We live in a society that is extremely materialistic; some people lament this fact and others esteem it. The society in which Jesus lived was at least as materialistic as ours. Like most of their contemporaries, Jesus’ disciples envied and admired the rich. As a consequence, they were very confused by the statement, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mk. 10:23)
Mark’s Gospel gives us a clue that the story is not primarily about material wealth. The rich man approached Jesus and asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17) Jesus’ immediate response was, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mk. 10:18) Jesus’ captious reaction was the result of the many attempts by religious leaders to trick him into embarrassing himself; he assumed that the rich man had an ulterior motive when he asked about how to live a just life.
When it became apparent that the rich man was genuinely interested in pursuing a life of holiness, Jesus offered him the opportunity to do so by joining the group of disciples. Jesus said, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mk. 10:21)
In order to understand Jesus’ invitation to discipleship, we must understand the nature of wealth in Jesus’ culture. At least part of the man’s wealth would have been inherited wealth. As such, it belonged to his family and could not be forfeited legitimately. The parable of the Prodigal Son relies on this strong cultural value of maintaining family property. In the parable, one of the younger son’s sins was to dissipate the family’s fortune.
In the event in today’s Gospel, Jesus was not instructing the man to forfeit all of his family’s wealth. Rather, he was telling him to give alms out of the money he had accumulated by his own efforts. (Doing so would have been a common practice at the time.) It was Jesus’ suggestion to “come, follow me” (Mk. 10:21), that caused the man to go away sad. Following Jesus as a disciple would have required the man to leave his family and home; it was this possibility that caused the man to reject Jesus’ offer.
In Jesus’ culture, the social status provided by family and local connections was valued much more than material wealth. Jesus was asking the man to forfeit something much more valuable than money; he was asking the man to forfeit his respectability and reputation. Not many of Jesus’ disciples seem to have been wealthy, but all of them had to sever connections with family and neighborhood in order to follow him. They had to do so because following him as a disciple meant literally “to follow.” Jesus was an itinerant preacher; he wandered continually and his disciples had to travel with him. Relinquishing connections to one’s family of origin in order to join Jesus’ reform group would have been considered an immense sacrifice.
In one way or another, all of Jesus’s disciples have to leave behind their old way of life in order to follow him. The sacrifices required by discipleship are just as costly today as they were for the first disciples. Catholics today have the opportunity to practice the relinquishment of social status that Jesus’ first disciples embraced.
There was a time when the Catholic Church was respected even by non-Catholics. For a long time, the Catholic Church was known for its missionary work, outreach to the poor, and care for the sick. Catholic hospitals, schools, and social ministries were once considered to be shining examples of virtue and social responsibility.
I speak about all these things in the past because the respect that was once given to the Catholic Church is only a memory. Today, the Catholic Church is ridiculed almost universally because of the moral and legal failings of its leadership. Many years ago, the Catholic Church often made the headlines because of its care for the poor; today, the Church continues to make headlines because of its poor reputation for making the wrong choices in morally unambiguous situations.
The ongoing embarrassments caused by our leadership has led some people to wander away from church or to ridicule the Church for its misfortunes. I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective on our unfortunate situation. I’d like to suggest that this is an opportunity to imitate Jesus’ first disciples by forfeiting social status in order to follow him.
As troubling as the recent events in the Church and in the world have been, none of those discouraging events have any real bearing on the possibility or desirability of being a disciple of Jesus. In fact, social ills and troubles in the Church might be the best of reasons to commit oneself to a closer walk with Jesus.
It is not possible to change the actions or attitudes of anyone but oneself. The irresponsible behavior that occurs in our Church and in our society can lead to the temptation to embrace being irresponsible. The obvious reason not to do so is every decent person’s abhorrence of irresponsibility.
Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel are spoken directly to each of us. Each of us as individuals and all of us as a church community are being given the opportunity to leave behind the status, admiration, and respectability we would prefer to treasure. Forfeiting this wealth is a priceless opportunity because it allows us to step into a new life of faith. If you are scandalized, or disappointed, or disgusted by recent events, Jesus offers the possibility of a new life free from inordinate attachments. He says, “come, follow me.” (Mk. 10:21)