“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?”
At the beginning of today’s Mass, our new catechumens have run up to Jesus as he journeys on, and been engaged in a very similar dialogue. “What do you ask of the Church?” “Faith” “And what does Faith bring you?” “Eternal life.”
In the case of the rich young man and of our catechumens, these are things that spring from inside the human being, from our hearts and thoughts and desires. We can risk a generalisation here. Every human being wants to be happy. In the first reading, the author calls that happiness “wisdom”. He ranks it above power and position, above wealth, health and beauty. “In the company of wisdom, he says, all good things came to me.” That’s what we seek: “all good things”. The young man and today’s catechumens call it “eternal life”. In the ancient world of Greece and Rome, people looked for the “good life”, the “blessed life”, beatitude. We talk about happiness and fulfilment. We want it for ourselves and others. We disagree about what this mysterious happiness consists in, but we all desire it. That’s why we’re all good at saying, “I’m unhappy” – in my family life, my work, with the way I’m being treated and so forth.
How good it is that this young man has articulated this question so clearly! It’s a help to all of us. How good that he goes to Jesus, in whom the goodness and joy of God is personally present. How interesting that he asks this as “Jesus is setting out on a journey” – on the journey, his journey to Jerusalem, which is the journey he is making with and for us. . Jesus doesn’t just talk about happiness. He brings it about. It’s the journey through suffering and death to the joy of the resurrection, of reaching the Father’s house, being enclosed in the Father’s arms. “Happiness is being with those you love.”
Let’s listen to Christ’s answer. The young man was right, he is “the good Teacher”. Jesus’ first answer is the commandments that were at the heart of the divine revelation made to Israel through Moses. Jesus mentions those to do with our neighbour. The young man – rather confidently – says he has kept them from his youth. He was expecting more and Jesus will indeed give it to him. But the commandments come first. They are basic. They are universal. They oblige all of us in every circumstance. Infringements of them can be forgiven by God’s mercy, but they always stand. They’re not merely Jewish rules. They correspond to our humanity. They show us the right way of using our humanity. They are expressed negatively: “Thou shalt not” – like warning signs along the edge of a crumbling cliff. But they also contain a positive message. If I shouldn’t commit murder, it means I should foster life, my own and others. If I shouldn’t commit adultery, it’s a call to respect marriage and family life. The commandments call to us to respect the property of others, to value truth and other people’s good name. In the version of this episode in St Matthew, Jesus ends his list by saying “You should love your neighbour as yourself.” So there is a programme for personal and social life here, the real magna carta for a civilisation worthy of the name.
But then the conversation moves to a further stage. The young man says, “I’ve done this.” I’ve got the certificate to prove it. But then something happens: Jesus looks intently at this ardent youngster kneeling before him, and, says the Gospel, “loved him”. He saw something so good in him. Jesus’ human heart was moved. This young man was truly seeking God. And so Jesus quietly says: “there is one thing you lack.” That must have pierced the guy. Jesus had put his finger on the sense of unease underneath the confidence. Jesus looks and loves. And then he offers this young man a path: “Go, sell everything, give it to the poor, and come, follow me.”
This is something new. This is a shift in the moral, ethical history of humanity. There’s a new horizon opened up here.
Were these words just for him or are they in some way for all of us? We have to distinguish here. They are both. In the 3rd century, these Gospel words had a huge impact on an 18 year old Egyptian, Anthony, who hearing them read at Mass went out and sold his possessions and eventually moved into the desert to live a life of prayer. He’s sometimes called the first monk. These words, in 12th c Italy had a similar effect on a young man in Assisi called Francis. He immediately got rid of everything he had. It was the birth of the Franciscan movement which seeks to follow Jesus in poverty and simplicity. So far as these words asked for the renunciation of personal ownership, they were specifically for this young man and for the women and men who have embraced what we call the religious or consecrated life, with its promises of poverty, chastity and obedience. So far, so specific. But in another sense, these words address us all. We don’t have to give our bank details to the first person we see sitting on Union St. But we all know in our hearts that there are other kinds of riches that clutter up our life. Every culture even has its own “riches” which prevent it hearing God’s word, which thinks it knows better what makes for happiness, which turns away from Christ sad or angry. We are all called to detachment, to poverty of spirit, to inner freedom from all the things that clutter us up and prevent us taking the journey of Jesus. We are all called to follow Jesus, that is to be shaped to him in the gift of self he will make on the cross and that will open us to the happiness and joy we seek: resurrection and eternal life. We think of our catechumens who will prepare to share in Christ’s being through baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist. We think too of how Christ’s story, journey, character, mysteries is meant to enter into and express itself in our lives. At Communion time today, let us think of Christ looking at us with love and saying, let go of your riches, and come follow me.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 10 October 2021