The story is told that after the death of the US millionaire John Rockefeller, then one of the world’s richest men, a reporter asked one of his aides, “How much did he leave behind when he died?” The reporter expected that he be given an answer in US dollars. However the aide calmly replied, “Everything.” As the late Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, Francis George, was fond of reminding anyone who would care to listen, “the only things we can bring with us to the next life are the ones we have given away”.
Perhaps that was part of the dilemma of the rich young man that we come across in this weekend’s gospel. I find him one of the most sympathetic and yet tragic figures in all of scripture. We can easily build up a picture of this energetic and thoughtful young man. I imagine him to be a good son, considerate and caring. He would have been aware of the plight of those around him and done his bit to lighten their load. He would have said his prayers and gone regularly to the synagogue. At school he would have been popular, in the family unit he would have been the peacemaker, to the outsider he would have looked like the perfect child.
It is this young man who approaches Jesus, drops to his knees, and pops the 64 thousand question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” I imagine for Jesus it must have been one of those tedious questions that he was asked over and over again. A bit like the dentist being asked what must I do to avoid getting fillings or the dietician who gets asked what must I do to avoid getting fat! So Jesus gives him the stock reply, observe the commandments!
But the young man is ready for him because he has done all that since he was a kid, what he wants to know is what more do I need to do – he is up for any challenge! So Jesus tells 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.” You feel for the idealistic young man and his sudden dilemma. And yet, I find his response as one of the saddest in all because it is the only occasion in the gospels where the call of Jesus to follow him was refused! “At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
For the rich young man we know what was the one thing that was lacking! His inability to let go of that one thing invariably led to his rejection of Jesus’ invitation to “come, follow me”. But what about us? Are we so different? Sure, we are not in the same league as a Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Twiggy Forrest, Clive Palmer or a John Rockefeller but that misses the point! It is not necessarily about wealth but rather what obstacles we place between ourselves and accepting Jesus invitation to “come, follow me”. Each one of us possess riches beyond compare! The ability to forgive, the power to build up, the capacity for compassion, the imagination to make a difference, the gift to set a person free. Riches that if used radically and freely can dramatically change our relationships, family units, circle of friends, interactions with our work colleagues and involvement in our parish family.
That is why we are all so much like the rich young man in today’s gospel. The choice is ours, now, if during the coming week we end up being a mirror image of one of the saddest characters found in the pages of scripture or have we the courage to accept Jesus’ invitation to let go and “come, follow me”.