Fr. Charles Irvin
Wisdom 7:7-11; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30
In the musical production Fiddler On The Roof we find the poor and oppressed Jew, Tevye, dreaming about what it would be like to be rich. As his dreams take shape he begins to dance and sing “If I Were A Rich Man”, a song I’m sure you’ve all heard. We all can identify with that song; we’ve all experienced Tevye’s dreams, envying the rich from time to time.
In today’s Gospel we find a rich young man, a man reported in the Gospels as one whom Jesus loved. For a brief moment Jesus offered him the chance to experience life beyond being rich. It was only a brief moment, however, a fleeting opportunity, because the rich young man missed his chance. He was too concerned about what he had and so could see what he might have had.
Notice that the young man asked Jesus: “What must I do?” Obviously he was thinking about a checklist of actions he could to take, as if what Jesus was offering could be achieved if we simply follow an operator’s manual, as if the life of heaven is something we do using our own techniques. There was also a hidden agenda in the question. “What must I do?” is question that’s all about me, not others. The focus is on self, not on others.
Jesus’ response was to invite the young man to go beyond his simple observance of the commandments. Is that what spirituality is all about, simply keeping the commandments? We all do that … well, most of the time. But that’s not why we’re here. Those of us who come to Mass every Sunday are seeking to love the way God loves; we’re seeking an inner life in our hearts and souls that has no limits. Love has no limits. Love is not based on laws, rules, and regulations. We are not here at Mass simply to keep from going to hell.
The rich young man’s vision was limited – it was limited by his material possessions; it was limited by his belief that he could buy his way through life and buy his way into heaven. Jesus attempted some shock therapy, trying to stun him out of his delusion. In response to the rich young man’s question Jesus told him: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter into heaven.”
That thought shocked not only the rich young man, it shocked Jesus’ apostles as well. How then is it possible, they asked, for anyone to be saved? They had an immediate interest in Jesus’ answer because they were all businessmen – they were merchants, fishermen, farmers, and professional people; they were by no means poor. They were very much middle class folks. All of this talk about camels laden down with merchandise and items for the market stalls passing through the eye of a needle shocked them. Jesus was telling them that it takes a very downsized ego along with a whole lot of humility to find the narrow door into eternal life.
Why did Jesus respond as He did? Remember that He loved His apostles; and He loved this rich young man. There are only three reports in all of the gospels wherein we are told that Jesus loved someone. This was one of those three.
I think the first thing we need to look at is the problem of illusions. The well-to-do are often treated deferentially, they get preferred treatment and given “special consideration”. They know that money can buy anything. They know from experience that money can get you what you want right away. ‘They are used to instant gratification. They get upset, terribly upset, with delayed gratification. As a result they consider themselves to be special, different, above all those other common people. Then they think they are better than others, that God has privileged them, that they deserve better things, better treatment, and perhaps even deserve heaven itself, being the warm, wonderful human beings that they have declared themselves to be. They are deluded.
We all know of very wealthy men who give nothing to struggling people but instead give millions to their favorite “causes.” In their younger years they struggled, struggled hard, even suffered as they clawed their way to the top of the heap. They worked hard climb up the economic ladder and they think that everyone else should go through what they had to go through. As a result their hearts are small, limited, and their vision, their ability to see others, is narrow and fixated. Their compassion is minimal while their religious piety is something about which they are proud.
The next problem with riches is that they limit our vision. Often those who live in prosperity live behind walls, walls that are built for security purposes. We need to recognize those walls for their real purpose – not so much as to keep the riff-raff out as to shield our eyes from what’s really happening out there in the world that surrounds us. What’s out there is something that the saints try to show us, people like Mother Theresa of Calcutta for instance.
Jesus had no walls to live behind, no riches to delude Him. “The foxes have their dens,” He said, “and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” As a result His vision and His movements were unrestricted. He was, in a word, utterly free. His vision was freed up, He was not possessed by His possessions, He was free to see others for whom and for what they are; as a result His heart was unfettered.
We must remember, too, that Jesus did in fact associate with and cared for people of means, people of power and of privilege. He also knew about envy, hunger, and the shackles of poverty that can imprison the poor. Which is why we as Catholics, give millions of our dollars in aid to the poor, the oppressed, and underprivileged. How can we speak to them of the Gospel, and how can they receive the Good News of Jesus Christ, if their bellies ache, their hearts are lonely and broken, and if they are filled with envy, rage, and the pain of injustices inflicted upon them? Poverty as well as riches can block one’s openness to others and to God.
Tenderness, vulnerability, compassion, mercy, gentleness, kindness, meekness, docility, forgiveness, love, all of those vital virtues that are necessary for our salvation can come to us only when those things that block them are removed from our souls.
Which is why we are here. Preaching the Gospel, the Good News, is not simply about the Ten Commandments but about those things that go beyond observing the Law, which go beyond simply keeping the Ten Commandments.
The Gospel account you just heard is one of the most poignant in all of scripture. It’s also one that should pierce into your souls as well as into mine. For, to be truthful with you, I fear that I have lived my life too much like the rich young man, and that my soul is at risk. Pray that God’s Holy Spirit will touch me and convert me. And I will likewise pray for you, too. For Jesus loves us and want us to belong to Him with no strings attached. We need to get beyond our securities and enter into the risks of life as Jesus did, and to be empowered to do so in His life-giving Holy Spirit bestowed upon us by God in Pentecost’s winds and tongues of flame.