The Young Rich Man (Matthew 19:16-29)
This passage starts with a question: what should I do to have eternal life? Then the young rich man asks again: I have fulfilled all the required commandments, what more shall I do to be perfect? Leave everything and follow me, answers Jesus. The disciples listen and are the reverse image of the young man. In the last verses, Peter stresses that they have left everything and followed Christ. And Jesus answers his disciples: those who have left everything will inherit eternal life.
Some commentators have said that this passage is intended for those who have chosen a religious life: virgins, hermits, monastics. It may be interpreted as such in the context of Matthew 19. However, as the vast majority of the Fathers underline it, there is more here. And this more is intended to be heard by all Christians.
The young man represents the religious Jew who has put his trust in the Law. We know also that he is a follower of the Pharisees because he believes in eternal life. To understand why he refuses to obey the Lord, we must remember that in Judaism the kingdom of God is closely linked with material happiness and is inconsistent with poverty (cf. Solomon Schechter. Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. 109-110); success in life and wealth are considered as blessings of God. The young man wishes to go beyond the Law, but according to his own will, without being disturbed in his comfort. Protecting the poor was a mitzvah — that is a good deed: the mitzvah of tzedaka — that is justice; but giving away all possessions did not make any sense.
Jesus challenges this idea, as Job, the psalmist and the prophets have done before Him. The poor becomes the just. It is one of the characteristics of the words of the Lord: He shakes us so that we may be deprived from our false securities. What He says is always different from what we expect. There is no rest for those who follow Christ.
In this case, the Lord does not say that success and wealth are bad. He rather implies that what is wrong is to be enslaved to one’s own possessions, to be submitted to the power of success and wealth. Being enslaved to it engenders the desire to possess more and more. If the young man abandons his possessions, he will loose his social status. Possessions mean power; they engender vain glory and ultimately pride.
What the Lord is asking is to renounce our selfishness and our own desires in order to better serve the community. It may have a positive connotation: sharing our talents and all that which has been given to us by the Lord; it may have also a negative connotation: renouncing our idols, renouncing our pretenses and the glory of man, so that we may freely look for God who is beyond the God of our representations. If you remember I have preached before on that topic.
In effect, by refusing to renounce his will, the young man shows that he is playing a game; he is being a tourist, choosing, taking only what he likes. He is not expecting anything from Christ: he is not living by faith but according to rules. He refuses to be challenged and to be changed in his heart. When he refuses to follow Christ, he is refusing in effect to be moulded by the will of God. In other word, he refuses communion with Christ which is, as St Paul says, participation in His sufferings as well as in His Resurrection.
Sufferings, afflictions or tribulations are the portion of Christians. As you know afflictions are often a sign that we are on the right path. When we live the Gospel and follow Christ, we are bound to experience the Passion of Christ in our own person. For living the Passion of Christ is necessary to have eternal life: the Resurrection cannot be separated from the Cross.
Moreover, as St Paul, St James and all the Holy Fathers teach us: these sufferings, afflictions and tribulations must not only be endured with resignation but accepted with love. We are far from simple resignation. Afflictions are the true blessings of God — not success and possessions according to the world — and as such should give rise to joy and not sadness. Because through afflictions, when the heart is cleansed and our faith purified, we become the image of Christ.
Therefore, let us follow Christ without any hesitation. Whatever is expected from us, strength will be given. All of us are requested to be the guardians of our brothers and sisters in our community; all of us are requested to show support and fidelity within our community; all of us are offered the blessing to follow Christ in bearing our cross with love; some may even be called to bear the cross of others, ascending the cross with Christ, and thus meeting the ultimate sacrifice. What matters is not so much what we are asked to do — we all have different callings — but the way we do it, submitted to the will of God: we shall be judged on our humility.
Today’s Church has gone far away from the early Church. This is not new: already this statement was made in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and has been made regularly since. This is not new but we must have it present in our minds, for it is too easy to forget it. The spirit of adaptation to modern society has taken its toll. Entertainment, pleasure and laughter have made compunction almost impossible. Selfishness and individualism have transformed communion into empty words while the early Christian communities were putting everything in common. Daily avidity and indifference have destroyed charity and compassion. Theology has separated itself from the Fathers and has become a form of intellectualism turned only to the glory of man. Love of business replaces too often the apostolic doctrine. Blindness is even so thick that some people will claim that this is the modern way of Christian involvement in the world. We have become like the young rich man. Let us return to the Lord; let us pour out our heart like water before His face; let us raise our hands to Him. And if we deem it too difficult to follow Christ, let us remember that all is possible for God. Amen.
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