WELCOME to the latest email
recipients of "First Impressions," the parishioners of St.
James Parish in Petaluma, California.
Having wealth does not automatically
condemn a person. Nor does poverty bring automatic sainthood. But,
in today’s gospel, Jesus was challenging the common belief of his
day: that riches were a sign of God’s favor. If you had wealth it
was a reward for leading a good life. Jesus reverses this notion
when he invites the rich man to, "Go sell what you have, give to the
poor and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me."
People pursue wealth thinking it
will guarantee status, control, security and independence – as we
commonly say, "the good life." What’s more, the rich man would have
seen his wealth as approval by God, a reward for his good, and
observant life. After Jesus reminds him of the commandments he
replies, "Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth." In
Jesus’ day the rich would have had more time and means to study and
follow the Law. The illiterate poor could barely scrape by from day
to day, with no time to study and learn ethical teachings and proper
religious observances. Thus, they would appear non-observant,
outside religious propriety and sinners.
The man had wealth and he kept the
commandments – it seems he had it made! He asked Jesus, "Good
teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Before responding,
Jesus dismisses the man’s calling him "good." It’s not about titles
and symbols of honor. Instead, Jesus turns the man’s focus to God.
The laws he quotes guide our life to conform to God’s ways. But
Jesus says more than the laws is required to have life. If the man
wants "eternal life," Jesus invites him to sell all and follow him.
It’s not just about keeping rules, customs and religious laws– it’s
about following Jesus. And that requires complete surrender, putting
our life and security, not in material goods, but in Jesus and his
path to life.
If the man did give up his riches,
what visible assurance would he have that he had God’s approval and
the gift of life? He would have to keep trusting and following
Christ. "All he would have" was Jesus. Would that be enough for him;
would that assure him of God’s favor? Is Jesus enough for us? What
signs do we look for; what do we need to assure us of God’s love?
Our first reading from the Book of
Wisdom also puts focus on our lives. The author of the reading prays
for "prudence." Prudence is the skill and good judgment in using our
resources. It is guided and influenced by wisdom. The author’s
prayer affirms the value of wisdom over riches and possessions.
Similarly, the second reading
shows God’s involvement in the world by means of the word. It is a
living word that exposes our true values. Those with riches may
control a lot of human situations, but that doesn’t mean they have
eternal life. The gospel reminds us that dependence on God, through
Jesus Christ, brings us what is truly good and life-giving. In
response to today’s readings we reflect on where and how our desire
for status and security preoccupies us, and draws our attention and
energies away from God.
Wait a minute! I am not rich and
almost all the people who hear this gospel today aren’t either.
Maybe we should just bracket the passage and label it, "does not
apply to me." Before we do that, let’s give it a second look.
I just finished preaching at a
parish in Petaluma, Ca., where they have a very active catechetical
program for children. Such programs teach our young that we are
called to serve God and not possessions, as a way to "eternal life."
It isn’t only the subject matter taught to the students that conveys
this message, but the obvious witness of the teachers’ lives. They
are all volunteers. It takes time, energy and talent to train the
young in their faith. These teachers are a sign to their students.
They have put aside an emphasis on material goods, "left
everything," to follow Christ and thus receive the gift of life he
offers his followers.
The reading from Hebrews today
describes God’s word as "living and effective…able to discern
reflections and thoughts of the heart." God’s word today may be
calling us to think again about the question of possessions. It
seems the disciples who heard what Jesus said to the rich man were
bewildered, when they asked, "Then who can be saved?" They weren’t
rich and what Jesus said would have been in contrast to what they
had been taught. They too would have seen wealth and power as a sign
of God’s favor; poverty as a punishment.
The rich man went away sad because
he could not, or would not, give up his riches in favor of Christ.
But the Gospels don’t say riches in themselves are evil. Nor does it
seem the rich man’s riches made him a sinful person: he was a
law-abiding and good man. But Jesus was asking him to go further in
his faith life and become a full-fledged, totally-devoted follower.
That was the challenge for the
rich man. What is it for us today? It puts a question to us: In what
do we ultimately trust? Is it money, possessions, status, or power?
Or, are we willing to put our trust in God? Not that this trust will
guarantee an easy walk through life. Trusting in God does not mean
we can relax, stop working and let God take care of us. But whatever
life presents to us God will be our strength and security.
Another question before us today
is: How much of our lives are we willing to invest in following
Jesus? Will following him require us to put aside what will be to
our advantage, but conflicts with our faith in Christ? Does our
faith cost us anything, or have we just made compromises and avoided
the demands faith has made on us? Who knows what we followers of
Christ will be called to give up? But the gospel directs us to be
prepared and willing to let go of whatever hinders our full
commitment to Jesus and his ways.
Jesus has a last challenge to the
rich man and to us: Are we willing to share what we have with the
poor? We may not be rich, but there are always those who have less.
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