The classical music station paused for an ad. An about-to-be-wed couple was visiting a marriage counselor. They were having their first fightover what kind of S.U.V. to buy. He wanted a Mercedes, but she had heard that the Mercedes was a big, lumbering car. Call off the ceremony! Then he explained that the new Mercedes was wonderful, sleek, easy to handle and cost only $35,000! Pre-marital bliss was restored, and the marriage counselor gushed lovingly over the reconciliation. Such are the values marketed to the new elite in the new economy.
The challenge posed by wealth is as old as the Hebrew prophets and formed a vital part of Jesus’ teaching. In today’s Gospel a young man runs up, clearly eager to obtain eternal life. He calls Jesus good teacher, and Jesus responds with a put-down, No one is good but God alone. Jesus then challenges the young man by listing those precepts of the Decalogue that deal with social and familial relations. Having learned his lesson, the young man now simply addresses Jesus as teacher and states that he has observed all these from his youth. Jesus looks on him, loves him and challenges him to sell what he has, give the money to the poor and then follow him. Jesus’ disciples are to travel light (Mk. 6:7-9) and to imitate the powerlessness of the child (10:13-15). His enthusiasm crushed, the young man goes away sad, for he had many possessions, and Jesus says (harshly or sadly, we don’t know), How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.
The story then switches. The disciples, who themselves seek power and prestige (Mk. 9:34; 10:37), are amazed, since riches can be a sign of God’s favor. But Jesus now intensifies the difficulty with the somewhat ludicrous and exaggerated image of a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle. There is also irony here: many possessions are carried on camels. Now dumbfounded, they ask, Who can be saved? Without really answering, Jesus simply says that what we think is impossible is possible with God.
The real thrust of today’s Gospel comes when Peter, the usual foil in Mark for misunderstanding, says, in effect, We have left everything, but what’s in it for us? For all followers of Jesus, the answer is as challenging as it was for the rich man. What you get are new houses, new lands, new brothers and sisters, a hundred times more in this life, but with persecutions and eternal life (which the young man was seeking).
Though vivid and powerful, this Gospel is also as puzzling and shocking for contemporary Christians as it was for Jesus’ first disciples. Radical divesting of wealth hardly characterizes church life (and church leaders), so Jesus’ teaching is interpreted frequently as an evangelical counsel meant for a few, though Jesus speaks of the difficulty of salvation for those having wealth i.e., all of them. The church also depends on the generosity of people of means for ordinary parish life and social outreach. Yet there are important hints about how this Gospel may speak to people today.
Strangely, Jesus loves the young man (embodying his own love for the Law and the Prophets), yet later says that it will be difficult for him to enter God’s kingdom. Though the youth was observant of commands, he did not realize that the love of Jesus was leading him beyond his virtue. Often Christ challenges people to a more intense discipleship not at their point of weakness, but precisely at their point of strength. Acquired virtue and dutifulness must yield to an uncertain future. Yet the future is not bleak, since Jesus promises a hundredfold in this life. The list includes lands, new families, even amid persecution. These joys reflect the experience of the early church, with its new sense of community and new familial relationships. Hospitality, reception of traveling missionaries, care for the poor and mutual love (new houses, new lands, new families) were hallmarks of early Christianity (See how they love one another, said the pagans). There are far deeper values and far deeper joys than great possessions can assure. Dorothy Day once said that the important thing about The Catholic Worker was not poverty, but community, and in her wonderful reminiscences, On Pilgrimage, she tells of getting off a Greyhound bus in a city, not knowing exactly where she would stay, but finding houses, brothers and sisters (and often opposition or arrest). Perhaps the church today should seek ways to go by Greyhound, rather than by S.U.V.