I do not know anything about the lottery – I’ve never bought so much as a scratch-off, I don’t know how to play the lottery – but I was talking with some parishioners earlier this week and I learned that the lottery is really high right now. And the thought occurred to me that I could go buy a ticket: if I were to win, I could wipe out the debt on our building. Wouldn’t that be wonderful! $4.6 million dollars gone, just like that. Imagine the freedom, the happiness!
Perhaps you have had a similar thought. If I could just win the lottery, then this or that problem or burden would be gone. I would be happy. And yet. Would that happiness last forever, even if you did win the lottery? Sure, it could solve some problems – even some very significant ones – but wouldn’t that just end up becoming the new normal in your life? After we’ve reached a goal or obtained something we were seeking, no doubt we experience some happiness, perhaps even a great deal of happiness. But then it becomes the new normal and a new set of challenges emerges. Once again, the complete happiness that we were seeking again seems out of reach.
So a question that I want to pose to everyone is: what do you think can make you happy? What are you pursuing and why? I would venture to say that you are pursuing it, not because you think it will make you miserable, but because you expect it to make your life better. You are pursuing it because you expect it to make you happier. Perhaps you are pursuing college degree right now. I would guess that most of you who are doing this do so because you have the expectation that it will help you get a decent job, perhaps a job that you really want, and that it will help you lead a comfortable if not extravagant lifestyle. Or perhaps you are looking for a job, or a promotion, or a better job. Maybe you’re pursuing more money so that you can have a lifestyle you desire, or more security from the uncertainties of life. Perhaps you’re pursuing marriage, or a relationship. The point I’m trying to make is that most if not all of us are pursuing something, and we do so because we have the expectation that it will bring us some level of happiness – however we define that: more security, more comfort, freedom from fear, or loneliness, and so on.
So that brings me to today’s Gospel which is often referred to as the story of the rich young man. This rich man – the Gospel never actually says he’s young, but that seems to be how he is usually imagined – comes up to Jesus, kneels down in front of him as a sign of great respect to him, and asks him the question that probably every human being deep down desires an answer to: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Although people might word this question differently, what it comes down to is: “What must I do to have complete and never-ending happiness?” For isn’t that what eternal life is?
Jesus replies that he must obey the commandments, and then he lists some of them. Yes, we have a role to play in our salvation. Jesus gives us salvation through his death and resurrection, but we have a role to play: we have to cooperate with God’s grace; we have to receive the gift that God desires to give us. But then, there’s more to Jesus’ answer. The rich young man reveals that he has followed all these commandments. And yet it seems that there must be something else. “I’ve done all these things,” he says. The unspoken question is, “I’m still unsatisfied; what else am I not doing?” There is an obstacle in this man’s heart that is getting in the way of this goal of eternal life, and in following Christ.
Jesus of course can read his heart and knows what the obstacle is. “You are lacking in ONE thing,” he says. “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor…then come, follow me.” The obstacle in this man’s heart is his money, his possessions. He is unable to part with those things, at least in that moment, and he goes away sad, leaving Jesus behind.
So, I have already posed the question: what are you pursuing, or what do you think will bring you happiness? Here is another question: is there any obstacle in your life that gets in the way of your relationship with God? That question might be a little more difficult to answer. Sometimes it’s hard for us to see what’s right in front of us, especially if we’ve become completely used to it. Sometimes it’s hard for us to be objective about our own life. Sometimes it’s too uncomfortable to take a hard or critical look at our own life. (It’s much easier to do that with someone else’s life.). So we might not see, or we might ignore, the obstacle or obstacles that are there. That’s when we must pray for the grace of self-knowledge and the virtue of humility. Because I would guess that we all have some kind of obstacle, big or small, that gets in the way of following the Lord.
Or we might be all to0 aware of those things that make it difficult to follow Jesus. We might be aware of those things that hold us back, that we cling too and don’t want to let go of just yet. Perhaps, as with the rich young man, it’s the love of possessions. Perhaps it’s the love of created things. St. Augustine, who for many years was torn between a desire to follow the Lord and his love for the created things of this world, once wrote this: “You were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all.”
The world that God created is good and beautiful, and there are so many wonderful things in it. Isn’t it great that food tastes so good, and that there is such a variety of it? That God didn’t make us to be like cows, and just eat the same tasteless stuff over and over again. And there are so many beautiful places in the world, so much beauty all around us. And think of all the different kinds of entertainment there are. There are so many great things in this world. But these things can get in the way of our relationship with God; they can prevent us from following Christ.
An inordinate love for these things can become a sinful and unhealthy attachment. The pursuit of pleasure can lead us into harmful and evil things. Perhaps what prevents you from following the Lord whole-heartedly is some kind of sinful attachment or addiction. The usual suspects of alcohol, drugs, and pornography come to mind. But it can be other, subtler things as well: an attachment to gossip, an attachment to resentment and anger, an attachment to laziness. All of these can serve as obstacles or as things that hold us back from following Christ.
Jesus doesn’t call us to a life of mediocrity. He doesn’t call us to a life of being “good enough.” He calls us to greatness. He calls us to leave behind anything and everything that prevents us from following him. He doesn’t call us to a life of constant ease and comfort. He doesn’t call us to follow the path of least resistance. Following Jesus can be hard. Living the life God wants us to live can be hard. In fact, it’s like a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle. It’s impossible – without God. But with God, all things are possible.
So perhaps you are aware of the things that hold you back, and you feel helpless against them. Perhaps you have tried and tried, perhaps you’ve confessed the same sins over and over again. Perhaps you feel like you’ll never be able to overcome them, to leave them behind. Take courage – with God, all things are possible. Without God’s grace, we can’t do it. Do not despair: persevere in asking the Lord for the graces that you need and the courage that you need to cast off those things that hold you back from following Him and leading the great and heroic life He calls you to.
Mark the Evangelist tells us in our Gospel that Jesus looked at the rich young man with love, even though he knew what was preventing him from following Jesus. He looks at us too with the same deep love, even in our struggles, our failures, and our sinfulness. As we struggle to follow Him, let us remember that gaze of love with which Jesus looks at us.