28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Today’s Gospel is familiar to us as the story of The Rich Young Man. Artists have portrayed him as rich and young, but Mark doesn’t indicate his age. A rich man comes to Jesus to ask, What must I do to share in everlasting life? Jesus questions him on his adherence to the second tablet of the Law, the commandments that specify human ethical behavior. The rich man answers without false modesty: Teacher, I have kept all these since my childhood. Jesus recognizes the transparent goodness of this man and invites him even further into the mystery of the reign of God: There is one thing more you must do. Go and sell what you have and give to the poor... After that come and follow me. The rich man just wasn’t ready for that because he was very wealthy. He turned and left without saying a word.
Jesus was inviting the rich man to do something most unwise, in the tradition of the Old Testament wisdom. For a man who had earned his wealth by prudent management and living a life according to the commandments, the renunciation of the fruits of his labor must have seemed sheer madness. In the Jewish tradition wealth was a mark, a sign, of God’s favor. All patriarchs were rich men; for God enriched those he loved. Wealth was part of life’s peace, life’s fulness. Now Jesus reversed entirely that revered tradition. Not only did he have nowhere to lay his head and live off the hospitality of others; Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor.
After the good rich man departed, Jesus went even further in radicalizing his teaching: How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is hard because riches form the way of power, and the way into the Kingdom of God is powerlessness. Riches can lead us to trust in ourselves and not in God. But we should not understand this as condemning the rich man to hell. For there is another side to Jesus which makes us hesitate about his harsh words. The real Jesus is more complex than the TV preachers suspect. Thus, on riches there is the radical Jesus and the moderate Jesus. There is the Jesus who tells some people to give it all away, and there is the Jesus who advises others to share what they have. Both the radical Jesus and the moderate Jesus must never cease to challenge us. The radical Jesus poses a perennial question: What rules my life -money or God? The moderate Jesus tells us to use God’s gifts as he invites or commands us to use them. To some he may say: Give all you have to the poor and come, follow me. To others: Share what you have with your brothers and sisters.
The story of the rich man does not intend to say that poverty is more blessed than wealth, or that only the poor can be saved. But it does say that nothing, including wealth, can be allowed to stand in the way of our becoming followers of Jesus. The rule of perfection in Christianity is not to sell all your goods and give them to the poor. It is rather to respond to the call of Jesus with complete openness, even if it would mean giving away one’s most prized possessions. Perfection consists in using one’s time, talents, and possessions in accord with the unique call that each of us has from God. Jesus confronts each person with a specific call, a mission that only he or she can do. The real tragedy of today’s story -and of anyone’s story- is the walking away from the call.