Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Tough Sell

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Tough Sell

Article excerpt

Sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me, Jesus told the rich man. Does he ask us to do the same?

IN A MANNER of speaking, I'm filthy rich. I live in one of the best countries ever invented in the history of human society. I recall my immigrant grandfather saying at tax time every year that he'd gladly pay twice as much for the privilege of living here.

And I'm with him. I've got freedom coming out of my ears, rights that I don't even know about, opportunities that were virtually unknown to most people who've lived on this planet so far. I am free to marry, divorce, or remain single; work here or there or not at all; further my education or sit in front of the tube for the rest of my life and never think another thought. I can choose my political leanings, have my own opinion, and speak it out loud, too. I can believe in God, Buddha, Mother Nature, myself, or nothing without fear of government censure. No one will force me to eat pork, bow to state-supported gods, or take away my right to tofu if I decide I am a vegan.

I am not a vegan. And I have lots of rights I don't even want, to be honest. Like the right to buy a gun later this week and shoot it off. Or the right to abortion, which would break more than my heart to exercise. You, on the other hand, may be a passionate vegetarian and a gun owner, or divided on the issue of abortion. In this country, neither of us will be put in jail for our beliefs.

Being so very rich, I can move anywhere I choose. I've lived in five states, traveled through most of 50. OK, maybe I'm not all that rich: I go Greyhound and leave the driving to them. But relatively speaking, I've been given every advantage that human beings long for. I have a sweet little apartment, my health is holding up, more people like me than dislike me, and I have rarely gone to bed hungry. I even get along with my folks, for crying out loud. Life is almost too good.

So I feel a little queasy whenever Jesus encounters the rich man in Mark 10. This fellow runs up to Jesus with such reverence and sincerity, it hurts to watch. He kneels down in front of the famous teacher so that Jesus can't budge until he deals with him. And maybe just a little too humbly, he asks the "good teacher" what he must do to gain eternal life.

Jesus balks at the address, perhaps sensing that it's over the top. He reminds the fellow on his knees that God alone is good and recites a few of the Commandments to jog his memory of his catechism.

The fellow looks up, without a trace of irony, and says he's always kept the Commandments since childhood. (One wonders if he's the long-lost twin of Saint Paul, who also claimed perfection under the Law of Moses.)

Here's where the story really becomes touching: Jesus looks at the man and is moved with love for him. Jesus sees something in this guy, beyond the affected address and the posture of submission, that is for real. The guy may be a little on the dramatic side, but he's a good person at heart. He loves God and is putting his faith in Jesus as a teacher of goodness. He wants to do the right thing. He's really trying.

And maybe Jesus, in his line of work, sees a lot of phonies--people who are very diligent about being religious but not very interested in the will of his Father. People who bow and scrape in front of altars and then go about their business, indifferent to the poor, unforgiving of their parents or children. This fellow, however, is bowed before Jesus. And he's asking what he should do. Jesus' heart fills with tenderness, and so he issues an invitation that very few have answered: Come, follow me. Sell what you have, give to the poor, and join me on the way.

We can believe that the man was earnest in his intention when he ran after Jesus. He may not be quite as perfect as he thinks he is, but he's at least an attentive disciple of the Law.

He's not a notorious Law-breaker, at any rate, and we can imagine that he's even a charitable man, caring for the poor insofar as the Law recommends. …

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