What Must I Do?

I’ve always considered this story in Mark (10:17-30) about the rich young man one of the most electrifying of the bible. I’m sure it was in reading this passage that many a priest and religious vocation was born.

It is shocking–go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.

Who among us can do this?

And is this really what Jesus is asking us to do?

While it is surely a favorite story for “progressive” Christians, those who rail at the concentration of extreme wealth in the hands of the few in our society, I rather think that the lesson is not the literal reading one naturally assumes.

Rather, I think we must look to wiser heads, who perhaps understood this, and placed this reading within the framework of the reading in Wisdom and that of Hebrews.

In Wisdom (7:7-11) we learn that wisdom is the thing to be sought after. Not riches such as gold and silver or gems, not thrones, seats of power, not even health or beauty. Wisdom brings the true riches. And what is this wisdom?

In Hebrews we learn:

Indeed the word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.

Note that God is able to “discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. . . .[but] everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him.” This informs what Jesus is talking about in his discussion with the rich young man. Jesus isn’t making some grand statement that wealth is evil. He is seeing into the heart of the this seemingly pious young man, and discerning what is wounded within him that needs healing.

Jesus rightly concludes that the young man is consumed by his love for his possessions. This is what holds him from true wisdom which is the gift of God. Jesus points out what the young man must do, and this unfortunately he cannot. He is too tied to his things.

Jesus notes what is only obvious. Riches tend to consume us. We worry about getting more, keeping what we have, and what we should do with it. We worry about where to hide it, who might want to take it, and whether it’s enough. And of course, riches lead to issues of greed, jealousy, vainglory, pride, the seduction of power, and all manner of other bad characteristics which keep us from realizing truth.

It is for this reason that the story is cast in the manner it is. It is all too easy to discern the dangers of wealth. Yet, we should not conclude that it is not the wealth, but what we do with it that matters. All manner of millionaires have made this argument at least to themselves. Throwing thousands, if not tens of thousands at charity is no way to make one’s peace with the story. It is not the failure of the rich young man to give to the poor that is in question here, but rather his addiction to his wealth. If you give up a small pittance of your total wealth to charity all the while continuing to lie and cheat and covet all that wealth provides, you have not met the test that Jesus lays down.

And it is the not attention to wealth that is in question, but what it leads to. When our time is spent on such things as these, be it money, or fame, or retaining our beauty and youth, our attentions are misdirected and we are still wholly within ourselves. You might think that those who are spending every waking moment watching what they eat, cultivating pesticide free food, exercising and engaging in activities that are soul-satisfying is the answer. But this too blinds us to all but ourselves. And we all know plenty of stories of people who took the best of care of themselves yet succumbed to a disease and early death.

Wisdom tells us that we are a community of humans endowed with the spirit of God, each and every one valuable and precious. It is our wisdom that informs us that concentration of this fact and doing whatever we can to uphold and enrich this community of humanity is the life we are meant for. It is the life to which Jesus calls us.

It is the life of true riches.



2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tim
    Oct 14, 2012 @ 14:44:22

    “Wholly within ourselves”–Sherry, this phrase captures the crux of the story perfectly. I agree, Jesus isn’t indicting the wealthy here at all. He’s speaking to all of us and challenging our willingness to reorder our lives in keeping with God’s kingdom. The Gospel is in every revolutionary and as you tell us here the change must being in our learning to get out of ourselves–to see a much bigger picture than the one we conceive without the benefit of true light.

    Thank you. As always, you draw us into the texts with startling grace and clarity.

    Many, many blessings, dear friend,


    • Sherry
      Oct 15, 2012 @ 11:43:47

      I think that that is my main complaint about meditation, it becomes directed toward an inward effort only at “reaching some state of being”. I’m always wondering what is the point, other than one’s own satisfaction. Does it pay off in how you treat others and how you work toward lifting everyone up? Perhaps, but I know the charge of self-indulgence is one that must be addressed. Thanks again for what is a must read every Sunday–your reflection! !END


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