A young man approached Jesus and said,
"Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?
...All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?"
We often consider Jesus' response to the young man. Let's take a minute to consider his questions.
He obviously came from a God-fearing, pious community, comprised of family, synagogue and neighbors. Accustomed to a disciplined life he recited his prayers several times a day, ate by kosher standards, rested on the Sabbath, associated with Jewish people, avoided contact with gentiles, and studied the Law and the Prophets with the rabbis in the synagogue. His imagination, contacts and world were contained within the Jewish culture of his time.
There was a time when, broadly speaking, many American Catholics lived in a similar fashion. Raised in large households with many siblings, they attended Catholic schools in predominantly Catholic neighborhoods, attended Mass every Sunday, abstained from meat on Friday, fasted during Lent and Advent, and took great pride in their American citizenship. Their churches and parochial schools were segregated by ethnicity -- Poles with Poles and Irish with Irish, etc. Their most salacious reading was the list of banned movies posted by the Legion of Decency. Many remained within that religious climate throughout their Catholic secondary schools; some, into their colleges and universities. Like Saint Matthew's young man, their imagination, contacts and world were contained by strict cultural norms.
There was, to be sure, mischief in both cultures, that of our Jewish student and of the American Catholic. We can suppose many American young "scholars" experimented with alcohol, cigarettes and "premarital" sex.
But there was also the question, "What must I do to gain eternal life?" The goal of Catholic education was to create saints; or, more simply, to go to heaven. Many older Catholic still believe that is the purpose of our religion. They can recite the catechism, "God made me to know, love and serve him in this world and to be with him in the next." When the young man asked Jesus, the Rabbi recited the standard answer, "You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery...."
But these two cultures, similar in so many ways, leave room for the same unrest; and some students will reply to Jesus, All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?"
The Catholic youth of our tradition, in the 1950's and the 2010's, is often encouraged to consider a religious vocation as a priest, deacon, sister or brother. They might also hear the invitation to chaste heterosexual marriage or chaste single life.
But there are more choices in our complex world that must be considered. Do they pursue an education and formation in business, military, government, academia, the arts, sports or sciences? How does the disciple of Jesus contribute to a culture that is sometimes hostile to religion and resolutely secular?
As we ponder these questions we realize the importance of a religious/spiritual infrastructure. No one lives alone; no one makes life style choices in isolation. The disciple of Jesus will always be an active member of a living Church.
And that brings us to Jesus' reply,
If you wish to be perfect, go,
sell what you have and give to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me."
The community follows the Lord by renouncing a materialistic lifestyle and giving to the poor. When we build a church it should honor the Lord and not its rich benefactors. We invite the disenfranchised to join us in worship.
At one time, our responsibility to the poor was defined more simply -- we give to them and expect nothing of them. That one-sided generosity imitated our understanding of God who gives unconditionally and with superabundant, infinite resourcefulness. God is like the fruit tree which feeds the farmer who cultivates the tree, the bugs and worms which infest it, and the hungry earth which devours its fallen fruit. So long as we have plenty we can give plenty.
But there are problems with that paradigm. Donors, aware of the needs of the poor, overlook their own. If we would give to the poor, we do well to learn from the poor. Especially, they want a say in what kind of assistance is offered. Too often the wealthy give something useless out of their surplus. They don't ask,"What do you need?" or "How can I help you." They say, "Here is what you need; here is what I am willing to give you. Take it or leave it. I want no further contact with you." And, just as often, the poor want no further contact with that condescension.
The wealthy young man was seriously disappointed when he heard the Lord's invitation. He only wanted to touch base with the Rabbi and continue his spiritual quest with little actual change. Mostly he wanted Jesus' approval for the religious life he was already leading. Real sacrifice was not in the cards. Real trust in God for his material, emotional, and spiritual needs was not an option.
The Lord invited him to step out of his religious, safe and prosperous culture. He should meet the uncertainty of poverty. He could bring only his willingness. He would find a community defined not by status but by faith.
But he went away sad for he had many possessions.