Surrendering Riches to Grow in God
(Readings: Wisdom7:7-11; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30)
Introduction to Mass
The point of the readings this Sunday, especially the gospel story, is that as our relationship with God progresses we start to feel called to renounce various attachments in our lives. One very common attachment, according to Jesus, is the attachment to wealth and possessions. But if we're willing to place ourselves under God's influence, he goes on, God weakens the hold that the idol of wealth has on us.
As we begin Mass we ask God to pardon all our guilt and to heal all the wounds of our sin.
Some of the people who spoke to Jesus had no interest in genuine argument. To have an honest discussion, you have to listen to your opponents' views. You have to allow your own opinions to be criticised. You have to be ready to change your mind.
The Scribes and the Pharisees, for example - Jesus' arch-opponents in religious questions - weren't interested in that. Their only purpose in speaking to Jesus was to trip him up, to expose his ignorance or inconsistency, to make him out to be hypocritical. Jesus recognised their malice and the fact that their minds were firmly closed, and answered their debating points accordingly: often dismissively or sarcastically, refusing to be drawn into a dishonest debate.
But with the man in the gospel today Jesus recognised something different. The gospel says that he was a man of great wealth, which probably means that he was rich enough not to have to work. In the past, leisure, and a leisured way of life, was a symbol of a person's wealth, one of the great differences between rich and poor.
And Jesus detected something attractive, something honest and sincere, about this particular gentleman of leisure. He was searching for deeper integrity and a more thorough practice of his faith in God: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"
To begin with Jesus gives him conventional advice: follow the commandments. He's doing that. Respect other people, tell the truth. He's doing that. And so Jesus gives some advice that is less conventional: if you want to move further into communion of life with God, give up the basis of your leisure and your security. Give up your wealth.
The pattern is the same for everyone who perseveres in faith in God and the desire to serve God: as time goes on, we begin to feel compelled to give some things up in favour of God. Compared with God they begin to appear worthless. This is what the author of the book of Wisdom is getting at in the first reading.
We become aware that prayer is important. We realise that living by wholesome moral standards is important, that growing more consistent in our moral behaviour is important. They're all signs of progress, of God playing a bigger role in our life.
But then the Holy Spirit pushes us towards the next stage - what we now refer to as "lifestyle". He invites us to lessen our attachment to money and material things - anything in fact that has the effect of preventing us from imitating Christ more closely.
Sometimes Christian believers will say: "I have all these things but I'm actually quite detached from them". Nine times out of ten that's a deception, a rationalisation. In fact, I'm tempted to say that it's a deception ten times out of ten, because Christ himself never spoke about only having an inner attitude of detachment, and it isn't the advice he gives in today's gospel.
We soon find out how detached we are from our possessions when we lose them, or when they're taken from us against our will.
There's a picturesque story about one of the desert fathers, a hermit who lived in the middle of the desert in the fourth or fifth century. He came back to his cell one day to find a couple of bandits making off with his few bits of furniture and other belongings. Instead of protesting he kept his identity a secret and started helping the bandits load his own goods onto the back of their cart.
That's an extreme attitude, of course: we can't all live like solitaries in the desert and we're not even meant to. But examples of individuals who push Jesus' teaching to that kind of extreme do highlight the underlying value that we've all got to try to approximate to: material detachment, simplicity, dependence on God instead.
The gospel obliges us to find ways of putting these values into practice, all the more so in a culture that seems to revolve around idolising money and material success - and encourages contempt for the losers and failures.
But the temptation for church members at the moment, it seems to me, is that rather than seeing clearly where Jesus' teaching comes into conflict with the materialistic attitudes that are widespread in our society, they start to see religion itself - or "spirituality" we have to say now - as a sort of commodity.
In this model we're being spiritual by practising yoga, or doing breathing exercises, or sitting around a candle in some expensive retreat centre contemplating our "brokenness".
This is a type of spirituality, but it's a comfortable, complacent spirituality. It's not a Christian spirituality because it evades the kind of moral summons Jesus makes to the comfortable and leisured.
Maybe we can see this rich man who approached Christ as an example of someone who is sincere enough but stuck in a comfortable spirituality, someone who didnít imagine that forging a closer relationship with God might mean giving up some of his comfort.
At the same time he seems to be someone who didn't realise that God gradually changes us, so that we end up giving things up without any resentment when we start to experience them as obstacles to knowing God better.
In any case, his face fell and he went away sad. He didn't have the courage, at least at that moment, to go forward any further in his pilgrimage towards God.
For us, I think, the lesson is to place ourselves in his position, to examine our consciences about how big a part this whole principle plays in our own faith in God, and to ask God to strengthen our preference for "treasure in heaven" as Jesus put it, rather than wealth and comfort now.