October 14, 2012
In today’s gospel passage, the rich young man who approaches Jesus asks the universally felt human question about the possibility of reaching a life beyond death. In other words, why do we humans have such a strong yearning for life and are nonetheless created mortal? This young man is obviously very confident and he uses ingratiating language as he addresses Jesus. When Jesus replies that only God is good, he is simply stating a truism of the Jewish tradition.
Jesus then reminds this young man of the traditional teaching in the Ten Commandments about the kind of moral behavior that promises eternal life. The young man replies in effect: “Been there, done that!” Jesus in turn seems to be captivated by his self-confidence and tells him that there is indeed more to be done if he really is serious about eternal life.
This more sublime ideal requires an unburdening of oneself in order to be free to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. This sobers up the rich young man immediately for he cannot imagine a life of security without possessions. Jesus then tells his disciples that reaching the kingdom of heaven will be hard for everyone, rich or poor, because attachment to possessions is not just a problem for the wealthy. The challenge therefore does not come from the size of one’s bank account but rather from the degree of one’s attention to God and of one’s generosity in living the challenge presented by Jesus.
When Jesus declares that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to be saved, he is using a strong metaphor to emphasize the difficulty of paying proper attention to God when one is encumbered by the attachments and distractions involved with possessions. It takes much time and effort to acquire possessions, and even more time to care for them, to protect them and to enjoy them. This fact establishes a kind of competition between one’s attention to God and one’s concern for the management of one’s earthly affairs.
This matter receives much more attention in Luke’s gospel. He came from Antioch and had personal experience of the extremes of wealth and poverty in that pagan city. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19ff) is a good example of his concern about the way in which possessions tend to blind a person to the lasting values in life. Nowhere in this parable is there any suggestion that the rich man had acquired his wealth immorally. He is condemned simply because his preoccupation with his possessions has blinded him to the fact that Lazarus was in his backyard begging for food.
The clear implication is that the amount of one’s possessions is not nearly as dangerous as is the degree of one’s attachment to them. To be liberated from the drugging influence of possessions is to be ready to put the needs of others before one’s own comfort and convenience. It was St. Augustine who said that, from a Christian perspective, the surplus of the wealthy belongs to the poor. And surplus means all that is not required for a modest life style. I think he would apply that standard to wealthy nations also.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.