“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”
Is not this the question that each one of us would like to ask Jesus? Is this not one of the reasons that we try to follow Jesus and observe his teachings? In today’s Gospel, we hear of a man who runs up to Jesus and kneels before Him to ask the question to which many of us would also like to know the answer: “What must we do to inherit eternal life?” In responding to this question, Jesus answers with three different layers to His response. The first response that He gives to the man is that he is required to both know and follow the commandments. We know this man must be a good person, because he testifies that this he has done his whole life. The man is already living a good life and sincerely seeks to follow Jesus. When this man tells Jesus that he has always followed the commandments, Jesus tells him that there is still one thing that he must do, “sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” With these words, the man goes away, sad that he is not able to follow Jesus, because as the Gospel tells us, he had many possessions. The man is not able to give up everything to follow the Lord. As the other disciples see this good man go away sad, they wonder about their own future and Peter asks on their behalf what will happen to them, since they have left everything. To those who have left everything, Jesus assures them that will have treasure in Heaven and that they will indeed inherit eternal life. Jesus has a stern warning, however, for those who cling to worldly wealth, since it will be an obstacle to them entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus uses the image of a large camel trying to pass through a gate in the wall of the city of Jerusalem, known as the “eye of the needle.” Just as no camel was able to pass through this gate, so too those who cling to their wealth, will not be able to pass into Heaven. Their attachment to this world will make it impossible for them to freely pass into Heaven. In fact, Jesus goes on to say that in most cases, it is impossible for people to be saved on their own. Happily, as Jesus reports, while it is impossible for a person to be saved on his or her own, with God all things are possible. For the person who truly wishes to be saved, all that is really required of him or her is that he or she welcome Jesus as a little child would do. For those who do this, salvation is very easy, because it is accomplished not by one’s own efforts but by God’s Grace.
This Gospel passage tells us a great deal about discipleship and how each one of us can be given salvation by God’s Grace. One of the most important lessons of this Gospel is that we are not saved only by observing the commandments. Jesus makes it clear that we must follow the commandments, but that this is not enough. Why is that? We see in the Gospels many people who do follow the commandments, they are sometimes called the Scribes and the Pharisees. St. Paul was such a person before his conversion and discovery of God’s love and mercy. Prior to welcoming Christ, Saul (St. Paul) was so self-righteous he thought serving God meant killing Christians. When the commandments are not followed with love of God and neighbour as their motivating factor, they can sometimes produce an attitude of self-righteousness and bitterness. Many people are very legalistic and resent anyone else who is not perfect as they perceive themselves to be. Because there is no love in their hearts they are bitter and desire to heap judgement and condemnation on other people. Because the Scribes and the Pharisees worked so hard to follow the law, they hated Jesus because he was loving and forgiving. They thought that they could save themselves by their own efforts and grew prideful and condemned Jesus for being loving. When people feel this way, they think that they do not need a savior and that God owes them salvation. This can harden their hearts and make them feel that they have earned their own way into Heaven. These perfect people may even refuse to go in to Heaven when they see the other types of people that Jesus is letting in; just as the Scribes and Pharisees would not eat with Him because He ate with sinners and tax-collectors. I remember a person who was very angry at her deceased spouse and said if he is in Heaven, I would rather go to hell. Today, in the same way, some people are leaving the Church because they see that there are sinners in its ranks at every level. Our pride can make our observance of the law and commandments a type of possession or wealth that prevents us from following the Lord and being loving disciples. Jesus is calling all of us to be loving disciples who will leave everything to follow Him—especially our pride and egos.
Ultimately, what Jesus is inviting this man to do is to love Him above all other things. He asks the man to be willing to love Him so much that he will leave everything to follow Jesus. St. Anthony of the Desert heard this Gospel story in the third century and sold everything he had to become a monk. We see examples of people who allow love to change their lives around us all the time. When I was in university, I had so many friends with whom I would party and often their lives were changed when they fell in love. They were transformed from irresponsible adults to loving and caring spouses and parents. In our parish, there are couples who make great sacrifices for love. I sometimes meet two very educated people and the man or women will tell me that thy gave up their job to allow a spouse to take a job that he or she could not get elsewhere—happily more and more these sacrifices are being made by men whose wives are offered the good jobs that they seek. Working at the seminary, I often see young people with great potential being willing to leave everything to follow Christ. The only thing that allows them to do this is that they have fallen in love with Jesus. Jesus loves us so much that He wants us to spend eternity with Him. To do this, we need to be able to love Him so much that we do not cling to this life and our possessions. If we arrive at the gates of Heaven clinging to so many possessions that we cannot enter, we may prevent ourselves from receiving the gift of His love and salvation. Imagine that you die and arrive at the gates of Heaven angry that you have been called away from loved ones, accomplishments or possessions. Think about it, you spend years saving up to but a Ferrari, or searching for the perfect spouse, you finally fulfill your desire and the Lord calls you to Heaven. If you are too attached to things of this world, you might reject the Lord’s invitation, angry that He has called you away from your earthly treasures. If we cling so tightly to our earthly treasures that we resent God’s plan for us, these obstacles will become barriers to our accepting God’s will for us and entering the Kingdom of Heaven. By clinging too tightly to our earthly treasures we will not be able to embrace the invitation to the true treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is why Jesus can tell Peter and those who have left everything that they have nothing to worry about. If we truly wish to be assured of salvation, Jesus says leave everything and be ready to go to Heaven at an instance notice!
So where does that leave us, or those do who have worldly attachments? Can we be saved? As Jesus tells His disciples, for humans this is impossible, but for God all things are possible. What does this mean?
I think the answer to this is found in the beautiful Psalm response that we have today: “Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!” This is what saved St. Paul. Saul, as he was known before his conversion, was riding around on his high horse, arresting Christians and killing them in his self-righteous rage. Because Jesus loved Saul, He did not give up on him. Instead Jesus knocked Saul off his high horse and let Him know that He desired to save Him and called him to be an Apostle. Saul was so overwhelmed by Christ’s love for Him, that it changed his life and he went on to be St. Paul the great Apostle to the Gentiles. As Jesus says in the Gospel, those who are forgiven much, love much. Ultimately, what each one of us needs to do to be saved is understand how much God loves us. When we know how much God loves, we cannot help but fall in love with God. In this love, we will discover the freedom to value all things in relationship to God’s love for us and His invitation to follow Him. A true poverty of spirit is based in a love for God that orders all of our earthly attachments in relation to God’s love for us. By coming to Christ as a child and allowing Him to love us, we gain the freedom to accept His gift of salvation and recognize with gratitude all that He has done for us. The response to knowing God’s love is that we begin to live our lives as a song of praise offered to the Father—we begin to sing for joy. If we wish to be saved, Jesus tells us to come to Him as a child and allow Him to love us. His love is irresistible, we will not be able to hold on to anything if we truly allow ourselves to understand His love. St. Ignatius of Loyola used to begin his daily examine by simply thinking about how the Lord looked upon him in love as he began his prayer time with Jesus. With the love which God had for him in mind, St. Ignatius was able to find the freedom to follow the Lord wherever Jesus called him.
What must we do to inherit eternal life? Simply put, we must love the Lord enough to be willing to leave everything and spend eternity with Him. We will all be asked to leave everything else for Him. The way that we can be sure to be able to do that is to understand how much He loves us. He shows us this love every time we receive Him in the Eucharist. We cannot be saved on our own. It is His love which saves us. Let us ask that He might fill us with His love, that we might be transformed by His love and receive the gift of salvation.
“Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for Joy” (Psalm 90).
Fr. Michael McGourty