“‘You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
‘How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!’
The disciples were amazed at his words.
So Jesus again said to them in reply,
‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’”
Uh oh. This is particularly troubling in Jesus’s day because wealth was seen as a blessing from a God, an indication of God’s favor. Further, it provided the wealthy one the opportunity to contribute to sacrifices in the temple, support for priests and rabbis, and promote orthodox practice outside of Jerusalem. Clearly, in Jesus’s day, the wealthy had an advantage in making it to God’s kingdom. That’s not, however, how the kingdom works. The kingdom must be received (like a child would) without any entitlement. It must be received as a gift, not purchased like property. It cannot be earned without God’s grace, because it is God’s work, not ours.
In our own day, we don’t see wealth as indicating God’s favor (most of the time), although we may respond with gratitude for financial blessings. It can affect our hearts in a similar way to Jesus’s day, however, in relationship to entitlement or a sense of earning our way to heaven. Although we may provide some caveats because of our overall financial system, educational or socioeconomic advantages due to family history or racial benefits, or some element of chance, we generally accept that personal dedication, industry, creativity, commitment and skills will be rewarded financially if we make decisions regarding high earning potential careers or entrepreneurial risk. It is an American dream. If you work hard, you will be successful, we think. Our economic success can become the model for how we approach faith. This is a spiritual danger.
It is a spiritual danger especially if we have been successful. A self made man or woman has a greater challenge to accept dependence on God. Our confidence in our own abilities makes the decision to surrender in trust to God that much more difficult. It can be seen in the generalization that the poor are more generous with what they have than the wealthy. Having walked in someone’s shoes who is in great need often makes the poor more willing to share out of their own need. It can make them more ready to surrender in trust. It is harder for the wealthy to give beyond their surplus, harder to let go of what we have earned through our own effort. Harder to make a real sacrifice.
One important point to add to this reflection: for the young man in today’s gospel, giving away all of his possessions is only the beginning of following Jesus, of becoming a disciple. Letting go of his attachment to his many possessions begins the process of following Jesus to the kingdom. It is not the end, but the beginning of real progress. Having obeyed all the commandments through his own effort, he lacks just one thing: letting go. He has to let go of his confidence in his ability to achieve the kingdom in order to receive God’s work freely. Somehow, we have to let go of the same thing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).