Jesus was setting out on a journey when a man ran up, knelt before him and put this question to him, ‘Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You must not kill; You must not commit adultery; You must not steal; You must not bring false witness; You must not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’ And he said to him, ‘Master, I have kept all these from my earliest days.’ Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and he said, ‘There is one thing you lack. Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked round and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!’ The disciples were astounded by these words, but Jesus insisted, ‘My children,’ he said to them ‘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 a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were more astonished than ever. ‘In that case’ they said to one another ‘who can be saved?’ Jesus gazed at them. ‘For men’ he said ‘it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.’ Peter took this up. ‘What about us?’ he asked him. ‘We have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land – not without persecutions – now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.’
Jesus was setting out on a journey when a man ran up, knelt before him and put this question to him, ‘Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You must not kill; You must not commit adultery; You must not steal; You must not bring false witness; You must not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’ And he said to him, ‘Master, I have kept all these from my earliest days.’ Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and he said, ‘There is one thing you lack. Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.
Jesus looked round and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!’ The disciples were astounded by these words, but Jesus insisted, ‘My children,’ he said to them ‘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 a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were more astonished than ever. ‘In that case’ they said to one another ‘who can be saved?’ Jesus gazed at them. ‘For men’ he said ‘it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.’
Peter took this up. ‘What about us?’ he asked him. ‘We have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land – not without persecutions – now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.’
by Fr Michael Smyth SDB
The story of the rich young man is one of the saddest in the gospels. It is the only instance recorded in the gospels of someone who was called directly, personally and individually by Jesus who refused the invitation. And he went away sad.
I often wonder what happened to that young man later. We are left to wonder because the Gospels tell us nothing more about him. Did he ever meet Jesus again? We don’t know. Did he find happiness in his great wealth, or did he remain sad for the whole of his life? Did he often think back and remember the look of love that Jesus had for him? Did he ever say, “if only I had accepted the invitation”?
“If only”. They are cruel words that can cause pain and sadness for the whole of one’s life. How many people go through life tormented by those two little words “if only”?
There may well be people who have experienced the love of Jesus and his kind invitation, but like the young man they have gone away sad, thinking perhaps that Jesus was asking too much of them. It may be the call to religious life or priesthood, or to become a missionary. It may be an invitation to get more involved in the mission of the Church and the building of the Kingdom. It may be the challenge to give generously to the poor, to do something for the homeless, for refugees or migrants … or maybe to spend more time in prayer, to get to know Jesus better through the pages of the Gospel. It could also be the call to give up something harmful in our lives, something that damages our relationship with God or with the people around us.
Whatever it is that Jesus asks of us, we can be sure that it is for our good and for our happiness in this world and the next. Jesus never asks anything of anyone without first looking steadily at them and loving them.
The gospels tell us of many people whose lives were transformed radically by the loving glance of Jesus – think of the Apostles and disciples who were loved by Jesus and accepted wholeheartedly the call to follow him, even though in their human weakness, they often failed to live up fully to the call they had received. Think of the many saints down through the centuries who gave up everything they had to follow Jesus, because they had experienced his love. And they were happy people, all of them, even those who went happily to a martyr’s death.
But there are some who did not allow themselves to be won over, who went away sad, and maybe spent the rest of their lives saying “if only.” It would be sad indeed if we were to spend the rest of our lives saying “if only.”
In its present form, this account illustrates the theme of the absolute availability required of the disciples of Jesus. Doing God’s will from childhood is not enough to become a companion of Jesus as he journeys towards his death. Renouncing everything that gives security, even what is good, is a prior condition for following Jesus. He does not want people who have other commitments, who think that they should comply with other demands that are not of the kingdom.
Being perfect is not something one can earn. Renouncing one’s goods is not possible by one’s own efforts, or just through enthusiasm for Jesus, the good Master. To be able to renounce everything, we need the grace of God. If we leave everything to follow Jesus, it is because we have been chosen by him. It is not enough to want to be a disciple of Jesus. We must be chosen by him. And we are chosen, not because we are good, but in order to become good, not to receive many goods but to reach the Kingdom.
It is not necessary to be good already in order to follow Jesus, but it is absolutely necessary not to prefer anything to him, if we are to be his companions. We do not renounce everything in order to possess Jesus, but because we already possess him.
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
In his account of the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem (Mk 10, 1-52), after the instruction given to the disciples (Mk 9, 33-50) which follows the second foretelling of his passion (Mk 9,30-32), Mark presents Jesus for the last time in Galilee as teacher of the crowd and of the disciples. In this scene (Mk 10, 17 -31) Jesus teaches clearly the incompatibility of riches and discipleship. The wealth of the good disciple is to be found only in the Master he follows, and, in order to follow him, he will have to leave everything he owns. Jesus will not allow his disciples to retain their wealth in competition with him. He asks his disciples for a total commitment.
This is the only vocation story in the gospel that does not evoke a positive response. That must be borne in mind. The memory of the meeting of Jesus with the good young man, who happened also to be rich, served as a guideline to the early Christian community on the relationship between riches and discipleship. The early Christians were able to identify with those first disciples who had abandoned everything to follow Jesus. Their call was not the result of a life of obedience to the law, but a response to the personal love of Jesus.
The story is skilfully crafted and is told in all three synoptics (Mk 10, 17-31; Mt 19,16-30; Lk 18,18 -30). Mark’s account pays more attention to the affection Jesus had for the young man (Mk 10, 188.8.131.52.26). The story is presented, essentially, as an ongoing conversation in which Jesus is always present. According to whom he is speaking to – the unnamed young man, the disciples or Peter – we can divide the episode into three scenes: the meeting of the young man with Jesus (Mk 10, 17b-20), the comment of Jesus addressed to the disciples (Mk 10, 23 -27), and the disciples’ reaction to the radical demand of Jesus (Mk 10,28 -31).
The conversation between Jesus and the rich man (Mk 10, 17b-22) begins rather abruptly. On his journey, Jesus is approached by a man who is not interested in Jesus but in himself and his own salvation. He asks Jesus for nothing except advice (Mk 10, 17.20). The meeting takes place at the request of the stranger. Jesus responds to the concerns of the man who approaches him, but only apparently. In reality, he leads him skilfully from self-preoccupation and calls him to perfection. From being a stranger, he becomes a beloved friend.
When the rich man had gone away, Jesus commented on his failure to the disciples (Mk 10, 23-27). The description opens and closes with the mention of Jesus looking, first at the rich man, and then at the disciples (Mk 10, 23.27). He insists, in a kind of catechesis, on how difficult it is to enter the Kingdom (Mk 10, 23.24.27). The disciples were astounded at first (Mk 10, 24), and then interested (Mk 10, 26). This teaching is addressed to them alone and, for once, they understand correctly. It is difficult for men, but it is made possible by God and only by God.
Peter expresses the disciples’ reaction to the radical teaching of Jesus (Mk 10, 28 -31). The personal problem of the young man simply disappears from the story. Peter takes it for granted that he has already done what the rich man found impossible, and succeeds in getting from Jesus a promise of reward, for now and for ever. Anything he leaves – and there are several things listed – will be recompensed generously. Interestingly, it is not just property or belongings that are mentioned, and they are not even in first place. There are other things to be left, apart from material belongings.
It is not observance of the law that leads to sharing life with the Master. Being without fault from childhood is no guarantee that someone will remain with Jesus. Personal goodness is not the best preparation for following Jesus. Being good already is not sufficient to make one a disciple. The rich man had always observed all the commandments. Jesus loved him and invited him to follow him, at the cost of unheard of renunciation and painful detachment. He was to give up all his goods and give everything to the poorest. Jesus is good only in the eyes of those who have no other goods. We cannot have Jesus as our good master, if we hold on to other goods as our own.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
The young man’s question to Jesus was, without doubt, well-intentioned. He wanted to know what he had to do to gain heaven, and he did not delay in putting the question to the good Master he met on the road. It is all the more surprising, then, that the answer he received from Jesus was a bit strange; “There is no reason to call anybody good except God alone. If you know the commandments you will know what to do to enter eternal life.” If any of us received a similar response, we would immediately lose all interest in following a Master who paid so little attention to us. To Jesus’ surprise, the young man continued the conversation. “I have kept all the commandments since my earliest days” (Mk 10, 20). This confession was bound to attract Jesus’ attention and, the evangelist says, “Jesus looking upon him loved him.” Jesus fixed his attention and his heart on that young man who was able to declare publicly that he had always respected God.
As we read the gospel, we may feel a bit envious of that young man who was able to win the Lord’s affection in what was only a fleeting encounter. Maybe we should also feel a bit ashamed. Even though we have been following Jesus for many years, we are unable to say what he said. The disciple of many years, who has been a Christian all his life, cannot say, as the young man said, that he has always done perfectly the will of God from the time of his childhood. It is not surprising that we, unlike that young man, do not feel ourselves the object of the loving gaze of Jesus, nor do we feel we have a special place in his heart. Jesus reserves his love and his attention for those who do the will of God, and are still not satisfied but ask what more they can do. Anyone who does all he ought to do, and wants to do even more for God, can always count on the affection and attention of Jesus.
Instead of complaining that God neglects us, we ought to resolve to respond better to his wishes and to live according to his will. If we want to earn his love, we must love his will. Anyone who wants to feel loved by God must desire God’s will. Like Jesus in the gospel, God cannot resist people who have never resisted Him. He loves those who have never disobeyed him. He never ceases to gaze lovingly on those who have always contemplated him. Jesus felt attracted to that young man who was able to acknowledge the goodness of his life. In the same way, God falls in love with anyone who loves him enough to do his will always, and still feels he has not yet done enough.
And as proof of the love he feels for those who obey, like Jesus with the rich young man, God normally reveals what they still must do, the renunciation they have not yet made, the sacrifice they had always been avoiding, even if they have always obeyed God’s law. God invites them to follow him personally, to share more closely in his life, to partake of all that God possesses, and therefore to renounce every other inheritance.
God normally demands, as Jesus did of the young man who was so observant of the law, the renunciation of all other goods so that He alone can be our treasure. He wants to occupy the place in our hearts and in our lives that is occupied by other goods. Sadly, the young man preferred to hold on to his possessions instead of choosing God as his supreme good. He had the goodness to do always the will of God but was unable to renounce his possessions to win the God he already loved. That was his great tragedy!
He could not stay with Jesus because he could not live without his many possessions. All his obedience and the love he received from Jesus were of little use to him. His possessions had not kept him from being a good believer and observing God’s law in every detail, but they did keep him from becoming a disciple of Jesus, his companion on the journey and his friend for the whole of his life.
There is an interesting detail in this gospel scene. We come to know that the young man was very rich only after he had refused to sell all he had. The young man of the Gospel who had been faithful all his life and observed the law, and still wanted to do more to gain salvation, was very rich and wanted to remain so. He considered his possessions more important than following the good Master. And so, this faithful servant of God whom Jesus loved, endangered his salvation by clinging to his possessions. It does not matter how little or how much he owned. The things he possessed in this life were enough to keep him from following the one who loved him, and to endanger his eternal life. The goods that Jesus asks us to give up are not always material possessions, even though Jesus here refers explicitly to material wealth. Anything we put our trust in that is not of God, any person or any thing, any sentiment or plan, that we commit our future to, anything we are unwilling to renounce, even when clinging to it means denying God – these are the things that Jesus wants us to get rid of as soon as possible. As the young man learned, if we want to follow Jesus, neither good will nor exact observance of the law are sufficient.
To follow Jesus we have to let go of everything that binds us to anything else, to detach ourselves from everything that keeps us from following him free of baggage. Jesus does not want in his company disciples laden with burdens that they cannot let go of, possessed by their goods, preoccupied about holding on to things they will one day have to leave behind on this earth. If we want him to be our only good, and our surest treasure, we must carry no provisions for the journey nor rely on perishable goods.
It would be a mistake to think that Jesus does not address to us today an invitation similar to that given to the young man he loved. If we are not yet as good as the rich young man was, that does not excuse us from seeking him so that, as a good Master, he can show us what we ought to do. We may think we are not rich, or that we have not enough, but that does not exclude us from the call of Jesus to let go of the things we think we own and which keep us far away from Jesus and the service we owe him. We continue to live our Christian lives accumulating more and more riches, with our more urgent needs satisfied to the full every day, but poor in the things of God and with little joy in our lives.
We know that the young man was very rich because he was unable to give up his fortune. We know also that he lost the opportunity to stay with Jesus, and he went away sad. He had lost the joy in life. He held on to his possessions and he lost God. The worst thing that could happen to us as disciples of Jesus would be to lose Jesus because we are unable to let go of our possessions, even though we may not be as rich as the young man. Our meagre possessions could be the cause of our perdition. All the things that we have to renounce to follow Jesus today, all the things that become an obstacle or hindrance to following Jesus today, are the things we must renounce in order not to lose God. These are the things we have to give up if we want to live in joy and to live with God.
Undoubtedly this renunciation is extremely difficult! The disciples accompanying Jesus understood that, because they had left all to follow him. Jesus revealed the secret to them – God makes possible what is impossible to man. What may seem less good to us is made better by God. Anyone who knows that his only good is God, and his treasure is in heaven, cannot live without God and is willing to pay any price and to sacrifice everything for the sake of God, in order not to lose him forever. As for ourselves, when will we understand this? When will we begin to make God our treasure, the one good that we cannot do without?
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
Music used in the reflection: “Alleluia” by Lee Rosevere (CC-BY-NC)