Does anyone know how much gold there is in the world? As in, if all the gold in the world were collected and melted into one solid mass, how big would it be? The short answer is, as with so many things, no one really knows. But one estimate is that it would fill Wimbledon Stadium in England, if anyone knows how big that is. So, gold is, relatively speaking, pretty rare. It’s also shiny and beautiful. Put those qualities together, and you get something that people have decided is valuable. That’s the way all money is: it only has value because we say it does. Think of our money – the U.S. dollar, the actual, paper dollar. In the past, you could in theory go to a bank and exchange paper money for gold. But decades ago, this changed; you can no longer do this. Paper money only has value because we say it does – the paper and the ink themselves have almost no value themselves.
And nowadays, people pay with cash less and less. Now, you can take out your phone, or hold up your watch at the cash register, there will be a little bing, and you have magically just purchased whatever it is you are buying. It’s all happening at the digital level – in a computer somewhere, or maybe nowhere. And now there are so-called crypto currencies: computer code that somehow has value now, precisely because people have decided it does. My favorite is something called Dogecoin – a worthless digital code that was started as a joke and somehow is now worth lots of money.
The world is getting weirder.
As long as there have been rational human beings, we have had not just needs but wants. And think of how much we are driven, not just by our needs, but by our wants. Our wants are literally endless. No matter how much we have, we usually want more. We’re never completely satisfied. Which is to be expected, really, because God created us to have infinite desires – a desire for the infinite. And so our desires can only be satisfied by the Infinite, by God Himself.
In our first reading from the Book of Wisdom, which is said to be one of the last books of the Old Testament to be written, probably in the 2nd or 3rd century before Christ, the speaker compares the gift of Wisdom to all the material riches in the world, and finds riches to be worthless in comparison. But what exactly is wisdom? Wisdom is different from knowledge, which one could define as a collection of facts and information. I would say that knowledge is important, but wisdom is even more so. Wisdom operates on another plane altogether, at a much deeper level. I would define Wisdom as an understanding of Truth itself – Truth with a capital T. It is an understanding of reality itself. To me knowledge – at least the sum total of facts and information acquired by humanity since the beginning of the human race – is finite. Presumably if you lived long enough, you could acquire all the facts and information that exist. But with wisdom, you can just keep going deeper and deeper. One’s understanding of the Truth can grow deeper and more profound, infinitely.
And God himself is Truth. So wisdom is knowing God – not just about Him, but knowing who He is. Knowing God versus knowing about God is like having a collection of facts and information about someone, versus actually having met that person, having had conversations with that person. The more time you spend with someone, the more you talk with him or her, the more you actually know the person, as opposed to just knowing some facts about that person.
In our Gospel today, we hear about Jesus’ encounter with a rich, young man. The Gospel never actually says he’s young, but for some reason he’s thought of that way and depicted that way in works of art. Maybe because he runs up to Jesus, and older folks are less likely to be running around. Anyway, the rich, young man asks Jesus how he can attain eternal life. Jesus spells it all out for him: it’s all there; there’s no secret knowledge or formula that we somehow have to figure out – God tells us. First, Jesus lists some of the commandments, the ones that have to do with our relationship with other human beings: Do not kill; do not commit adultery, etc. So it is important that we strive to follow the commandments. Jesus came not just to save us from the consequences of sin, but from sin itself. While we rightly desire to avoid hell, Jesus also wants us to avoid sin in the first place. He doesn’t want to just cover up our sins; He wants to transform us, to make us more and more like himself, so that we don’t just want to be saved from hell, but also so that we want to be saved from sin itself and what it does to our souls.
So, it is important that we follow God’s Law and avoid sin as much as possible. But there’s even more to it. After listing those commandments that have to do with our relationships with other people, Jesus then turns to those that have to do with our relationship with God. Jesus, the Word of God, is able to “discern reflections and thoughts of the heart,” as we heard in our second reading, and so he is able to perceives the young man’s attachment to his wealth. Jesus knows that this love of wealth serves as an obstacle to the young man’s relationship with God, and so he tells him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
We hear how the young man receives this: “His face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” The rich, young man is clearly not a bad person. As he tells Jesus, he has diligently followed the Lord’s commandments. But his heart does not belong to God – it belongs to his possessions, so he walks away.
Jesus says to the young man: first, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor. While some people are called to follow the Lord in such a radical way, clearly not everyone is called to sell everything and give it to the poor. If you have a family, for example, you need to be able to provide for them. But we are all called to make sacrificial acts of charity to others, especially the poor, those who are truly in need. But even if we were to spend our lives working for a charity or an NGO, there’s more to it: Jesus also says to him, “Then come, follow me.” We also have to actively follow Jesus, to seek to follow His will.
Jesus calls us to leave behind anything and everything that prevents us from following him. What that is varies from person to person. That’s something that we individually ought to examine our hearts to discover. What do I love? What do I put first in my life? How do I spend my time? What do I do before prayer? We might find it difficult to find time to pray, but easily find time for TV, the internet, video games, and so on. Perhaps sports take precedence over prayer and worship. Perhaps a relationship gets in the way of one’s relationship with God.
Are we like that rich, young man? Does God call us to do something that would bring us closer to Him and would help us grow in holiness – tithe some of our income, or spend 30 minutes each day in prayer, for example – and we respond by saying, “No way. It’s just not possible.” Does he ask to give up certain things that are perfectly legitimate in and of themselves but are unhealthy for us, and we immediately reject it because we just don’t think we can live without it, or just don’t want to live without it? What are the things that we cling to that get in the way of receiving God’s love and loving Him in return? What does God desire us to do to bring us closer to Him?
God desires to give us the gift of Wisdom, which at its highest level is an understanding of who He is and how much He loves us. God desires to give us the greatest of gifts. There is no earthly thing that is greater than it. Next to the treasure that is God’s love, all earthly wealth is mere sand – or even mire, as the Book of Wisdom says. Yet we often spend so much time pursuing it and so little time with God. We come up with excuses and rationalize why we can’t do this or that. And when we do this, we are like the rich, young man. The Gospel says that Jesus looked at him and loved him. But he let him walk away. The Lord looks at us too with love – with infinite love. Let us respond to his love by giving up anything that gets in the way of our relationship with Him, and resolve to follow Him alone.