Sirach 17:19-27; Mark 10:17-27
Today we have the story of a rich man, that is, a man who believed he was rich or who believed that in his material wealth was his happiness. He was a well-meaning man. “Good Teacher, what must I do to share in everlasting life?” “You know the commandments,” says Jesus and then proceeds to list only those commandments which involve our relations with others, omitting those relating directly to God:
not killing; not committing adultery; not stealing; not bearing false witness; not defrauding; respecting parents.
“I have kept all these things since I was young,” says the man. He was indeed a good man insofar as he did respect his parents and he did not do any of the sinful things mentioned.
Jesus looked at the man with a real love. This is not a love of affection or attraction. It is the love of agape (’agaph), a love which desires the best possible thing for the other. This man was good but Jesus wanted him to be even better. So he said to him: “But there is one more thing: go and sell all you have and give to the poor. After that come and follow me.”
On hearing this, the man's face clouded over. He walked slowly away full of sadness because he was very rich. Jesus had asked him for the one thing he could not give up.
Had asked for the one thing which showed he was blessed by God. He had not expected this.
After he had gone Jesus looked at his disciples and said: “"How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Now it was his disciples’ turn to be alarmed and shocked.
Their whole tradition believed that wealth was a clear sign of God’s blessings; poverty was a curse from God.
Jesus removes any misunderstanding on their part: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” In other words, quite impossible. This was really too much for them. “In that case," they asked each other, “who can be saved?” If those who have done well in this life cannot be saved what hope can there be for the losers? It would take them time to learn the truth of Jesus’ words. And it is a lesson that many of us Christians still have to learn.
Why is it so difficult for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God? The answer depends on what meaning we give to ‘rich’ and to ‘Kingdom of God’.
A person at a lower middle class level in Europe or the United States may be extremely wealthy with the same resources if living in some African or Asian countries. Similarly a ‘rich’ peasant in a remote village may live a life that is primitive compared to a family on welfare in Europe.
When Jesus uses the word ‘rich’ he means a person who has more, a lot more, than those around him while many of those around him do not have enough for their basic needs. For a person to cling to their material goods in such a situation, to enjoy a relatively luxurious standard of living while those around are deficient in food and housing is in contradiction to everything that Jesus and the Kingdom stand for.
The Kingdom of God here is not referring to a future life in ‘heaven’. Jesus is not saying that a rich person cannot go to heaven. He is concerned with how the rich person is living now. The Kingdom is a situation, a set of relationships where truth and integrity, love and compassion and justice and the sharing of goods prevail.
The man in the story said that he kept the commandments. One should notice that, except for one, all are expressed negatively. The man could observe several of them by doing nothing! Jesus was asking him to do something very positive, namely, to share his prosperity with his brothers and sisters in need. That he was not prepared to do. As such, he was not ready for the kingdom. He could not be a follower of Jesus. Nor can anyone else who is in a similar situation.
We might also add that the teaching applies not only to individuals but to communities and even nations. There are countries in the world today enjoying very high levels of prosperity with all kinds of consumer luxuries available while a very large proportion of the rest of the world lives mired in poverty, hunger, disease. It is one of the major scandals of our day. This is not a Kingdom situation and much of it is caused not by an uncaring God, or natural causes but by human beings who just refuse to share their surplus wealth. As someone has said, the really rich are those whose needs are the least.
A final reflection. We may feel that, in our society, we personally could by no stretch of the imagination be called rich and so the story does not apply to us. But we can cling to other things besides money. I might profitably ask myself today if there is anything at all in my life which I would find it very difficult to give up if God asked it of me. It might be a relationship, it might be a job or position, it might be good health.
To be a disciple Jesus means that he is asking me to follow him unconditionally, without any strings, ready to let go of anything and everything (although he may not actually ask me to do so). It is the readiness that counts. The man in the story did not even seem to have that.
Can a Catholic be a millionaire? What do you think? What do you think Jesus’ answer would be?