Our Faces Turn Sad

The Gospel is countercultural in countless ways. Take the story in Mark’s gospel of the rich man who has observed all the laws of his Jewish faith who asks Jesus what more he must do to gain entrance into eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell all he has, give away the proceeds to the poor and follow him. The countenance of the rich man’s face turns sullen. He turns and walks away, dejected. Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

On the face of it, the story says a rich person will find it impossible to get into heaven. But actually the story has less to do with money than with surrender. I’m certainly not rich, at least by the American standards; but compared to the two-thirds of the world’s population locked in the cruel prison of poverty, I’m indeed a rich man. I might not have any money in the bank and my salary while at the foundation I created barely covered my modest living expenses, but my extensive time among the chronically poor has certainly shown me how rich I am. Even though I feel as if I have given my life in service of the poor, is Christ asking me to literally give everything I own away? I do not think so.

Let’s look a little deeper at the story. In the Jewish culture at the time of Jesus, being rich was a sign of God’s blessing; conversely, being poor indicated God was not pleased with you. The rich felt secure in their knowledge of their future eternal bliss. Jesus turned that idea upside down, saying that our external possessions are not a sign of our internal harmony with God. God’s capital, according to Jesus, was love not money. We will be judged not by what we have, but by what we give away in love.

The rich man in the story walked away sad because “he had many possessions.” He was unable to let go of the things he valued, the things that made him feel safe and secure. Jesus is saying that security is detrimental in the spiritual life because it thwarts full surrender to God. As I walked with the poor, I have come to see how so much of what I once thought was important or valuable has turned out to be rather worthless. In our culture, even those of us who are hardly considered rich have so many resources at our disposal that we feel no need for God. Our culture tells us to be strong, to be independent. The ever-countercultural Jesus says God is found in weakness, that we are all connected, all one in the loving and merciful eyes of God. Perhaps Jesus was asking the rich man to become poor in order for him to experience the deepest need and longing of his heart: unity with the Creator, the source of all life. Whether we admit it or not, we need God. None of us is truly rich because we lack the fullness of God. I think Jesus was telling the rich man that self-reliance was detrimental to the spiritual life and that spiritual growth requires surrender and total dependence on God.

Christ is asking us to give away all that is blocking us from the deepest longing of our hearts…unity with God. That could be money, or it could be any of a litany of things that we hold onto for dear life…things like excessive worry, the need to control, the urge for unrestrained carnal pleasure, addiction to drugs or alcohol (or any addictive behavior), the need to consume more and more, the unrelenting desire to succeed at all costs, the need to be constantly entertained, the need to be always on the move, always striving for something we don’t have…the list is endless. So much of modern life distracts us from God. Every day we face an onslaught of images and messages hurled at us from the media, Hollywood, and the world of business in the form of nonstop commercials. Life has become a whirling dervish of frenetic activity. We live life in fast-forward. There is no time for stillness and silence, no time for reflection. No time for God. We are too rich, too busy, too preoccupied with satisfying our own desires. Jesus is saying: stop…stop everything that leads you away from God.

The more we are focused on the material world, the less we will be focused on the spiritual realm. Jesus was telling the rich man to give away all he was clinging to, and to cling to God alone. Jesus is asking us to becoming radically dependent upon him alone. I’m slowly learning that I can accomplish nothing on my own, but with Christ, nothing is impossible. But I easily forget that truth. I forgot it yesterday. Following Christ is truly hard because it is truly countercultural. I once met a humble Franciscan friar who had dedicated his entire life to serving the poor. He told me the only things he owned were his sins. Sin, at its root, is nothing more than a failure to love. This ultimately is what Christ is asking us to give away: anything that hinders love. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Zen master, once said: “If you have compassion, you cannot be rich…. You can be rich only when you can bear the sight of suffering.” He understood what Christ was saying to the rich man in Mark’s Gospel. God is calling us to deeper and deeper levels of love, mercy, and compassion…and we need to give away anything that thwarts our response to that call. And so our faces turn sad and we walk away dejected because we have so much.

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