
Everything Jesus says to the Rich Young Man is a lesson in personal identity.
The Rich Young Man comes to Jesus because he wants to know what salvation takes: “not in parables, but openly,” says St. Bede as quoted in Aquinas’s Catena Aurea. This is a good instinct. While sick people were seeking healing for their bodies; this young man wanted healing of his soul, where he was as sick as them.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks.
Jesus rebukes him for calling him “good.” Why? Because he doesn’t want flattery. He wants faith. The Holy Spirit placed this in the Gospel because God wants every one of us to know: “Your flowery language doesn’t impress me. I want honesty.”
He also wants us to live the Ten commandments, because “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” as he says elsewhere.
Jesus listed some of the commandments for the young man: “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.”
Earlier in Mark — in the Gospel we heard five Sundays ago — Jesus had told the Pharisees that evil comes from within, and mentioned much the same list, including murder, fornication, licentiousness, theft, slander, deceit, as well as honoring father and mother. These sins issue from an impure heart and defile.
The rich young says he has fulfilled all those commandments, and “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” because he saw a pure, undefiled heart in front of him.
It’s important to note that the Rich Young Man didn’t earn Christ’s love.
Jesus is God and man; outside of time and space. He knew this man from the inside out. He already knew the faults and failures that the Gospel is about to reveal. As the Second Reading, from Hebrews puts it: “No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him anyway. In fact, love so much defines this story, that when Jesus says “you are lacking only one thing” it is love he means. And not the warm feeling of love, but real love, the kind that defines his life decisions: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” Jesus tells him.
This is exactly the instructions Jesus gives later in Mark when he sums up the Ten Commandments. “Follow me” means “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And “Sell what you have and give to the poor” means, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus is asking the Rich Young Man to imitate what he himself did. Jesus was the ultimate Rich Young Man, with all the riches of divinity, who nonetheless did not account divinity “something to be grasped at” but gave it all away to follow the Father’s will — and thereby found the greatest glory of any man in history.
In the same way, what we give away and lavish on others is what we own in the end. What we grasp onto in place of God will own us in the end.
Jesus promises not just the eternal life the man was looking for, but also “treasure in heaven,” but he refuses the offer.
Instead, the Rich Young Man trades all of that for whatever comforts and pleasures Palestine had to offer 2,000 years ago.“His face fell,” and he walked away from Jesus Christ himself, it said.
Imagine what he would have gained if he had more love. He wouldn’t be known as the Rich Young Man — he would have been known, perhaps, as an Apostle. He would have been celebrated. People would take pilgrimages to his tomb. You would have met many people who were named after him.
Instead, no one knows his name. He is known not for who he is and what he did, but for who he refused to be and what he would not do; known not for his devotion to Jesus, but his devotion to his own possessions. He could have been a hero. Instead, he is a zero.
How about us? What will we be known for? What we gave up for love, or what we clung to so tightly that we held it more dear than God himself?
If we let go of the petty pleasures and comfortable ways that keep us from doing God’s will, we will be like giants on earth. We will gather with angels at Mass, we will be lavished with heavenly treasures — the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit — and we will play an integral role in salvation history, simply by doing small things with God’s love.
If we maximize our personal pleasures and comforts, spending our money and time on ourselves, we miss our calling and waste our lives.
If I look at what I personally have, I have to admit that I’m not even the wisest, best looking, most accomplished, smartest or most talented person on Third Street in Atchison, Kansas. If I give it all to God, I am suddenly united with the wisdom of the ages and part of the Greatest Story of All Time, a player far beyond my neighborhood; a force to be reckoned with in the cosmos.
Jesus says, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” He meant it, too. “The disciples were amazed at his words.”
But do not despair.
As St. Bede points out, “There is a great difference between having riches, and loving them;” and Jesus doesn’t say “how impossible,” it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, but “how hard.”
What we need above all is what the First Reading promises: wisdom.
Think of it. What would you rather have — money, or fulfillment? To have your heart tied to material things, or to have it opened to the immensities of heaven and earth?
As the first reading has it: “[T]he spirit of wisdom came to me. I preferred her to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her.” After that, “All good things together came to me in her company, and countless riches at her hands.”
Those who let go and follow Jesus become far richer than the Rich Young Man ever was.