Thought for the week - 10 October
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
When I was much younger and much fitter than I am now I used to enjoy long distance walks. I say enjoy, but looking back those walks were sheer purgatory! The Pennine Way, the Coast to Coast, Hadrian’s Wall, Offa’s Dyke: I’ve done the lot. Recently I watched the Coast to Coast Walk on television and didn’t remember any of it! On these walks I would carry all I needed in a rucksack. So I needed to travel as light as possible carrying only the bare necessities. A walking companion of mine had it off to a fine art: half a tube of toothpaste, half a bar of soap. A heavy load would have exhausted me. In fact even a normal load exhausted me. But here was a certain freedom in this simple, uncluttered life-style.
What’s all this got to do with anything? Well, I think my experience of hiking casts some light on today's Gospel. The rich man was a good Jew, observing the Law. He would have seen his wealth as a blessing from God, a reward for his virtue. He was generous hearted, and wanted to do more than meet the basic requirements of God's Law. So he rushed to Jesus, knelt before him and asked, 'Good master. What must I do to inherit eternal life?'
Responding to his generous enthusiasm, Jesus looked at him steadily with love, took him at his word and, perhaps surprisingly, told him that there was one thing he lacked. He must sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and follow him. That was not, I am sure, what the rich man wanted to hear. He had hoped to attain eternal life, without having to sacrifice his present comfortable life style, with the status and security they provided.
So what was he lacking? I suppose we could say that he wanted to play safe and so was unwilling to leave the 'comfort zone' provided by his prosperity.
Almost certainly, as a devout Jew he would already be giving alms to the poor. But Jesus challenges him to go much further: to give the needy the proceeds from the sale of all, not some, of his worldly possessions. Then he must share the insecurity of Christ himself, the wandering preacher, who had nowhere to lay his head. Jesus was calling him to travel light with him and not be held back by unnecessary clutter. But the rich man was not prepared to make that kind of painful sacrifice.
Jesus doesn't ask everyone to embrace such absolute poverty. That's a special vocation, to which only a few are called. Most people need to earn a living and have family responsibilities, social responsibilities, and in the case of Christians a duty to support the Church. To shirk these responsibilities would be wrong. But there's certainly no harm in enjoying the good things in life. Nevertheless, in different ways we are all called to follow Christ with total commitment.
Wealth can make that very difficult. The acquisition of possessions can so easily dominate our lives. We can come to think that they can provide us with a happiness and security, which only God can give. The desire for material prosperity can easily distort our judgment as to what is most important in life -seeking first the Kingdom of God. Being preoccupied with wealth and possessions will blind us to what God is offering us. Only he can give us lasting security, happiness and peace. He wants us to seek nothing but the very best, and be content with nothing less. Those who think their wealth makes them self-sufficient are especially likely to think they can manage very well without God. But it is only with God's help that we can look beyond what we can see, hold and touch, and place our hope in the invisible God.
Sometimes a radical change in our lives may force us to revise our priorities. That's certainly true if a serious accident or illness deprives us of the strength we'd taken for granted. Gradually old age and then, of course, death itself will strip us of the worldly supports upon which we had relied. We will be forced to recognise that it God alone who won't let us down. In him alone can we place complete trust.
If we've learnt to travel light on our life-long journey to the Kingdom of Heaven we will find it far easier to follow Christ, who gained the fullness of life and the glory of heaven by being emptied of everything on the cross.
Needing to travel light on my walking expeditions certainly taught me it's far better to need little than to have much. There's something liberating in not being weighed down by excess baggage. That's especially true when following Christ.