Yesterday we were reflecting on the story of the rich young man, as told by Matthew (19:16-22). We saw that the young man has just asked Jesus which commandments are necessary for entry into eternal life, as though he is hoping he will not have to pay too high a price. I have read this story many times, but I was surprised, as though for the first time, to realise that Jesus does seem to reduce the price for this young man. He lists only six commandments: ‘You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false witness. Honour your father and mother. You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ This begins to seem like that quintessentially middle-eastern pastime: bartering and haggling. Maybe Jesus is happy to play this game a bit with the young man; maybe he hopes to win him round; perhaps we can imagine Jesus with a little smile here, a sidelong glance as he takes ten commandments and reduces them to six.
Then, astonishingly to me, the young man seems to think he’s got these six covered. I go back and reread the commandments given here and I concede that, ok, the first five of them are straightforward enough: you either have or you haven’t committed the sins they forbid. But the sixth one is, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ I wonder who can possibly boast of keeping this commandment perfectly. Human interactions are so complicated, and riddled with sad opportunities for causing offense. But the young man seems to be saying, “Easy!” to all of them. “Well, am I in?” he silently challenges. And Jesus is never at a loss to understand the unspoken question.
Not so fast, Jesus seems to say. And now we come to the place where Jesus is no longer playing. He becomes absolutely serious here. Let’s take this slowly. ‘If you wish to be perfect…’ he begins. Can there be a touch of irony here on Jesus’ part? Our rich boy thinks he’s perfect already. But Jesus will not reinforce his mistaken view of himself. He gives him a deeper challenge: ‘…go and sell your possessions….’ The man’s blood runs cold for a moment. Jesus probably detects it, and so he both appeals to his generosity and, at the same time, calls his bluff with regard to that love of neighbour he claims to have mastered. He tells the young man, ‘…give the money to the poor.’
I notice for the first time now that it is only money that is gained from selling his material possessions that the young man is told to give away. This would constitute a sort of excess, over and above the money he lives on. Jesus isn’t asking him to make himself destitute. But he is asking him something that involves a life-style change. If he sells his ‘possessions’, it probably means his house and what’s inside it. The young man would probably have thought that if those things go, what would protect him from a life of homelessness? The loss of cherished personal treasures, large and small, that give him a sense of identity, emotional comfort and security – how would he manage without all that? Jesus probably sees him turn pale, and quickly promises him a different kind of security: ‘You will have treasure in heaven,’ he offers. The young man had asked, after all, about attaining eternal life. Here is his ‘how to’ manual. This treasure in heaven, Jesus implies, is so much better than the one he is so scared to lose now. As I ponder these lines, I recall from my own experience that you simply can’t tell how freeing it is to get rid of your possessions by merely looking at it from a safe distance and trying to imagine what it will be like; this state of joyful freedom and openness to God is a gift given by Jesus’ Spirit in our hearts, but it only comes after you have made the renunciation. This is something I’d have wanted to tell the young man, had I been there. But no one else intrudes upon this, by now, intense exchange.
Finally, Jesus issues the ultimate and most privileged invitation of all. He says to the young man: ‘Come! Follow me!’ You will have a life of immense purpose and profound meaning with me. I will give you joy now, and lead you to attain what you have asked for: eternal life. But the rich young man cannot fathom this. He cannot see beyond the cost, and it costs far more than he had expected. And by now he is beyond haggling. He feels the full weight of this exchange with Jesus and it has oppressed his spirits. He turns his back on Jesus and leaves him, a very sad young man indeed.
The tragedy of the young man’s situation comes home to me again. But this time, as I see him walk away with his head down, I am suddenly reminded of other stories. First, Zacchaeus comes to mind, the rich tax collector in Luke who climbs a tree to see Jesus in the crowd, and later, invites Jesus to his home, where he throws a huge party for him, after joyfully offering to give huge amounts of his money to anyone he had cheated. The joy of Zacchaeus leaps from the pages. It’s the same with Matthew – another tax collector – called to be one of the Twelve. He throws a big party, too. Or I think of Our Lady, who gives her very body, her whole being, her life, everything: the sublime joy of her Magnificat echoes through the millennia. And her cousin Elizabeth: the unborn baby in her womb leaps for joy at the presence of the young, pregnant Mary. Elizabeth understands in her soul that Mary’s self-gift, and her own, will bring God our Saviour into the world. What greater joy can there be? I recall the overflow of loving emotion in the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair. I think of the story of the prodigal son. It ends with a great celebration for the wayward son who returns to his father. The bitter, jealous elder brother excludes himself from the celebration, but the father would welcome him with joy in a moment, if he showed up at the door. Everywhere in the Gospels Jesus gives joy beyond imagining to those who surrender to his love, dedicate themselves to him, and say yes to his invitation to follow him. Only those who resist his grace are left in sorrow, but it is a sorrow of their own devising. They could end it in a moment by returning to the Lord and answering his call.
We must choose then. The deepest kind of joy is easily within our grasp. And maybe in the end, only one good deed is needed. The deed of choosing Jesus over all other things.