Year B: Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Rich Man

Mark 10: 17-23

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good?No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother”.  He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

 Discussion Questions: 

  1. When Jesus says to you “Come follow me” do you say: “Yes but…”?  What are you sometimes tempted to consider more important than faithful discipleship?
  2. Where do you experience attachment to possessions interfering with your spiritual growth?  Explain
  3. Do you sometimes think or act as those you must earn God’s love or eternal life? How does this happen for you?
  4. Why is a consciousness of owning and accumulating so dangerous to the spiritual journey?

Beyond money and material possessions, here are some other forms of wealth attachments we can fall into.  A wealth of; anger, fear, guilt; wealth of busyness, our calendar, and task lists; our reputation, another’s approval, our power; sometimes it’s the wealth of ingrained habits and attitudes.

Biblical Context

Mark 10: 17-23
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Mark presents this three-part incident occurring “as Jesus was setting out on a journey.” He says that to remind us that Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem and the climax of the Gospel. At the same time, we might wonder why the man put off this encounter until Jesus was leaving the area. Was he indecisive about what he had heard of/from Jesus but took a last-ditch chance to ask his question? Was he afraid of what he might hear? Whatever his reason for stopping Jesus on the road, he approached him with the utmost respect, running to him and kneeling as would a slave awaiting his master’s command.

Then comes the curious interlude about true goodness. Declining the label “good,” Jesus’ response can be translated as “No one is good except one — God,” a phrasing designed to recall the “Shema” (Deuteronomy 6:4), the prayer devout Jews repeated morning and night as a proclamation of their faith in the one God of Israel. Some exegetes suggest that Jesus started the conversation this way to contravene any assumptions the man or those witnessing the scene might have had about goodness. No human being can presume their own goodness, no matter how many commandments they fulfill. Only God is good, only God makes good.

When Jesus goes on to speak of God’s commands, he concentrates on those that deal with justice in human relationships. We should remember that Mark has purposely placed this incident just after Jesus had taught that people have been created for one another and that only those who are willing to depend totally on God are ready to receive the kingdom. The commands Jesus cited specify ways in which people must avoid harming others, concluding with the demand to honor one’s parents.

When the man replied that he had observed all those commandments from his youth, Mark says that Jesus looked on him with genuine “agape,” that is a preferential love demonstrating that he respected and appreciated him and his authenticity. Jesus saw something in this man that led him to invite him to join his group of itinerant disciples — an invitation that he didn’t make every day.

Mark tells us that the man was stunned when Jesus invited him to sell and give all he had to the poor and then to come with him. He may have approached Jesus in sincerity but hadn’t bargained for the challenge to give up everything. Perhaps he had heard Jesus’ invitation to “repent and believe,” but he hadn’t comprehended that metanoia conversion implied an inversion of his life. He had once been more than intrigued with the possibilities Jesus offered, but in the end all he could do was depart in grief because the cost of going down Jesus’, road was too great for him.

Mark allows us to think that Jesus spoke with as much sympathy as disappointment when he said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus understood how people can be enslaved by their possessions. He knew how hard it is for anyone to enter the kingdom of God. He had been dealing with similar difficulties with his disciples for whom competition and prestige were stumbling blocks. Therefore, Jesus went on with both humor and sympathy to explain that camels go through the eye of a needle more easily than people learn to be little and dependent enough to trust only in God’s plan.

When Peter asserted his claim that the disciples had accepted Jesus’ invitation, Jesus gave him credit for it and solemnly promised them greater blessings in the present and the future. (Of course, one had to be in tune with Jesus’ values to appreciate the value of the promised blessings!)

Today’s readings invite us to consider what we seek most in our life and why we choose to be in the company of Christ and his followers. Christ offers to take all we have and are and transform it as truly as the bread and wine are transformed in our Eucharist. But as we see in today’s Gospel, that is simply an offer. We are free to stay on his road or to go our own way.

 Disowning Possessions

John Shea

The man in this story is a true seeker, not like others who have approached Jesus with questions in order to test him. If he is seeking to inherit eternal life, he will have to focus on the goodness of God. Eternal life is a gift of God. It flows from God’s essential goodness. In fact, this entire teaching—both with the seeker and with the disciples—will focus on how to understand and relate to the goodness of God.

But the seeker’s mind is elsewhere. He is centered on people doing the good in order to get the best. He is tied into the consciousness of action and reward. The teacher acknowledges this: “You know the commandments” and the teacher decides to affirm what he knows by listing the foundational good works. The seeker does indeed know these commandments. In fact, he has kept them from his youth. ‘Youth” is the operative word. This is a young man’s spirituality, all eagerness, energy, and most of all, in contemporary terms, ego.

Jesus’ intention is to help him receive eternal life by answering his question about what he must do. But the type of doing Jesus will indicate is not the type of doing he has excelled at in keeping the commandments. A different attitude and energy will be needed to inherit eternal life. How does one receive life from a good God? Suddenly Jesus suggests that he lacks one thing: “treasure in heaven” Treasure in heaven means that what he must value above all else is his relationship with God. The path to this God-centeredness is to relinquish his possessions and give them to the poor. This will start the process of inheriting eternal life; following Jesus will develop and deepen it.

The seeker grasps this injunction. But it shocks him so profoundly that he goes away in grief. When Jesus’ penetrating gaze shifts to his disciples, he first widens his concerns to all those who have wealth and focuses on their difficulty in entering the kingdom. The disciples are perplexed by this comment. Then Jesus escalates the issue from difficulty to impossibility (even double-jointed camels can’t get through the eye of a needle) and, in the minds of the disciples, from the wealthy to everyone (“Then who can be saved?”) This escalation moves the disciples from perplexity to astonishment. The way Jesus thinks, is shocking, perplexing, and astonishing to the conventional consciousness of the seeker and of the disciples.

The Teacher insists that the center has to shift from the human to the divine. The good God wants to give eternal life, but humans must look to heaven” as Jesus does so often. However, humans are addicted to looking elsewhere, treasuring earthly things. Even if they pile up all the earthly things (“he had many possessions’) they will not inherit eternal life. It is not material possessions in themselves that are the problem. It is the inner allegiance to the consciousness of owning and accumulating. This consciousness and style of life has been developed in the social sphere, and it is a limited approach, even in that sphere. But when owning and accumulating is transferred to the spiritual sphere, it is wrongheaded in the extreme. If the heart desires eternal life and pursues it by accumulating even good deeds (keeping the commandments), it will only come to grief. If the strategies of Jesus the Teacher work and consciousness stays focused on the goodness of God, it will become clear that dispossession on all levels is the way into the fullness of life. It is how we become receptive to the self-giving Spirit.  (Peter’s response)

We are all owners and have an owning spirit. What is it that spiritual traditions in general and Gospel spirituality in particular—have against owning material possessions? Material possessions are the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg is the inner drive to own and accumulate. This drive, in turn, arises from profound sense of insecurity. The earth may remain forever, but there is quite a turnover in individuals. When we accumulate wealth and possessions, we relieve the basic anxiety that, in our present form we are under constant attack. When the barn is full, the wolf is not at the door. A sense of safety replaces fear. Storing up things in the present, make us feel that the future is protected. Of course, the larger the accumulation is, the greater the sense of safety.

When people accumulate wealth, they have to protect it. Therefore, most of their time and energy is spent in hanging on to what they have accrued, for it is ownership that brings the sense of safety. This separates them from their neighbors whom they see as a threat to this wealth, and the need for feeling safe makes the idea of sharing with others ludicrous. The drive to assuage insecurity can be ruthless. It pushes people into such self-centered behaviors that they commit injustices. Even more, they tolerate any injustice as long as it benefits them.

Accumulation is futile in the face of death. In Jesus’ parable the man with the bumper crop decides to build extra barns. But God reminds him that he is a fool (ignorant), and asks the question, “the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Temporal life, as temporal life, is radically insecure. No strategy within time can change that. Although there is more to spiritual wisdom than the acceptance of death, it often begins and is sustained by that consciousness:

The project is to live in time and be centered in eternity, to be in the world but not of it. This will turn our lives around. We are no longer will be racked by anxiety and driven to domination. If we can cultivate this combined consciousness of time and eternity, we will have an inner life of peace and an outer life of service.

But we will still have to own things, accumulate some wealth, and plan for the future. This is the way of social responsibility, but we do not want it to be the way of spiritual and moral folly. The spiritual wisdom about the blending of time and eternity will help us engage these projects without domination or delusion. In other words, even while we have possessions, we have to disown them. We cannot allow them to own us, to enter so deeply into our identity that we can no longer open neither to God nor to neighbor.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.