This blog offers a meditation on te Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
13 Then some little children were brought to Jesus, for him to place his hands on them, and pray; but the disciples found fault with those who had brought them. 14 Jesus, however, said: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for it is to the childlike that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” 15 So he placed his hands on them, and then went on his way.
16 A man came up to Jesus, and said: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to obtain eternal life?”
17 “Why ask me about goodness?” answered Jesus. “There is but One who is good. If you want to enter the life, keep the commandments.” 18 “What commandments?” asked the man. “These,” answered Jesus: — “‘You must not kill. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not say what is false about others. 19 Honor your father and your mother.’ And ‘You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.’” 20 “I have observed all these,” said the young man. “What is still wanting in me?”
21 “If you wish to be perfect,” answered Jesus, “go and sell your property, and give to the poor, and you will have wealth in heaven; then come and follow me.” 22 On hearing these words, the young man went away distressed, for he had great possessions.
This is a famous story which Matthew found in Mark’s gospel (Chapter 10)and altered. For example, Mark has the man say to Jesus “Good teacher” and Jesus reject this greeting by saying, “Only God is good.” Matthew doubtless felt this was not respectful to Jesus, so he softened it. Mark also tells us that Jesus looked at the man and felt affection for him, which gives the reader the sense that Jesus is concerned for the rich man’s welfare. Matthew tends to leave details of this sort out of his account which focuses on the main action or teaching without distraction. The little children whom Jesus blesses are again used as the model for discipleship. It is to the childlike that God’s new world belongs.
The rich man is a decent worldly person who wants eternal life without any disruption of his comfort. He is in effect, child-ish, although his decency is not questioned by Jesus. The man himself looks for something more than what he has. Jesus tells him that perfection involves giving away his wealth and becoming a disciple. We should not think of this perfection as a moral pinnacle but rather as the completeness of character which Jesus demanded of disciples, “You must be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5).
This man needs the advantages his wealth provides. In comparison with him the disciples are childlike fools who have abandoned their livelihoods for the sake of “wealth in heaven”. Only someone who truly wants the goodness of God in her life, will let go of her wealth, benefit the poor, and follow the way of Jesus. Matthew shows Jesus as concerned for the poor, but it’s notable here that care for the poor is a station on the way of Jesus, not its final destination, which is “eternal life.” This phrase is literally”the life of ages”, meaning the life of God who brings the kingdom, the new age, the completion of the world. Keeping the commandments and following Jesus are the way into this life which offers (as tomorow’s reading shows), rewards in this world and the next.
Jesus does not teach, as some would have it, that it’s all a question of how you use your wealth. He is clear that the possession of wealth is corrupting even of decent people. Doubtless the rich man gave alms as observant Jews all did. Jesus exposes his wealth as the barrier to his own true life.
This is always uncomfortable for the comfortable. I have lived modestly most of my life but now find myself for the first time, due to family legacies, with “wealth” that is, with more than I need for my ordinary expenses. I give freqently and cheerfully to charity – my only genuine virtue is generosity- but I know how comforting it is to have savings which promise security. I think if Jesus wants me to give them up, I might “go away distressed.”