In our second reading for today, St. James writes: “Indeed the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” As I was reflecting on that, I wondered whether the truth of James’ words had to do with whether we let the word of God penetrate our hearts and our minds.
A case in point is our Gospel reading for today. A young man comes to Jesus, kneels down before him, and asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” If I were Jesus, I would have been relieved. Here was not some scribe or Pharisee trying to trip Jesus up, or see if He knew what He was talking about. This was someone who sincerely wanted to know what to do. Even before Jesus answers with the Ten Commandments, I think this man knew there was more to it than obeying the letter of the Law. So Jesus looks at him with love and says, “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.” And the young man goes “away sad, for he had many possessions.”
And then Jesus says something that astonishes everyone: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And when He looks at the faces of His disciples, He says it again: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples are astonished because it was widely believed that the rich were rich because they were blessed by God. This belief held even though there were prophets like Amos and Isaiah who spoke out against those who got their wealth by injustice to their workers or cheating the poor and vulnerable. And there are people still today who preach a “prosperity gospel”, perpetuating that same belief. How hard it is to let the word of God really penetrate our hearts!
Is it sinful to be rich? Following the prophets, it seems that depends on how one gets rich. For me, Jesus’ words speak to the difficulty of letting go of what is not of God. Can we let go of our material possessions in order to live the Gospel? The young man couldn’t. It’s not easy. But besides material wealth, there are many other things we can hold onto that get in the way of following Jesus, even things that could be good in themselves.
Sometimes we want to hang onto power. I know most of you who are reading this do not consider yourselves powerful in the eyes of the world. But sometimes we can get caught up in trying to control the people around us. Sometimes we want to hang onto status, or to people’s good opinion of us. I always like “applause.” In our U.S. society, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on winning. It carries into politics, sports, and business, where some will do anything to win, and declare others as losers. But as I said, there are other things that are good, but are also things of which we can make idols. In our first reading from the book of Wisdom, the writer says, speaking about wisdom, “Beyond health and comeliness I loved her, and I chose her rather than the light.” We can even cling to health and youthful looks at all costs.
It is hard to let go of what gets in the way of following Jesus whole-heartedly, which is why I think it’s easy to accept the Word of God when we don’t let it penetrate very deep. To open ourselves more fully to God’s word, we need grace. And Jesus promises that to us: “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.” And when Peter says, “We have given up everything and followed you;” Jesus responds with a promise that the disciples will be given a “hundred times more,” as well as “persecutions” (we can’t avoid the Cross) and “eternal life in the age to come” (but we will get to the Resurrection).
To let go is not to lose! That is hard for us to believe, since we seem to buy into a mindset that declares that there has to be winners and losers, and we give into the fear that if you have more than that means I have less. We are called to let go and to trust in the love that God has for us in Jesus Christ.
Fr. Phil, CP