As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.” He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “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.
In this gospel reading we encounter a man who is deeply distressed about his life. In fact, he is so distressed that he seeks guidance and direction from Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is worth noting that at that time and in that culture, there was not a concern or preoccupation with a life after this life. He was not talking about “eternal life” in terms of what we might think of as some state of eternal reward that one goes to after death. He was talking about being at peace with himself, his neighbors and his God, and finding fulfillment in this life. It is one of the fundamental question we all ask: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What am I to do? How am I to live? Is this all there is? In the end, what really matters?
Jesus's initial response was to encourage the man to live by the commandments, the core moral and religious teaching of the tradition: do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal, etc. The commandments (and similar moral/spiritual codes) are a good thing! They help us reduce or eliminate sources of stress or trauma from our lives; they help us get on the right track. They sensitize us to justice and mercy. The orient us toward a spiritual life. But, in themselves they are not enough. In themselves, they are not sufficient to lead us to a life of peace and fulfillment, as the man suggests: “Jesus, I have been doing this since my youth!” You can feel the man's desperation. “I have been following the law, doing what the tradition prescribes, yet it does not seem to be enough. I can see that following the rules perfectly has not led me to a peaceful, fulfilling life. There must be more. What more can I do?”
Jesus makes two responses to the man. First, Jesus looked at the man with love. A curious thing. Jesus, the compassionate one, could sense this man's distress; and was moved with concern for him. And, he responded with love. Second, Jesus invited the man to begin letting go of his attachments. On one level, Jesus is inviting him to let go of his attachment to material possessions; to sell all that he had and give it to the poor. And, on another level, Jesus is inviting him to let go of whatever he might be overly attached to; whatever might stand in his way from a more complete response to life. This man was holding on; he was staying in control. He was trying to earn his way, control his way, by his accomplishments, his successes, and his material possessions. He was proud, perhaps excessively proud. He was not gently yielding to life.
For centuries spiritual writers of various traditions have cautioned us against the dangers of excessive attachment — whether to material possessions, positions of honor or prestige, our accomplishments, our successes, our reputations, and even to our self image. Over attachment in any of these areas suggest that we might have too much ego, too much pride, too much self righteousness. And, this ego, this excessive pride, can keep us separated — from God and from each other. Like this man, we may engage in the activities of life with a sense of control and smugness, and not allow ourselves to be open, vulnerable, and mutual with others.
The question for us to consider today is whether we are overly attached to anything? Perhaps money, or material possessions? Perhaps positions of honor or prestige? Perhaps our personal successes and accomplishments? Perhaps alcohol, or some other substance? Perhaps our favorite television shows? Perhaps our self image? How we want others to perceive us? Jesus is inviting us, as he invited the man in the reading, to surrender these attachments. We are invited to become more aware of the areas in our lives where we might be overly attached; and to begin loosening the attachments that we experience. The man turned down Jesus' invitation, and walked away sad, for he had many attachments. How will you respond?