“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.” (Mk 10:21-22)
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells a rich young man who is pious and obedient to God’s law that he still lacks one thing: he is still attached to his possessions, and he needs to give them up and then he will truly enter the kingdom of heaven.
I think there are several elements in this story that are important in understanding it. First, the young man approaches Jesus in the first place because he wants something. He desires something from Jesus that he does not yet have. What is it? It might be affirmation of how he is already living. Perhaps he wants Jesus to publicly praise him and say, “Here is a man of great faith.” Another possibility, however, is that the young man feels restless despite doing “everything right.” That is, he finds that his obedience is not enough, and longs for something more. He has some deeper desire to love God and others well, and yet does not know what else he must do to get there. So he asks Jesus, what must I do?
Jesus’s answer shows the young man that he has attachments, that is, a particular love of something that stands in his way of being fully present to God and fully loving to other people. In this case, it is wealth. The young man has many possessions, and these are important enough to him that when Jesus says, Sell them and give them to the poor, he discovers that maybe his desire to love God and love others is not as deep as his desire to hold on to his attachments. An attachment is anything that stands in our way of being surrendered to God, and being truly free to live the lives that God has called us to live. Jesus is not asking the young man to give up what makes him happy; he is asking him to give up what he thinks that he “needs” so that he can receive a deeper kind of joy and freedom.
Wealth is a good example of attachment, especially in our own culture, as we are a materialistic and consumer centered society. For many people, shopping is a form of recreation, or having the latest technology is more important than sharing wealth (or time) with others in the community. But we human beings can have other kinds of attachments, too: security; status; comfort; power; or alcohol, drugs, or food. We can be attached to particular people and their love for us, or their lack of it. We can even be attached to our own independence and freedom from others (which can superficially look like detachment, but which also can weaken our capacity to love authentically and deeply). Attachments are obstacles to the full joy of living a life in the Spirit.
The Gospel passage tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him before he spoke. That look of love is crucial, for it helps us to understand the tone of voice with which Jesus must have spoken to the young man: not with condemnation, not with judgment, but rather with understanding. Jesus speaks truthfully and with love. I recall my very first spiritual director telling me that in prayer, when we hear God ask something of us that we do not especially want to hear, but it is accompanied by feelings of consolation (peace, joy, warmth, love) that this is a good sign that it really is God speaking. That bit of wisdom has been important to me over the years, as sometimes God has asked me to give up something that has been important to me, with the promise that a greater gift of freedom and peace lies deeper. And yet I, like the young man, have sometimes been resistant.
Jesus’s disciples also recognize that this is a hard idea to accept: “Who then can be saved?” they ask. The young man walks away sadly, but perhaps the longer term story ends differently than the short term one. After all, the young man approached Jesus because he was looking for something, and Jesus gave him the answer that he thought was most loving for him at that moment. Would Jesus have given him an impossible task, asked him to give up an attachment if it were not possible for him to do so? No. Rather, perhaps the young man was at just the right moment for Jesus to ask him for the next step in his growth. He was ready for something more than the law, and more than being obedient and righteous: ready to go deeper into love and freedom. Jesus says, “all things are possible for God,” and I like to think of that as an assurance to the reader that what the young man thought he could never do on his own, he eventually was able to accomplish with God’s assistance. Perhaps he does sell his wealth and follow Jesus—as many disciples did—and find a deeper freedom of peace and presence in the gifts of the Lord.
We, too, are invited to consider in an ongoing way, what attachments stand as obstacles to my own peace and freedom to love? Where is the deeper call from God for me?