Jesus drives a hard bargain. In today’s gospel, we find a man who apparently had it all: he was young, he was enthusiastic, he was spiritual, he was wealthy, and he was good. He avoided all those things that were forbidden by the Ten Commandments of the Law. He was looking for only one thing: to live forever. The man’s qualifications were not enough for Jesus. First, he dampened his enthusiasm, taking the praise the young man had given him by calling him “good,” and deflecting the praise to God. Then, Jesus challenged him to perfection: to give away what he owned to the poor and become a wandering disciple. That was too much. The young man went away chastened and sad.
Jesus’s commentary on the young man’s quandary and his declining to follow him is very straight-forward. “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.” Some commentators have tried to soften this saying, explaining that the “eye of the needle” was a common name for a narrow gate in the city or a narrow mountain pass. I don’t think we should let ourselves off the hook quite that easily. The disciples’ reaction to Jesus’s saying, and the fact that Jesus himself called the task “impossible” suggests very strongly that Jesus meant it literally.
Does that mean that, if we want to be Jesus’s disciples, we have to give away all our possessions and become homeless pilgrims? I don’t think so. I think that it’s a clear invitation to examine our understanding of possession and ownership. In the spiritual life, changing our understanding—changing our thinking—can change our relationship with people, places, and things. It can also change our relationship with God.
We may not consider ourselves to be especially wealthy, as the young man was. However, consider this: up to one-third of the seven billion people in the world have never made or received a phone call, and many of those never will. To much of the world, we are unbelievably wealthy. Few of those things that encumber our lives and that we consider to be “necessities” actually contribute to feeding us, protecting us from the elements, or maintaining our physical, psychological, social or spiritual health and well-being. We confuse our wants with our needs—we all do it. There are remarkably few things in our trove of possessions that we literally cannot live without. Everything else is just “stuff.”
George Carlin had a classic comedy routine built around our attitudes toward our “stuff.” We pay for our stuff with our work. Once we have stuff, we need a place for it. Houses, he said, are just piles of stuff with a cover over it. We also need houses to protect our stuff because someone else might come and take our stuff while we’re away getting more stuff. Then comes the time when we have too much stuff, so we buy a bigger house to store or stuff, or, even worse, rent a storage unit to store our stuff. Either way we have to move our stuff. We always think our stuff is better than other people’s stuff, and if it isn’t, then we have to replace it with better stuff.
The problem with possessions—with stuff—is the question of ownership. When we acquire any possession, we believe that it is ours—that we own it. In fact, the opposite is true. Our possessions own us. As long as we have them, we need places for them. We need to protect them from damage or loss. We need to care for them and maintain them. We become reliant on them, while they feed our fears and anxieties. We become protective of them and defensive against threats against them. They are physical anchors tying us, in our thoughts, our time, and our resources, to caring for them in this world. They are strong attachments to a physical world we are only visiting. When we’ve left, someone else will have all our stuff.
I’m fond of telling people that, for the most part, death changes nothing, for “where your treasure lies, there will your heart be also.” [Matthew 6:21] Freedom or servitude is a matter of how and where we choose to invest our energy and concern. If, at death, we are anchored to the things of this world—our stuff and the means of procuring more stuff—then there is where our spirits will be stuck. The Fathers of the Church called this attachment to time and space “Purgatory,” others call these stuck spirits “ghosts.” Either way, they are bound to what they love and are most afraid to lose.
Transitioning into the Reign of God means letting go, and it’s every bit as difficult as Jesus warned us it would be. Our lives here are schools preparing us for eternity, and there are only two lessons we need to learn. As the rich young man found out, it’s not enough to be enthusiastic. It’s not even enough to be a good person and to do nothing wrong. The first lesson we’re challenged to learn is detachment. That means learning to live in the world without allowing it to own us. It means wearing life like a loose garment. It’s what people mean when they say that we should live in the world but not become a part of it. [Cf. John 17:15-16]
The second great lesson that we’re here to learn is love. The Greeks had three words for love: eros, or sensual love; philia, or possessive love; and agape, or self-giving love, the love modeled by Jesus on the cross. How we obtain our possessions is, of course important. That’s what determines whether a person is good and law-abiding or a criminal. But “good” is not good enough. It’s what we do with our possessions that makes the real difference. If we’ve been successful at detachment, then they become instruments of agape available to us as we strive to love without fear. Once we have cut ourselves free from the anchor of our stuff, it becomes free to flow into and out of our lives in generous response to the invitation we’ve been given to love. How we love one another, how we care for one another, how we give of ourselves to one another, that’s how we enter the kingdom of God, how the reign of God comes to us, how we inherit eternal life, how a camel passes through the eye of a needle with room to spare.