The rich man wants to have it both ways: he wants his possessions and he wants everlasting life. Jesus shatters his illusion; you can’t have both, Jesus says. The rich man goes away sad, prompting Jesus to comment on the difficulty of being rich and entering the kingdom.
There is more to this story than renunciation of material possessions, for Jesus does not tell the man simply to get rid of his possessions: he must sell them and give to the poor. The point of the command is the acknowledgment of the priority of people and their needs over the satisfaction provided by the ownership of things.
This is “God’s word (that) is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword,” and this is the spirit of Wisdom of which the first reading speaks: we are to value each other as if we were prime possessions, and the promise of everlasting life is made to those who have the power to give all they have to their brothers and sisters, especially those most in need.
Then who can be saved? Those whose love for God expresses itself in eagerness to do good for others.
Neither individuals nor nations should regard the possession of more and more goods as the ultimate objective. Every kind of progress is a two-edged sword. It is necessary if man is to grow as a human being; yet it can also enslave him, if he comes to regard it as the supreme good and cannot look beyond it. When this happens, men harden their hearts, shut out others from their minds and gather together solely for reasons of self-interest rather than out of friendship; dissension and disunity follow soon after.
Thus the exclusive pursuit of material possessions prevents man’s growth as a human being and stands in opposition to his true grandeur. Avarice, in individuals and in nations, is the most obvious form of stultified moral development.
Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio,1967: 19
What do we want more than anything else? What is behind the drama of our desire? What will make us happy?
… the Book of Wisdom echoes many of the answers that have cast their spell on human consciousness. Power and authority present themselves as escape from our dire contingency. Abundance of gold beckoned emperors and conquistadors. Health has monuments built to its promise: “If you have health, you have everything.” Beauty has its troubadours arid marketeers. Even the splendor of intellect impressed the Stoic as a way out of pain and insufficiency.
Yet there is a higher wisdom.
I preferred her to sceptre and throne. And deemed riches nothing in comparison with her. … Because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand. … Beyond health and comeliness I loved her, And I chose to have her rather than the light, because the splendour of her never yields to sleep. (Wis 7:8)
Abundance of riches, whether of mind, heart, or property, never seems to ease the hunger. We live in fear of losing our power, be it physical or mental. Money does not buy joy. Beauty, so skin-deep, lasts half as long. There are disenchanted intellectuals. There are “pictures of health” burdened with miserable lives.
Even success. Even if we somehow mount the pedestal of “self-made men and women,” we invariably harden. …
The higher wisdom is a deeper wisdom. .
“What must I do for eternal life?” Our achievements are not enough. Our virtues are not sufficient. Even our keeping of the commandments seems not to still the question. We have kept all these things.
“Jesus looked at him with love.” Thus he looks upon the longing of us all. He speaks: “There is one thing you lack. Go and sell what you have and give to the poor; you will then have treasure in heaven. After that come and follow me.” At these words the man’s face fell. He went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Somehow, the very things we keep, the gifts we cannot bear releasing, hold us in a grip of sadness.
There is a double melancholy here. We are sad at not being able to let go of all the assets we once thought protected us and ensured our safety; for we now know that what we imagined was security is somehow bondage. Our locks and guards have fastened us in.
Sadder still, we know we can never become safe enough, anyway. Try as we may to channel our infinite desires into retirement plans, we are haunted by our fragile bones and blood. There is no insurance policy strong enough to prevent death. …. No provident company that can prevent the pain of our humanity.
This is why it is so difficult for a rich person, a person with many securities, to enter the condition of blessedness. We must somehow become small, rather than big, to pass through the “needle’s eye.”
Whatever that phrase of Jesus means, it suggests an unnavigable journey, an impossible task. So who can be saved?
No one. Not by one’s own providence and power. The only way to heaven is to let go of earth. The only way to life is to let go of the womb. When we are born, we fall into an even greater dependency. Life is harrowing and precarious, compared to the comfort of the womb. So it is that to be born into eternal life we must loosen our tight clutch on all the securities and gifts we hold so dear.
It is almost impossible for a man or woman secure in rich endowments to understand such mysteries. What need, after all, is there to call upon the God who made us, the God for whom all things are possible?
For the poor, whether in things or spirit, it makes lovely sense.
John Kavanaugh, SJ