There was a phrase that made the ‘rounds’ on t-shirts and bumper stickers for a while, that read, ‘whoever has the most toys when he dies, wins.’ Hardly a surprising sentiment in our materialistic world; but when we really think about that statement, it’s really quite sad. As if the sum total of our life and existence is the amount of material wealth we have or have not accumulated. As people of faith, we know that this mindset is very narrow; our hearts and our souls tell us that there is much more to our life and our passage from it than a bank statement or a list of possessions.
In our Gospel passage this week, we read of an encounter between Jesus and a rich man; we are given an insight into the reaction of the human heart when we deny ourselves a deeper, closer relationship with Jesus.
The man asks Jesus what he has to do to gain eternal life – which is an eternity with God. St. Mark tells us this was a person who practiced his religion, but only to a certain point; Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, and then lists some major ones – no murdering, stealing, committing adultery – And in response to this list, the man says , “ I have kept all these things since my youth,” as if simply by not killing or stealing or committing adultery is sufficient to enter into the Kingdom of God. He’s proud, it seems, in being able to hold up a checklist of ‘major’ offences and presenting a clean slate.
But the words St. Mark uses to describe what happens next are so crucial to understanding just what kind of exchange is happening here between Jesus and the man. It says, ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said, ‘You lack one thing,’…” That phrase is very important – ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him…’ It suggests to us something deeply personal and intimate is happening here; Jesus is now telling the rich man to go beyond a simple observance of ‘major’ commandments; that he needs to consider an attitude like ‘just because I haven’t killed anyone’ is not sufficient when it comes to being united to God.
Because Jesus, ’loved him’, it tells us that Jesus is inviting him, in love, to move even closer – that the rich man has potential, but he still needs to detach himself from his wealth, his prestige, his privileged position, his social and political views – anything that keeps him from entering more deeply into relationship with Christ. The depth of that relationship is reflected in Jesus’ instruction to sell what he owns, give the money to the poor, and come follow Him.
It isn’t sufficient to give away some of his belongings, or to make a small donation, and leave his journey of faith at that and assume that’s enough. Jesus says, ‘it’s not enough.’ He invites the rich man and all of us to completely put Him first – to stop placing priority on power, property and privilege ahead of our love of God and love of neighbour. If we truly want to gain eternal life, then that is the path we must follow, the gate we have to enter through; it’s not a popular gate, it’s not an easy gate – but it’s the gate that Christ Himself invites us to take.
Two interesting things happen when this ‘unpleasant reality’ is presented to the rich man.
One is Jesus’ reaction; the other is the man’s reaction.
Jesus doesn’t diminish or reduce the radical nature of what He has just said. He doesn’t say, ‘oh, is that too hard? Well okay, I was only kidding. You can keep all your wealth and just say a couple of extra prayers.’ He doesn’t say,’ okay, if that doesn’t work for you, just sell half of your possessions and give some of the money to the poor, and visit me when I’m in town.” He says give it all away and follow Him. He emphasizes the point made time and again in the Scriptures, that God is not a god of percentages – ‘give fifty per cent of your heart to me’ or ‘surrender thirty per cent of your life to me’ or ‘give me seventy per cent of your love’; God expects all – all of our heart; all of our life; all of our love – because He has given all. Everything we have, everything we are, all has been given to us by God in the first place.
As for the man’s reaction, he leaves saddened; although it is not a violent reaction, he rejects Jesus’ invitation to follow Him, to come closer to Him and to continue to journey with Him, rather than ‘holding onto’ his possessions. The man chooses material wealth and privilege over a deep and intimate union with Christ. If he has a lot of money, and this has kept him happy up to now, why is he suddenly saddened? Because on the most basic level, his soul knows it has come close to God, has been very close to a deep friendship with God in Jesus, and has turned back to cling to ‘things’ that can never satisfy the soul’s longing for union with God through Christ. His wealth will never completely satisfy him, and on some level, he knows it. But he cannot stop clinging to ‘things’ long enough to open his heart to accept the real treasure – he’s afraid that if he opens his heart he will lose what he has accumulated; he focuses on what he might lose, rather than what he will gain. And what he stands to gain is a personal union with God; he stands to gain eternal life.
It’s worthwhile for each and every one of us to reflect on the two reactions – both from Jesus and the rich man; we need to reflect on how uncompromising Jesus is in calling us to deepen our relationship with Him. Just as important, though, we need to reflect on those times when we have chosen to cling to those things and situations that distance us from Christ, and consider how, in the depth of our own souls, we too may have walked away, like the rich man, ‘saddened and grieving’.
The great news is that the story does not end like that for us, unless we choose that ending. That if we surrender everything to follow Christ, then we can turn that ‘bumper sticker’ mentality around, because the truth is, when it comes to a deeper relationship with Jesus, and to eternal life with God, ‘whoever lives without the most toys, wins.’
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!