Monday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

Monday, August 16, 2021

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we meet the rich young man of Mark 19. Since the first reading and psalm would be challenging to pray with, I would like to offer this homily I wrote some years ago on our Gospel for today

Christ and the Rich Young Man by Heinrich Hoffmann

Most had come to the rolling hills beyond the Jordan because of the miracles: the crippled walking, the dead raised, the demons cast out. Who wouldn’t take an afternoon hike to witness such amazing things? They came with their blankets and lunch baskets. They came to see.

But today, Jesus is not about miracles. He is about teaching. And it is hard to listen to him. The words are gentle but incisive. Like small scalpels, they deftly strip away the listeners’ harbored illusions. He says things like this:

  • Become humble like a child.
  • The last will be first and the first last.
  • If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off.
  • Forgive seventy times seven.

His words challenge everything they had learned, believed, based their lives on! Nobody got anywhere in life by behaving the way he described! Jesus can see their consternation. What they had relied on – all that had justified their self-satisfied successes – lay now at his feet like a sculptor’s remnants. 

Jesus pauses to allow a long silence to envelop their startled hearts. Quietly, he retires to a shaded grove to let his own heart settle. On the hillside, it is lunchtime. The large crowd bundles into small neighborly bands. They open their baskets and uncork their water-skins while the curative words begin the hard transformation of their souls.

But one man is not hungry – at least not for earthly food.  He slowly approaches Jesus in his solitude, perhaps with a shy glance that asks, “May I come closer?” Jesus nods for the young man to join him. Settling beside Jesus, he asks, “Master, what must I do to gain eternal life?”

There is no lack of directness in this man. He comes bluntly to the point. But there is, nonetheless, a blindness in him. Jesus has already taken its measure even as the young man approached. His garments distinguish him from the rest of the crowd.  His robe is fine linen not rude camel hair. He is not unshod, but rather wears sandals of expertly tooled leather. He carries no basket; it is held by a servant standing off at a modest but ready distance. He is so accustomed to his privilege that he is unaware of his difference from all those who surround him. He no longer sees his wealth, just as he no longer sees their poverty. 

Commemorative Cross for the 150th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Sisters of Mercy,
featuring the Works of Mercy. Designed by the late Robert McGovern

Jesus at once pities his obliviousness yet loves his sincerity. He tests the young man even though he already reads his heart. The questions are not intended to derail the man. Instead, Jesus leads him by a rabbinical path through the levels of spiritual commitment.

  • Do you understand true goodness?
  • Do you then keep the commandments?
  • Do you then seek perfection?
  • Will you then give everything you have to embrace it?

At this final question, the young man goes away sad, “for he had many possessions”. 

Here Jesus defines for us the ultimate sticking point for a nearly committed person: “All you possess”. In other words, can we give everything in Christlike love?

The Christian ethic teaches us that this kind of self-donation is the only path to joy and salvation. Yet, it is a perfection few achieve. This failure in achievement leads to broken marriages, fractured families, rescinded vows and unfulfilled hopes. What is the secret to meeting its challenge?

Jesus may have given an answer two chapters earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. A desperate father has brought his possessed son to the disciples, but they are unable to cast out the demon.  Jesus is frustrated with their impotence, saying, “How long must I be with you (before you learn)?” What is it that these disciples have yet to learn? Jesus goes on to tell them that if their faith were even the size of a tiny mustard seed, they would have the power, not only to cast out this demon, but to move mountains.

To live fully by faith is to live in the understanding that we possess nothing.  Everything we think we have, including life itself, is a pure gift of God’s mercy to us. Abandonment to such understanding makes us truly rich and renders us divinely powerful. This is the continuing lesson Jesus is teaching his beloved disciples. This is the secret of eternal life to which Jesus tries to lead the rich young man. This is the daily invitation God places before us within the circumstances of our lives. Will we embrace it or will we go away sad?

Music: Do It All for Love – Sigala

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