The attitude of the rich young man has recorded for history the great error of those who, through selfishness, despise the heavenly treasure and lose true happiness on earth.
Gospel of the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
17 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?” 18Jesus answered him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 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; honour your father and your mother.” 20 He replied and said to Him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” 21 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.” 22 At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. 23 Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” 24The 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! 25 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.” 26 They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.” 28 Peter began to say to Him, “We have given up everything and followed You.” 29 Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel 30 who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come” (Mk 10:17-30).
I – Wisdom and Avarice, Two Polar Opposites
The Holy Spirit, through the inspired selection of texts in the Liturgy of this 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, teaches us about the marvels of the gift of wisdom, presenting it in contrast to the terrible vice of avarice.
In the first reading, the sacred author highlights the excellence of wisdom as compared with earthly treasures, affirming to have loved her “beyond health and comeliness” (Wis 7:10), and concluding: “Yet all good things together came to me in her company, and countless riches at her hands” (Wis 7:11).
Indeed, the wise man lives in harmony with God and sees all things as He Himself does, knowing them through connaturality with the Creator. As a result, he enjoys a priceless spiritual treasure, and not even the sufferings of this vale of tears hinder this happiness. On the other hand, even the material means that he needs “shall be added unto him,” according to Our Lord’s promise (cf. Mt 6:33).
The avaricious person, on the other hand, makes the passing goods of this world the purpose of his existence, consuming himself in the affliction of holding on to them and always acquiring more. This is a complete interior disorder which deprives him of the true criteria for judging with common sense and renders him incapable of raising himself to God. Thus, while wisdom brings the soul as close as possible to the beatific vision, avarice leads it to supernatural blindness. It is curious to note that even the pagans of antiquity had some notion of this disastrous consequence of attachment to wealth: in Greek mythology, Pluto, the god of wealth, was blind.
The famous case of the rich young man in today’s Gospel offers us a striking example of the struggle of the human heart in choosing between avarice and wisdom, showing how adherence to the former prevents the latter from flourishing, while causing sadness and frustration.
II – An Impossible Conquest for Man
St. Mark opens his tenth chapter by describing Our Lord’s passage through the region of Peraea – to “Judea, beyond the Jordan” (10:1a) –whence He would continue on towards Jerusalem to be crucified. Just as had happened in Galilee, “crowds gathered to Him again” and “as His custom was, He taught them” (10:1b). At a certain moment, the Pharisees also arrived and questioned Him: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (10:2), with the intention of testing Him. In response, Jesus preached on the indissolubility of matrimony in the New Law and, later, “in the house” (10:10) with His disciples, He went more deeply into the matter with them.
These teachings are followed by the narration of the touching scene in which the Divine Master blessed the children and admonished those who were listening to Him: “Let the children come to Me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the Kingdom of God” (Mk 10:14). Everything leads us to believe that the episode related in today’s Gospel took place immediately afterwards, when Jesus left that house “and went away” (Mt 19:15). We can imagine Our Lord taking the lead and the Apostles hurrying to keep pace with Him, while the people who had attended the preaching also joined them, forming a lively procession.
A good desire, undermined by selfishness
17 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?”
The assurance with which Our Lord expounded His doctrine, the nobility of His gestures, the way in which He addressed His audience, everything about Him had an impact on public opinion and elicited enthusiasm. An abundance of graces, invitations and miracles made a splendid impression on those who came into contact with Him, and kindled in souls a desire for greater union with God.
This must certainly have been what happened to this “official” (Lk 18:18), who hurried after Jesus. Convinced that He was someone capable of indicating the precise rules for reaching Heaven, he did not want to miss the opportunity to approach Him and ask His advice; however, due to the crowd that had formed around the Master, the only way to exchange a word with Him was to run, overtake everyone and approach Him head-on.
It seems plausible that in kneeling before Jesus, this man’s intention was not only to manifest his admiration, but also to hinder His advance in a respectful manner, so that He would be compelled to hear him. If such was his intention, he was fully successful: the Lord stopped and, always attentive to help those who had recourse to Him, listened to him with benevolence.
The young man’s question reveals a praiseworthy effort to save himself and to enjoy being face-to-face in God’s company. But, at the same time it denotes a selfish deviation, especially if we consider that he had already practiced virtue for many years. Indeed, rather than being concerned with how to “inherit eternal life,” his main concern should be: “What must I do to give myself more to God?”
The onset of the rejection of grace
18 Jesus answered him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but God alone.”
More than a rebuke, these words of Our Lord are an invitation to admire Him not only for being good as Man, but also as God, Goodness in substance. This is the first step that Jesus asked of the rich young man: a growth in love.
Because he was more turned towards himself than towards the “Good Teacher”, the one who had come running, seized by a sensible grace, did not respond to this appeal. And since in the spiritual life no one remains stagnant, especially after having met Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, this refusal, although not outwardly manifested, signified the beginning of a sad decline.
19 “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; honour your father and your mother.”
The method used by Jesus to capture the goodwill of His interlocutor is admirable. Knowing that this man expected to receive easy guidance to follow, He begins by listing the Commandments concerning social relationships. Being the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Our Lord knew from all eternity the excellent rectitude of that man in his dealings with his neighbour, and He enumerated these precepts in order to reassure him, to make him feel honoured before those who were witnessing the scene, and to encourage him to progress in virtue.
Jesus loved him!
20 He replied and said to Him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him…
St. Matthew accurately records that he was a “young man” (19:20), information corroborated by St. Mark’s detailed account. Someone advanced in years would not come running, nor would he have the stamina to kneel down and begin to speak immediately after such an effort. Why, then, does he declare that he had been observant from his youth, as if this were a bygone period of his life?
This statement does not refer to a specific age range, but affirms his fidelity to the Commandments from the dawn of his use of reason, due to a special assistance of grace. For this reason, Our Lord looked upon him and loved him – “intuitus eum dilexit eum,” in the expressive Latin translation. Consoled to see that those words corresponded to the truth, for he was indeed a virtuous soul, the Redeemer takes no account of his faults, but looks upon him lovingly. Perhaps in that look He spoke an interior word to him, preparing him to accept the call that He would address to him: “Is your relationship with others in order? Excellent! Now I ask you to do the same with your relationship towards God, loving Him with a pure heart, free from attachments!”
A rejection of wisdom
21b …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.”
It is unlikely that such a young man would have made his fortune through his own efforts, as that requires decades of work. It is even less likely that he would have become rich by a chance windfall, as can happen to someone nowadays through lotteries. His extensive possessions most probably corresponded to an inheritance accumulated by his ancestors, carefully administrated and passed down from father to son over generations. He must have been a conscientious young man who used his money without squandering it, and was skilful in doing business and making investments.
But Our Lord advised him to rid himself of this much-prized wealth, promising him, in exchange, “treasure in Heaven.” It was the decisive moment in his life. In his soul, there was a conflict between avarice, which tied him to earthly things, and wisdom, which would open up the possibility of a share in heavenly goods in this life. If he heeded the Divine Master’s guidance, he would be able to follow Him, perhaps becoming the thirteenth Apostle, as we have already commented on another occasion.1
To be faithful in this hour, the rich young man needed to acknowledge his own weakness, recognizing himself as incapable of that act of generosity and of the stable practice of any other virtue. However, blinded by avarice, he also lacked the humility through which, with a simple prayer, he would have obtained the necessary strength for such an important step.
The rich young man is disappointed in himself
22At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
The analysis of this verse gives us the opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding, very common in our days, according to which being rich is considered a bad state in itself. The story of Job, among many examples in the Old and New Testaments, teaches us something different. The torments suffered by this holy man were largely rewarded by the Lord, when He “restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10). The problem lies, not in having too much or too little money, but in the attachment to it that takes root in the heart, occupying the place due to God and to the supernatural.
We can thus better understand why this young man left Jesus’ presence “sad”. As someone who imagined his accounts to be settled regarding the Law, he was disappointed in himself when he realized that he did not practice the first and foremost Commandment perfectly, for he loved wealth more than he loved God. Although he was so morally upright as to please the Saviour, he was proud; and so, when called to take a greater step, he did not want to rely on God, but on himself, and he stumbled, putting his eternal salvation at risk.
Illustrative example for the disciples
23 Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” 24 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! 25 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.”
Without a doubt, the outcome of that brief scene deeply shocked the disciples. The unexpected manner in which the young man had approached the Master, the deference manifested in speaking to Him while kneeling, and the short dialogue between the two aroused the interest of those present, especially those who, like the rich young man, had also heard that sublime call: “Follow Me!”
St. Matthew, for example, had abandoned tax collecting, a lucrative post at the time, and was there full of joy, happy to belong to the Apostolic College and to live with Jesus. It was incomprehensible to him to see the attitude of that young man, who withdrew sad and bitter after receiving such an extraordinary invitation!
The Divine Master took advantage of the situation to form His own, pointing out the worst consequence of the inordinate love of money: it closes a person to grace, without the help of which no one can enter the Kingdom of God. Whoever clings to the treasure of earth runs the risk of losing the treasure of Heaven.
The importance that Our Lord attaches to this subject is particularly noteworthy, for He repeats the warning in the subsequent verses. This was a useful teaching for the life of Holy Church, which would develop like a mustard seed sown in the ground and take shape, giving rise to situations in which the disciples, as well as their successors, would be tempted to accumulate riches. With these words, the Divine Founder sealed forever the law of detachment that should govern the conduct of His children when dealing with money.
26 They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
The Kingdom of Heaven is a good that is superior to human nature, and we will never conquer it if we rely only on our own efforts. But this unattainable goal becomes attainable by the poor in spirit, that is, by all those who know how to join their hands and pray, especially if, with the beads of a rosary running through their fingers, they implore the protection of Our Lady. As St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori teaches, he who prays will be saved; he who does not will be condemned.2
When God asks something, He wishes to give us a hundredfold more
28 Peter began to say to Him, “We have given up everything and followed You.”
Endowed with an expansive temperament, incapable of remaining tight-lipped for long, St. Peter intervenes in his usual manner, as spokesman for the Apostles. The text of St. Matthew is more complete, recording also the question with which Peter concluded the exchange: “What then shall we have?” (19:27).
Naturally, the Twelve were pondering this question: “That young man left depressed, frustrated, with a tormented conscience, because he did not want to fulfil his vocation… And what shall happen to us, who were docile to the Master’s invitation?”
Peter’s words, although revealing a naturalistic and utilitarian mentality, not yet transformed by the descent of the Holy Spirit, gave Our Lord the opportunity to show how worthwhile it is, even as regards well-being in this world, to abandon everything in order to heed God’s call.
29 Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel 30 who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.”
When God asks something of us, His desire is to give us a hundredfold in return. The story of St. Peter himself illustrates this cogently: he left his family, his nets and all his belongings, and received the primacy of the Church. What marvels flowed from his self-giving! And even at his death, crucified upside down, the first Pope saw the sentence of Our Lord fulfilled in him, who had promised him a hundredfold already on this earth, “with persecutions”.
He who forsakes all things for love of God becomes a scandal to the unfortunate ones who cling to creatures, dominated by selfish passions. The latter hate the former, who torment their conscience. Sooner or later, they will want to take revenge by waging persecutions. However, no matter how violent these may be, in no way will they shake the happiness of those who have opted for wisdom, preferring to fix their hearts on the treasure of Heaven.
III – And What Treasures Will We Choose?
Today’s Liturgy sets before us a fork in the road, a divortium aquarum in the spiritual life: on the left is the treasure of earth, on the right, that of Heaven. The rich young man hoped to unite the two and reach beatitude bearing all his attachments. However, this possibility does not exist for those who are called to imitate Our Lord Jesus Christ, as the vocation of all the baptized demands.
Let us remember that He does not ask everyone to empty themselves of material goods, but rather those of their hearts. The siblings Lazarus, Martha and Mary, faithful disciples of Jesus and members of one of the wealthiest families in Israel, were never told by Him to renounce their possessions. Using them wisely, they were able not only to provide comfort to the Man-God, but also to show Him their affection and veneration.
Thus, the examination of conscience that falls to us this Sunday does not focus on an economic or charitable problem, as Our Lord’s words of advice to the rich young man to give everything to the poor might suggest, but on a deeper question: do I not have some wealth hidden in my heart?
According to the well-known adage: “Bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu – goodness proceeds from an integral cause; evil from any defect.” If my heart loves God above all things, then goodness, grace and wisdom dwell in it; if, on the contrary, I nourish some attachment, whether to money, to a friendship or even to a simple object such as a pen, I will not have the strength to remain virtuous and disasters will follow.
Let us grow in the hope of acquiring the treasure of Heaven, an incorruptible inheritance, which neither tarnishes nor withers (cf. 1 Pt 1:4), the summit of which is found in living with the Blessed Trinity, with our heavenly brethren and, in a very special way, with Our Lady. She, who is the Mother of Mercy, by means of this Liturgy, speaks to us in the depths of our soul:
“My child, to which treasure have you given your heart? However bad your choice has been up to now, I am willing to help you to embrace the path of wisdom, beside which ‘all gold, in view of her, is a little sand’ (Wis 7:9). This is the wealth that will bring you true happiness and, according to my Son’s promise, will multiply even your temporal goods. Ask me! Pray to me with seriousness, confidence and humility, in the certainty that the recognition of your own miseries opens the torrents of love from my Wise and Immaculate Heart.” ◊
1 Cf. CLÁ DIAS, EP, João Scognamiglio. The Thirteenth Apostle? In: Heralds of the Gospel. Nobleton. Vol. 3, No. 24 (Oct., 2009); p.10-17; New Insights on the Gospels. Città del Vaticano-Nobleton: LEV; Heralds of the Gospel, 2014, v. IV, p.418-433.
2 Cf. ST. ALPHONSUS MARIA LIGUORI. A oração, o grande meio para alcançarmos de Deus a salvação e todas as graças que desejamos. Aparecida: Santuário, 1987, p.42.