Whatever religion you may belong, you may have come across this saying: You can’t take your possessions when you die. Not your house or car or money or camera or book collection. You cannot bring your riches to heaven and eternity.
The gospel of today’s 28th Sunday in ordinary time tells the story of a young man who went to Jesus seeking eternal life. The rich young man thought that he has all it takes to have eternal life: he is rich and he is a law-abiding religious Jew. Unfortunately for the young man, Jesus shatters his illusion. Jesus tells him that neither his riches nor all his good-doing ways will let him into eternal life. The only way he can possess eternal life is to sell all his riches, give it to the poor and come follow him. The rich man goes away very sad, finding Jesus’ words very hard to follow.
Jesus’ words must have also been earth shattering to his own disciples. The astonishment of the disciples shows that Jesus’ saying was indeed a shock.
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
“Then who can be saved?”
Part of the shock derives from the presumption during Jesus’ time that being rich was not a hindrance but rather an advantage for entering the kingdom of God. For wealthy people could build synagogues, help the needy, sponsor Temple sacrifices. If they could not be saved, who else could?
For Jesus, however, attachment to wealth and the Kingdom of God is diametrically opposite. Nevertheless, the rich young man wants to have it both ways: he wants his possessions and he wants everlasting life. You can’t have both, Jesus says. As Jesus says, it is impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
“How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words.
So Jesus again said to them in reply,
“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
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
This opens the way for Jesus’ ultimate point: salvation is not a human achievement but an act of God. The problem with wealth is that wealth brings power and, often, the delusion that one has no need for others, even for God. If one is rich enough, one can begin to think of oneself as the center of the world.
Power, status, fame, and position have the same effect as it makes ourselves the center and isolates us from God and others. They hinder us to give freely of ourselves, our gifts, our talents in service to the Lord. The problem with riches, power, status and fame is that we tend to accumulate them until they become us. They possess us until it is too late to detach from them. What are your riches? What are your attachments?
The renunciation of wealth, however, is not an end in itself but only a precondition for following Jesus. It is the life of discipleship, not the renunciation of wealth per se, that leads to eternal life. Following Jesus demands that we choose not to be possessed by things, but by Jesus himself. To be possessed by Jesus we must even give up our greatest possession of all: our very selves.
Following Jesus is greater than possessions. Such is the way of wisdom. In the first reading, the author of the book of Wisdom was also able to recognize that wisdom is greater than possessions. The author of the book of Wisdom presents rich King Solomon contemplating the human condition and praising the gift of God’s wisdom as greater than silver or gold. Here, wisdom is represented as feminine,
I preferred her [Wisdom] to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.
Another earth-shattering truth Jesus told the crowd and disciples was the almost insignificant role of following the Mosaic Law towards gaining eternal life. This must have been a big shock to the disciples and the crowd who have grown up believing that obeying and doing the Mosaic Law is the sure and certain way to entering heaven. But for Jesus, this is not enough. Simply following the rules, being a good person can’t save you. You may be the nicest guy in the world. You don’t kill, you don’t steal yet you can still be drowned in wealth, power and fame which disables you to give freely of yourself to others and to God.
Lord, we pray, please look at us and love us. Grant us the grace to give freely to the poor everything you have poured upon us. In our giving, Lord let us receive a hundredfold: your life, now and in eternity.