He went away sad

As Disciples of Christ, we must protect ourselves from misconceptions about wealth and prosperity. One such error is the belief that the more faithful one is, the more God blessed him or her with material success. This is sometimes called the prosperity Gospel, and a selective reading of Scripture might make a case for it. The psalms tell us that the faithful will inherit the earth and “abide in prosperity” (Ps 37:9, 25:13). Jesus himself, in the parables of the talents, has the master increase the wealth of his faithful servants, promising that “for everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich” (Mt 25:28-29).

 

Yet, the life of Jesus assures us that this is not true. Our Lord is perfectly holy, yet he had nowhere to rest his head (Lk 9:58), and despite his sanctity, he encounters not prosperity, but trials, even unto death. Quite the contrary to the prosperity Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that those who choose to follow him should not expect material wealth and comfort, but instead should expect to carry the cross (Lk 14:27). Certainly, these two are not mutually exclusive, although some might expect prosperity to mean freedom from suffering. It does not.

 

Another misconception about wealth is that those who have it are evil. We falsely might obtain this impression from our Gospel this Sunday. A rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Our Lord tells him to follow the commandments. When the young man says that he already is faithful to God’s law, Jesus tells him that he is still lacking one thing: he must sell all he has and give it to the poor. Hearing this, the rich young man is distressed and goes away sad, “for he had many possessions” (Mk 10:22).

 

In itself, wealth is not evil, nor are people with wealth. It was the wealth of others that allowed Jesus to live his poverty (Lk 8:3). It is also the wealth of others that helps to care for those in need. Jesus did not tell the rich young man to sell his possessions and then throw all of his money into the sea. Instead, he asked him to use his wealth to serve the poor.

 

While we recognize we must all give to those in need, we also recognize that Jesus was calling this young man to a particular vocation: a life of poverty. Others who had wealth, such as Joseph of Arimathea (Mt 27:57), were not told to sell everything they had and give to the poor. Yet, Jesus chose this young man for a particular vocation, one that went beyond living a life of common virtue and was aimed toward sanctity through radical poverty. Jesus still calls people to this life today, as we see in each of the religious priests, brother and sisters whose spirituality includes a particular vow of poverty.

 

Not all of us are called to radical poverty. While God distributes the goods of the earth unevenly among us, we recognize them as having a universal destination for all of God’s children. “Man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others” (Gaudium et Spes, 69,1). Yes, we have a responsibility and need to provide for our families and ourselves, but we also have a responsibility to care for those who do not have the same resources.

 

Thus, we see that greed is an obstacle to doing the will of God. All possessions and wealth are morally neutral. They can be used for good or bad. However, an inordinate selfish desire for worldly prosperity is sinful. Therefore, as St. Paul wrote, “The love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim 6:10).

 

It was this desire for wealth, and not the freedom to give it away generously, that prevented the rich young man from following Jesus. What may have led to his greater sadness was that before he asked him to give up all he owned, Jesus showed his great love to the rich young man (Mk 10:21). In that moment, the rich young man likely knew the peace and goodness that awaited him with Christ. However, his inability to sacrifice the comfort of his goods for the sake of following the one who loved him, led to his broken heart, and caused him to go away sad.

 

Let us pray that we may always recognize the responsibility toward caring for those in need that comes with the material gifts we receive, and that we obtain the generosity that brings us peace, joy, and the freedom to follow the will of God with all of our heart.

 

Fr. Wagner is parochial vicar at St. Veronica Church in Chantilly.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018