The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor; and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.Matthew 19: 20-22
The story of the rich young man offers us the core teaching of true discipleship, of what we, who are Christians, call “the spiritual life.” Wherever we find ourselves in our journey of life, it always issues a challenge to us. For at any point along the way, it reminds us of what we lack and so what more we are to do if we seek a more faithful discipleship with Jesus by deepening our relationship with him.
The young man approaches Jesus because as good as he is, and although he keeps the commandments, that is practices the Torah faithfully, he still experiences a lack in his life. Clearly, the young man experiences the possibility of life as more than he is currently living. He stands looking over at a “promised land” that he is somehow blocked from reaching. He calls this promise “eternal life.” For conversion, reformation, or transformation to occur in us, the first condition is that we experience the desire and feel the need for it. That is, we must deeply appropriate and suffer what we “lack.” We shall never abandon ourselves to God unless we experience our own desperation without God.
It is St. John of the Cross who speaks most clearly to this experience in the good person, who is already an observer of the Law. John’s famous metaphor for the person who approaches closer and closer to God is that of the log and the fire (The Dark Night, II, 10). As the log of our soul burns in “the loving fire of contemplation,” it recognizes all the impurities in itself, as they are painfully burned away. As they are burned in this fire, the evil, that was previously unknown to us because it was “so deeply rooted,” now creates great suffering and lack in us. We begin to see how deeply we have lived out the compulsions of our pride form and resisted the love of God. John writes: “Although the soul is no worse than before, either in itself or in its relationship with God, it feels clearly that it is so bad as to be not only unworthy that God see it but deserving of his abhorrence. In fact it feels that God now does abhor it” (The Dark Night, II 10, 2).
The lack that the young man experiences is, in fact, due to his observance of the law and his desire for “eternal life” in God. In the gospel story, the young man’s encounter with Jesus is his experience of being “in the fire.” In Jesus’ presence and word, he hears that the obstacle to the fulfillment of his deepest desire is his possessiveness. What is required of him is to sell all he has and give it to the poor, and then come, unhindered by those possessions and that possessiveness, and follow Jesus.
As long as we live out of the pride form in us, aspects of which are extremely subtle because, as John says, they are so deeply rooted, the journey to transformation will be painful and wrenching. For we not only hoard material possessions, we are always hanging on to our own illusions about ourselves. For example, I like to think of myself as a generous and caring person, as a “good” person. Yet, when I feel unappreciated or misunderstood I have a vehement impulse to justify myself and to punish those that misunderstand me or fail to appreciate me. I feel as if my very existence depends on being justified in the sight of others. At such moments I can recognize the very mixed motives in my work, as I feel the strong impulse to abandon it and those I have been seeking to serve. Until my need to be appreciated and recognized is burned away, I shall continue to experience myself as battered about by “the vicissitudes of the ego,” and know the lack of living in and working from “eternal life.”
When the young man asks Jesus what more must he do, he is aware that he has already been generous with his possessions, as the Law dictates. He observes the law in this as in every other regard. He gives to the poor what the law requires, and perhaps more. What he experiences is not the lack of a clear conscience or the ability to feel self-justified. Rather, he has come close enough to the fire to sense its heat, the love that will make him a new person and lead him into a new life. Yet, he is unable to do the one thing necessary to enter the fire of that love, which is to sell all that he has and give it to the poor. It is to become, by the light of common sense, unreasonable in his desire. If he really wants to be a close disciple of Jesus, he must cast his fears and caution to the winds. He must risk impoverishing himself by giving up what he takes to be his self-possession. In the language of our culture, we might say that he is to “break the boundaries” of what seems appropriately cautious and reasonable.
The gospel story begins with Jesus reprimanding the young man: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good?” It then emerges from their dialogue that if as Jesus says, one must keep the commandments to enter life, then this young man is good. Obviously the young man misunderstands what Jesus has really come to offer. He is not another teacher of ethics and human rectitude. He is not a utopian come to suggest that once all of us human beings are good, then we’ll know the perfect life on earth. He comes as fire that he wishes to be kindled in the heart of each person and on the earth, a fire that purifies our limited understanding of “the good” and instead releases in us and among us a life of a totally different order.
The good is the life of the reasonable, the cautious, the socially acceptable. It pays its ten percent tithe and, in even greater generosity, gives even more to the poor. It is philanthropic in nature, within the bounds of maintaining one’s own comfort. The young man’s problem is that he has somehow gotten close enough to Jesus to feel the lack in being good. Many of us know this experience. We feel a dissatisfaction when we should be grateful and happy for what we have. We cannot shake a nagging sense that life is more than the satisfactions we feel based on our level of comfort, security, and even moral righteousness. Especially for those of us who as young persons set out on the path of discipleship, we have come to a point where, while grateful for our lives, we know in the depth of our being that something is lacking.
Recently our community has undergone an experience that has raised questions about the quality of our lives, personal and especially shared. It has even given rise to a sense of discord and disagreement among us. In this sense yesterday’s gospel from Luke 12 resonates: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” The conflict, at least in part, is due to the question the young man raises in today’s gospel: “What do we lack?” Our response to that question will depend on how close to the fire we want to get. As John of the Cross points out, if we enter into “the loving fire of contemplation,” we shall undergo a painful purgation of those “possessions,” material, emotional, and spiritual, that have become impurities and obstacles to the “eternal life” Jesus offers. It will mean a painful recognition of where we have betrayed our own call and the Spirit’s gift for the world initiated in our founding members. It does not mean repudiating our own goodness and the good that we have done over the decades. But it does mean not holding on to those possessions, that we might be drawn into the life of love that can be a transformative gift to the world.
As he settled into his cabin on Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau pondered on the “economy” that is most humane. For us, a good and generous person is a philanthropist. But for Thoreau, justice supersedes philanthropy. We live in a world where the gap between the rich, especially the very affluent but even including the comfortable, and the poor is rapidly expanding. So far, the response to the moral imperative of improving the lot of the poor is philanthropy, individual and social. It is a doing good on the part of those who have possessions. Thoreau, however, challenges this approach. He says that we are not called to be philanthropists but rather to become “a blessing to humanity.” In today’s gospel Jesus says that to become that blessing, we must not just give from our surplus but rather sell all we possess and give that to the poor. Then we can follow him and be transformed into such a blessing for the world.
There is so much that I so tightly grasp. In almost any way I can ponder, I cannot make sense of Jesus’ call. The lack in my life, what we in our tradition call purgatory, is the gap between what God has revealed to me as possible in life and what I actually settle for. At a recent congregational meeting the moderator said something that went pretty much unheeded: “You know what your charism and your call are, what you are here to do is to act on it.” We seem to think that our inability to give all to God is a lack of sufficient knowledge, so we issue decrees to study more and to talk more. Jesus, however, makes clear to the young man that it is time to act, to see all, to give it and himself to the poor, and thus to follow Jesus. The young man goes away sad, “for he had many possessions.” So strongly do my own possessions, material, emotional, and spiritual, have a hold on me that I continue to go away from Jesus sad, rather than do that which opens the gate of eternal life to me.
I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to humanity. I do not value chiefly a person’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves. Those plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a humble use, and are most employed by quacks. I want the floor and fruit of a person; that some fragrance be wafted over from that person to me, and some ripeness flavor our intercourse. One’s goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs that person nothing and of which that one is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins. The philanthropist too often surrounds humanity with the remembrance of his own cast-off griefs as an atmosphere, and calls it sympathy. We should impart our courage, and not our despair, our health and ease, and not our disease, and take care that this does not spread by contagion.Henry David Thoreau, Walden, p. 70