by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Then Jesus looked at him with love and said to him: “There is one thing more you must do. Go and sell what you have and give to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven. After that, come and follow me.” On hearing this, the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” Mark 10, 17-30
If there is one conclusion we can draw from today’s gospel-reading, it is that we are all invited, indeed expected, to participate in Jesus’ ongoing mission of advancing the kingdom of God. Moreover, advancing God’s kingdom will have more to do with rolling up one’s sleeves and getting involved with the poor, the needy, the ignorant and the struggling than it will with accumulating merit, brownie points or grace. The man, who came running up to Jesus with the question: “What must I do get eternal life?”, seemingly had the notion that “eternal life” was something that one accumulated in much the same way as he had gone about getting wealthy.
The mathematical approach of Jesus’ questioner to ‘earning’ heavenly treasure is echoed by Jesus and then dismissed. However, it is an approach that has waxed and waned in popularity in Christian Churches through the centuries. Many readers of this reflection will surely be able to recall devotional practices of their youth that seemed to focus on accumulating spiritual benefits. One practice that was encouraged was one with the Latin tag toties quoties (meaning ‘as often as’). By visiting a church, praying for the holy souls and adding set prayers for the Pope, one earned a plenary indulgence that would release a dead person from Purgatory. I can recall trapsing in and out of the local parish church, reciting the stipulated prayers and tallying the number of plenary indulgences earned for departed friends and relatives and for those who had no one to pray for them. Then there was the devotion of the ‘Nine First Fridays’ (going to Mass and receiving Communion on the first Friday of nine successive months) and the wearing of the Brown Scapular that were both touted as guarantees that one would die in ‘the state of grace’. Practices such as these, while no longer widespread, were encouraged to bolster the faith of Catholics. In the process they encouraged a mathematical approach to earning one’s way to ‘eternal life’ and militated against an adult understanding of discipleship of Jesus. I point to such practices not to ridicule them but to illustrate that they received a disproportionate attention.
In describing the impact on the man of Jesus’ challenge to him to sell up, give the proceeds to the poor and join him on the road, Mark uses a Greek word that equates to something like thunderstruck. Jesus was in such admiration of the man’s innate goodness that he invited him to be a close follower. But it was an invitation that took the wind right out of the man’s sails. His body language revealed that the price of “treasure in heaven” was just too much for him.
In our efforts to depth today’s gospel-reading, it’s important that we not ignore the culture in which both Jesus and his questioner had grown up. We know from the Gospels that much of what Jesus taught and proclaimed ran counter to both the civil and religious cultures of his day. In fact, the civil culture and the religious one were almost identical. This was a culture built on the Law of Moses and one in which personal wealth was interpreted as a sign of Divine approval. Jesus’ wealthy questioner unashamedly admitted that he had, from his youth, observed all the behavioural don’ts and shalt-nots of the Law. On the other hand, Jesus repeatedly pointed to the spirit that enlivened the Law and proclaimed that everyone from the richest to the poorest had God’s approval, even if their actions sometimes fell short of what the Law demanded.
Note that, in probing the rich man’s level of commitment, Jesus did not question him on his beliefs but on his religious practice: had he kept the commandments that had come from God? And the man himself had asked Jesus: “What must I do to share in everlasting life?” (Mark 10, 17). And the answer he received deflated him totally. Implicit in this interaction between the man and Jesus is a clue to what it is that paves the way for anyone to embark on a life of discipleship behind Jesus. It is letting go of the one attachment in our lives that holds us captive. The object of that one attachment might be a thing, a person or a practice. This gospel-reading serves as an invitation to each of us to reflect on whether or not we are allowing some attachment or other to impede us from walking in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus said openly that one of the biggest impediments is the wealth we accumulate. And part of Mark’s skill (and Jesus’ skill, too) is that this story is left open-ended. We are not told that the man descended into a miserable life of total self-engrossment or that he went and reflected on Jesus’ words and then changed his mind. The open-endedness of the story puts the ball in our court.
Not for one moment do I want to suggest that Mark had offered his community this story for the sake of criticising or ridiculing the rich man who came to Jesus with a genuinely honest question. In fact, Mark was highlighting the counter-cultural mission that Jesus had undertaken by pointing out that money, wealth and possessions can distract us all from committing ourselves to the journey of discipleship. The resources we have can so distract us from a life of selfless service in imitation of Jesus that we get obsessed with the resources and lose sight of the journey for which those resources have been provided. Like the rich man who came to Jesus, we, too, can be side-tracked by the insistent messages of our culture, by messages that urge us to put self-interest first and service of others a distant second. Jesus’ invitation to selfless discipleship is still there in front of us. Are we willing, able and ready to take it up?