Many classic tales are told in which a hero or heroine searches for the key to happiness. In “City Slickers,” a film popular in the early 1990s, Mitch, a city boy, is asked by Curly, a crusty old cowboy, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” Curly holds up one finger and continues, “One thing. Just one thing.” When Mitch presses him for the secret, Curly says, “That’s what you have to find out.” The answer unfolds subtly in the film but is never stated explicitly.
In today’s Gospel, a rich young man asks Jesus a similar question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He seems to be looking for a formula. Though he has kept all the commandments since his youth, the young man lacks something. He looks to Jesus as the “good teacher” to tell him what it is. Jesus does not say readily what he must do to inherit eternal life but focuses instead on the man’s use of the word “good.” In this way Jesus points the young man toward God’s unique goodness, which is the “one thing” at the center of all.
Jesus invites the rich man to step across a threshold, to leave behind the spirituality of his youth and to take on another spirituality that abandons all for the sake of love. In youth, clear guidelines with specific boundaries and actions for moral living are needed. But as we move into maturity, it is the gaze of love that Jesus casts on each of us that enables us to abandon everything else. This love cannot be earned with actions, but is the sheer gift of the good God, who embodies the one thing that surpasses all else. The only condition for attaining the one thing is this: A person must be willing to let go of everything else.
Abandoning all for the pursuit of the one love is not an easy thing to do. In the Gospel, the young man’s many possessions seem an insurmountable obstacle. For a rich person to enter the realm of God is like a heavily laden camel struggling to wriggle through a tiny opening with all its cargo intact. To hold on to the power, control and security that abundant possessions bring is antithetical to the vulnerability, receptivity and risk that abandoning oneself to the one love requires. It is not impossible for people with riches to do so, but it is exceedingly difficult.
As other Gospel passages illustrate, it is not the having of riches that poses an obstacle; rather it is what one does with one’s possessions that is determinative. Jesus’ assurance that “for human beings it is impossible, but not for God,” has an echo of Gabriel’s words to Mary at the annunciation (Lk 1:37). Total self-surrender to the divine is the one thing that brings abundant life to all.
There is a similar theme in the first reading, where wisdom is the one thing sought. The king prays for and is granted the grace to choose wisdom alone, over scepter and throne, riches and gems. Ironically, just as the disciples gained back a hundredfold all the family relations and land they relinquished, so the king’s choice of Wisdom over all else brought him all good things and countless riches. The idea is not to guess the one thing that will bring wealth. Rather, the choice of the one love, Wisdom incarnate in Christ, prompts one to let go of all else, only to receive in return all that the beloved lavishes on us without reserve.