by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It cuts all the way through, to where the soul and spirit meet, to where joints and marrow come together. Nothing and no one are impervious to God’s word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what. Hebrews 4, 12-13

Jesus, looking at the rich young man, loved him and said to him: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” Mark 10, 17-30

Anyone requiring confirmation of the surgical impact of the word of God, as described in today’s second reading from Hebrews, need not look beyond today’s gospel. In his encounter with the rich young man, Jesus makes it clear that being a disciple of his allows no room for compromise. As for the young man who approaches him, it would seem that his enthusiasm exceeds his ability to commit himself. While he seems to be a very decent, upright and good-living young man, Jesus’ challenge to him to sell up and give to the poor is much more than he bargained for. The cost of discipleship is above and beyond what he is prepared to pay. Moreover, Jesus makes no concessions. If the young man wants to be a disciple, he has to surrender his wealth and give to the poor. And that’s the one thing he refuses to do. The demand from Jesus really cuts close to the bone. That’s why the young man, whose observance to the Law is faultless, went away sad, and disappointed with himself.

Notice the progressive approach that Jesus uses to challenge him. He begins with a reaction to the label “good”, which the young man puts on him. Jesus knows that goodness is a relative term, and is dependent on the scale we use for measuring it. Needless to say, everyone’s way of measuring goodness will be different. Both Jesus and the young man know that absolute goodness can be attributed only to God.

Then Jesus moves immediately to what was known to every devout Jew: adherence to the Law was the surest way to inherit eternal life. He lists some of the commandments of the Decalogue (Exodus 20, 13-16) and introduces another from Deuteronomy about justice and exploitation: “Don’t exploit the lowly and the poor labourer, whether he’s one of your brothers or a foreigner whom you find in any of your cities.” (Deuteronomy 24,14) In response, without any hint of boasting, the young man states that he has been faithful to observing the commandments listed by Jesus ever since he was a child. Jesus was clearly impressed by the man’s honesty and integrity, for we are told that “Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him.”

I wonder how many of us could give an account of our lives similar to that of the young man? How many of us could honestly claim that we have not taken advantage of anyone, that we have not harboured secret desires of revenge, that we have always treated our parents with respect, that we have not distorted the truth, that we have not manipulated anyone for our own purposes? Yet despite our moral shortcomings, Jesus looks on us with the very same kind of loved as he looked on this rich young man. He doesn’t love him for his faultlessness, his decency or his integrity. He loves him for who he is: a fellow human being and a young man loved into life by God. The key point here is that we all have to come to the realisation that none of us earns God’s love or the approval of Jesus by what we do or don’t do. God loves us endlessly and without condition. Jesus looks on us, too, with love.

However, Jesus does speak the truth about discipleship to the young man and to us. To follow him calls us to let go of whatever it is that prevents us from giving fully of ourselves. And that is a message about detachment. What stopped the young man from following Jesus was his attachment to the wealth he had acquired. To be disciples of Jesus, Peter, James and John had to leave their jobs and their families, their boats and their nets. Matthew had to let go of his career and the money he made from tax-collecting. Today’s gospel pushes us to look honestly at our own lives for whatever it is that is an obstacle to committing ourselves fully to following Jesus. It might be the self-importance we attribute to ourselves because of the roles we have in the organisations of which we are members. It might be our achievements in the academic, artistic or musical world. It might be the career path on which we have embarked. It might be the clubs to which we belong. If we can overcome the particular obstacles we identify, and deny ourselves to the extent that we can begin to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we become the child whom Jesus holds up to us for imitation; we learn to become dependent on God.

Paradoxically, one of the current obstacles that can distract us from walking in the footsteps of Jesus is the Church to which we belong. Some of the happenings, bickering and competition going on in our so-called Christian community make that community look more like a circus than the people of God intent on building the kingdom of God where justice, compassion and love are paramount. Moreover, we can all point to those who have voted with their feet and walked away. Some of them claim to have “met the Lord” in the privacy of their own hearts and homes. While we don’t judge them, they don’t have to deny themselves to face the two-edged swords that are wielded by the likes of inflexible pastors, authoritative parish councils or dictatorial Catholic school principals. They don’t have to endure interminable homilies and disengaging liturgies or embrace the challenge of growing into adult faith. Paradoxically, it’s the struggling church communities of which we are part that not only shake up our joints and disturb the marrow in our bones but lead us to see that God is the only one on whom we can really depend. It might be uncomfortable belonging to our Church, but perhaps, too, that’s part and parcel of denying ourselves in our following of Jesus.