A beautiful Gospel reading in the Catholic Mass this weekend—one of the most poignant encounters in the scriptures. A rich man in fine clothes throws himself at the feet of a wandering preacher and his dusty band, obviously having heard of, or witnessed, Jesus’ teaching and miracles. Full of enthusiasm, he calls out: “Good teacher!”… but Jesus replies: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
Jesus doesn’t want the man to get caught up in desperate hero-worship, as many do with charismatic leaders. We remember those so tragically led astray by the likes of those as Jim Jones and the Guyana mass suicide, the Waco affair, etc. So Jesus is telling the man to focus on God’s Word, for, as He says elsewhere, the quality of the fruit proves the soundness of the tree. So He exhorts the man essentially: “Follow the commandments already given by God!” In other words: “You already know much of what to do. Follow God’s Word.”
“I have done these things”, is the reply. But Jesus replies rather unexpectedly: “But you lack one thing. Go sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven”… thereby emphasizing the insufficiency of simply not offending; one must give of oneself and assist the truly needy. Jesus strongly reaffirms this in no uncertain terms in Matthew 25 with the sheep and the goats parable—the sheep blessed for helping the needy, and the goats condemned for heartless selfishness.
Our rich man becomes sad and goes away, for he treasured his wealth and possessions. He was comfortable and complacent, and now this unexpected and uncomfortable requirement was lain upon him. What did he finally do? Which will he treasure most: eternal life, or his temporal junk, which he’ll lose at death anyway?
You’d think it would be an easy choice to choose the eternal, but we know by our own lives and experiences that it is not always so. Always the Tempter continually whispers into the ear of our conscience as he did in the story of the Garden … always lying about what will make us happy, which inevitably entails abandoning God in some way.
Will the young man be too attached to the world to obey Christ? Will WE? In this Gospel we view ourselves.
Am I a liar and a hypocrite when I say I love God and Jesus and follow His Word? Having received so many blessings, do I give back very little? Being loved totally, will I hate? Forgiven so much, yet I do forgive? Hearing the Word of God, do I listen?
Do we remember the widow’s mite? (Mark 12:41-44) She gave her last two almost worthless coins, and yet Jesus says that she gave more than all the wealthy because of the greater sacrifice it was compared to their own.
So, in our hearts we who long to be faithful to God understand all too well St. Paul’s own inner struggle: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…the evil I do not want is what I do…I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15-24) None other than Him whom I offend … as Paul continues: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)
The scripture scholar William Barclay uses the following illustration: A very wealthy man took a cruise: John Astor IV, who lived in absolute luxury … a cruise on a magnificent new ship called the Titanic. But, as the icy grip of the North Atlantic drained his life, what good were his riches? What would he not have given even for a tiny lifeboat?
Well … our earthly lives ARE the Titanic … sinking slowly, but inexorably. And wisdom—Christ—is our lifeboat … to save us and to bring us home.
Physical pleasures? Fame, wealth, power? All gone in that last moment. But the lifeboat ever at hand is the love of God, and the true wisdom that He gives to those who seek Him … wisdom found in those two simple phrases: Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.
It is the human paradox that we will not find true happiness in seeking ourselves; we only find eternal joy and happiness in serving others: God above all, and then our neighbor. Need we fear loss? No … for He who tells us to give freely of ourselves also assures us: “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…and eternal life in the age to come.”
So, we ask: “Lord … what must I do to inherit eternal life?”