28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – October 10, 2021
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30
Discipleship: More Than Going to Heaven
One of the things that I talk about a lot is this split that we have between the “Faith” and “my real life”—this split we just kind of accept. There is the “Faith” and all of this stuff we’re supposed to believe and do as Christians, as Catholics. And then there is “my real life,” and all the stuff that goes on in the “real world.” Does that make sense?
Concretely, this leads many of us to seeing “Faith” as a wager: it is better to bet that there is a God and heaven and hell and be wrong, than to bet that there isn’t and find out there is. And so we easily think that the connection between the “Faith” and “my real life” is that we are supposed to believe certain things and live a certain way in our “real life.” And so we do that: we believe certain things that we’re “supposed to believe,” and follow certain ethical principles—and then hope for an eternal reward, to cash in on our wager.
But there is a kind of paradigm shift we have to make when it comes to the faith, to being Christian, being Catholic.
This Gospel passage we have today, the well-known account of the Rich Young Man, is one that is very near and dear to my heart. I can really relate to him! As I felt the call to be a priest, as I was in seminary, and sometimes even now—the Rich Young Man and I have the same disposition within ourselves: we both get very caught up in believing the right thing, doing what is right, in doing whatever we need to do, in doing those things that are going to “get us into heaven.” But the whole time we are believing the right things and doing the right things, we are forgetting one simple thing: our being; our existence today, right now.
What the Rich Young Man struggled with, and what I really struggled with and continue to struggle with, is the idea that life is only about what we have to do to “inherit eternal life” (Mark 10:17), about what we have to do if we want to “go to heaven,” or be happy in the future after we die. But this misses the whole point, this misses what the Lord is truly offering! The Lord doesn’t just offer us happiness and satisfaction after we die, but offers us a path to begin to experience it here and now!
The Story of the Rich Young Man
Now, one thing you need to know about this young man is that he’s the model Jew. For our sakes, let’s just say he is the model Christian. He is a respectable young man. He follows all of the commandments. He goes to church. He is rich but he tithes ten percent. I mean, in all seriousness, he is the model Jew, or in 2021, he is the “model Catholic.”
And yet he comes before Jesus in frustration. He comes to this Jesus guy, who has been talking about this “kingdom” and the fullness of life in this kingdom—and he throws himself at his feet. And he asks, “Good teacher, what do I have to do to have the life of this kingdom, this ‘eternal life’?” All he wants in life is to be satisfied, to experience this life, the fullness of life (c.f., Psalm 90:14). And after Jesus questions him, we find out (again) that he followed all of the commandments since he was young; he did everything he was supposed to do. He also knew all of the teachings of the faith, all of the traditions, he followed all of the rules.
And yet, and yet he still feels dissatisfied, he is still empty within! Deep down, he wants an experience of this satisfaction now. So he goes to Jesus, he finds this man everyone has been talking about, hoping that he will have the answer.
The interaction he has with Jesus is one of the most powerful in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus initially engages the man’s question and tells him about the importance of following the commandments. But then, then Jesus goes where the young man wasn’t ready to go: he goes straight to the man’s heart. With that piercing gaze, with a gaze that pierces to the heart, Jesus looks at the man…and loves him. Jesus says, “Yes, you have followed the commandments. Yes you know all the teachings. Great! But there is something else you want.”
It is then that Jesus reveals the man’s heart to himself. Jesus tells the young man what he is truly seeking, even though he doesn’t want to acknowledge it. Jesus says, “What you really want is happiness and satisfaction here and now too. And there is only one way to get that. Go, sell what you have. And then come, follow me.”
It is at these words that the man heart sinks. And he goes away sad. It’s fascinating: this is the only time in the Gospel that Jesus calls someone to follow him, and instead of following they walk away! And how is he described? The man goes away sad, sorrowful. Literally, the man walks away with the same sadness Jesus feels in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he describes himself as being sorrowful even to the point of death (c.f., Mark 14:34, both are described using the Greek word λυπέω).
He didn’t follow. All he could focus his attention on was the ideas and the morals. He felt that his heart and his humanity were being reduced, constrained. And here was this man, this presence that (for whatever reason) attracted him, provoked him. And this look, a look of love, gazed upon him. And he didn’t follow. The only time in the New Testament when Jesus invited someone to follow, and they turned him down. And how is he described? As going away “sad,” sorrowful, grieved, disheartened. He didn’t follow. Just like so many others in the Gospels, this man had Jesus right in front of him, flesh-and-blood in front of him. But instead of following, he just abandoned it.
And we’re told the reason. “He had many possessions.” But that’s not just some critique of how he is materialistic. It shows that although he is a man of good morals and one that ascribes to the right teachings, even though he is very generous with his money—there is a lack of faith. And the lack of faith is not because he is materialistic. It’s because he has reduced “faith” to doctrines and teachings and ideas, to morals and ethics and values. He has placed his faith not in a person, but in ideas and morals, in things he can possess and do himself. Giving up everything and following Jesus? That doesn’t make sense. The words of Jesus to Come, follow me must have been heard only as a command, as just another commandment he had to follow if he wanted to go to heaven. And so he goes away sad, because he is tired from life just being about commandments and rules.
An Attitude We Know Well
Now, I know this may sound bad, but when I started seminary, this was the exact attitude I had. I knew that the Lord was calling me to be a priest; I knew it, I couldn’t deny it! But I didn’t want to be a priest. This call to priesthood, this call of, “Come, follow me,” seemed like a commandment I had to follow if I wanted to go to heaven. And I couldn’t understand why God would make me live like this. But like this young man, I had missed the gaze of Jesus Christ.
It was through a whole series of events that this finally changed, though. I mentioned those yesterday. It was through real concrete events that the Lord finally got my attention. Through events I would describe as the “severe mercy” of God, which were just normal events of my daily life—I finally discovered that all of these events were nothing more than that gaze of the Lord, his real presence veiled behind these signs. And then I knew: a life lived alongside him, following him was the way in which I would experience happiness and satisfaction here and now, and later, eternal life, the fullness of life in the age to come (c.f., Mark 10:30).
In following Jesus Christ, in following his invitation of Come, follow me, I can tell you that life is just as Jesus tells the disciples right after this young man leaves: “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up [everything] for my sake…who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age” (c.f., Mark 10:29-30). Sure, there are also persecutions, sufferings that come with it—life isn’t perfect. But this hundredfold here and now is real! I felt a great fear and sadness about giving up so much to follow him; and this fear and sadness held me back for so long. But the Lord has been faithful to his promise. The love and kindness I experience now is more than I could have asked or imagined, and it is definitely more than I deserve—I don’t deserve it.
The Hundred-Fold Here and Now
As Christian Disciples, we’re not just sitting around and hoping that one day when we die we will get to go to heaven, no. The Lord doesn’t ask us to be miserable now and hope to be in heaven one day, no.
He offers us a journey alongside him that will bring us eternal life in the age to come, yes, but also the hundredfold here and now—there is an overabundance of life and joy even now! And he looks at us with love here and now and invites us: Come, follow me. This is the path we’re invited on each and every day.