(See the readings for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 11)
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Life is so beautiful and wonderful that we want to live forever. Something about being human has an inherent longing for life. Even if we are in a trying situation or one of turmoil, persecution or threat, there is in most people a longing for life. In these cases the desire for something more out of life is present – a longing to experience the blessing of peace amidst turmoil, the longing for freedom to live lives that are good, to become more fully human.
In cases where love and mercy are abundant, the longing for life to continue and to somehow go beyond our own experiences is sought. The man who approaches Jesus asking the above question has the same longing, the same desire, and the same hope.
The central answer to the question is, in Jesus’ words, “follow me.” A very simple and straight-forward answer but as we look at the story, and at the life of Jesus, one that has some serious demands and challenges.
The encounter begins with the man running up to Jesus, kneeling down before him and asking the question. The man obviously is already following Jesus to some extent. He seeks the answer to one of life’s most fundamental questions of the one who can give the answer. He shows profound respect and honor to Jesus as he kneels before him. His enthusiasm seems to be overflowing, even in the manner by which he asks the question. He begins, “Good teacher….”
Jesus, being a good Jew, somewhat rebukes the man saying: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” The belief that everything good comes from God who is goodness itself underlies Jesus response. The man, a fellow Jew, would know this; his impulse might be getting the better of him as he blurts out the question. The question, however, is sincere as is the one asking the question.
Now Jesus answers the question by quoting the commandments that deal with love of neighbor. The man quickly responds: “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Notice that he heard Jesus’ earlier admonition. He calls him “Teacher,” not “Good teacher.” Again his sincerity comes forth, and with enthusiasm and eagerness. The scene is set for a drastic change in direction.
The evangelist, Mark, tells us that Jesus “looking at him, loved him.” Jesus already recognizes what has to happen for the man to “take the next step.” His look of love reflects his desire for the man to take that step, to go deeper in his faith and discipleship, to move beyond the comfort zone he has created in life, a comfort that is stifling his growth, impeding his commitment and preventing him from commitment. The look of love is one of genuine compassion. Jesus knows what he will ask, and what this will demand of the would-be disciple.
“You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The words hit hard. It is as if the man was running in a race and hit the proverbial “wall.” All the enthusiasm of what preceded is drained from him and he is filled with sadness.
The evangelist tells us “his face fell.” It is as if we could picture the reaction and the sadness that envelops him, and Jesus, is right in front of us. We are drawn into the scene and it strikes to the heart.
Jesus is offering the man exactly what the man desires – “eternal life.” Jesus is the one, the only One, who can fulfill the inner longing the man has expressed. He is offering it but it will require something that the man does not feel he can give. Jesus recognizes that the man’s possessions are a block to his embrace of the Gospel, of life in the Kingdom.
Those possessions are holding him back. They are the source of his security and confidence. He relies too much on them for “life” and the only way to advance is to let them go. They are getting in the way of life and true living. As the man clings to these in his heart, the sadness of the scene only deepens; and “he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
At this point Jesus continues the teaching but now with his disciples, the ones who remain with him. Jesus speaks of the difficulties that wealth can pose to someone who is seeking the Kingdom of God. It is not as if wealth is bad in and of itself. Rather it can easily become an obstacle. When wealth becomes the focus of one’s life then they become distracted, misled or distanced from discipleship. Their first priority in life is not “eternal life” but the accumulation or maintenance of wealth.
Those with Jesus recognize the depth to which Jesus is calling them in discipleship so they say, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus replies: “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.” In saying this Jesus once again focuses their attention on God, not self.
In the final interchange of this passage, Peter says: “We have given up everything and followed you.” In this he and the other disciples provide a contrast with the man who went away sad. Peter and the others have left their work, their families, and their security to follow Jesus. They remain with him as he travels around Galilee preaching the Kingdom of God.
So Jesus says: “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: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.” In this teaching Jesus is reiterating the answer to the question first raised by the man in the beginning of the passage: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The disciples have stayed with Jesus. He is the focus of their life and in him they found life. In him they become part of the communion that he is establishing in himself. They become part of the church. In that communion they already have “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and land.”
Once again, however, Jesus points out that there is a cost to discipleship, as he says, “with persecutions.” Discipleship demands attention, commitment and resolve. The reward is life.
Jesus invites us to life through discipleship. At times we might identify with the rich man. Perhaps it is wealth that distracts us. Perhaps it is something else. It could be employment, relationships, ambitions, pleasures or something else. If this is the case then Jesus calls us to leave those things behind.
The first reading from Wisdom gives us some further guidance. In that reading, the author says: “I prayed, and prudence was given me, I pleaded and the spirit of wisdom came to me.” Prudence and wisdom help to guide us in this determination as well as how to respond to Jesus’s call to discipleship.
At times we might identify with Peter and the other disciples who stay with Jesus. In this case Jesus encourages us to continue on the path of discipleship, alert that there is a cost to discipleship and a continued vigilance in our following.
All of us have a deep longing in our hearts for life. We want to live the best life possible and have it endure into eternity. We too ask the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The same answer that Jesus gave to the rich man he gives to us: “follow me.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.