Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism has emphasized the compassion
of Jesus and the love of God for all of creation, and rightly so.
But even a superficial reading of the Gospels reveals that interactions
with Jesus were often disquieting and uncomfortable. Today’s
Gospel passage is surely one example. I confess that I am uncomfortable
reading it. It measures me, and I come up short.
The man who asked Jesus the question was, apparently, morally upright
and sincerely interested in doing good. It is interesting that the
set of commandments which Jesus lists are those related to human
interactions in society. He skips the first three commandments entirely,
those setting forth the relationship of humans with God. Those responsibilities
are covered in Jesus’ second suggestion, that the man sell
all he has, give the money to the poor, and then follow Jesus.
But the man had many possessions, and did not know how he could
do that – was not sure he wanted to.
How can we transform this counsel of Jesus from seemingly unrealizable
ideal to practical day-by-day living? We cannot all literally do
as St. Francis of Assisi did. Someone has to maintain the roads,
practice medicine, teach school, keep the airlines flying, tend
to the crops. Still there is no avoiding the fact that, like the
man in the Gospel, I am possessed by my possessions. It is not just
that I like them, not just that I would prefer having them to doing
without. Basically it is that they command my attention. I have
to protect them, maintain them. I am responsible for their wise
use. That occupies so much of my attention, pushes itself up so
high on my priority list, that I do not have time or energy for
the more important things – concern for the poor and working
for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.
In this Gospel story, Jesus seems to give the rich man an option:
“If you wish to be perfect . . .” But that is not an
escape hatch for us. Elsewhere Jesus tells us that we must be perfect,
“as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). I do
not know the right way to deal with my possessions. I suspect there
is no one right way. But I do believe that such wisdom is a gift
that we need constantly, tirelessly, to ask God for. I do know,
also, that wealth and possessions are to be used for others, not
for one’s self. But even there, concerns for how to do that
correctly brings us full circle: our possessions are still possessing
Lord, help me untie this knot!