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A tough sell.

Sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me, Jesus told the rich man. Does he ask us to do the same?

IN A MANNER of speaking, I'm filthy rich. I live in one of the best countries ever invented in the history of human society. I recall my immigrant grandfather saying at tax time every year that he'd gladly pay twice as much for the privilege of living here.

And I'm with him. I've got freedom coming out of my ears, rights that I don't even know about, opportunities that were virtually unknown to most people who've lived on this planet so far. I am free to marry, divorce, or remain single; work here or there or not at all; further my education or sit in front of the tube for the rest of my life and never think another thought. I can choose my political leanings, have my own opinion, and speak it out loud, too. I can believe in God, Buddha, Mother Nature, myself, or nothing without fear of government censure. No one will force me to eat pork, bow to state-supported gods, or take away my right to tofu if I decide I am a vegan.

I am not a vegan. And I have lots of rights I don't even want, to be honest. Like the right to buy a gun later this week and shoot it off. Or the right to abortion, which would break more than my heart to exercise. You, on the other hand, may be a passionate vegetarian and a gun owner, or divided on the issue of abortion. In this country, neither of us will be put in jail for our beliefs.

Being so very rich, I can move anywhere I choose. I've lived in five states, traveled through most of 50. OK, maybe I'm not all that rich: I go Greyhound and leave the driving to them. But relatively speaking, I've been given every advantage that human beings long for. I have a sweet little apartment, my health is holding up, more people like me than dislike me, and I have rarely gone to bed hungry. I even get along with my folks, for crying out loud. Life is almost too good.

So I feel a little queasy whenever Jesus encounters the rich man in Mark 10. This fellow runs up to Jesus with such reverence and sincerity, it hurts to watch. He kneels down in front of the famous teacher so that Jesus can't budge until he deals with him. And maybe just a little too humbly, he asks the "good teacher" what he must do to gain eternal life.

Jesus balks at the address, perhaps sensing that it's over the top. He reminds the fellow on his knees that God alone is good and recites a few of the Commandments to jog his memory of his catechism.

The fellow looks up, without a trace of irony, and says he's always kept the Commandments since childhood. (One wonders if he's the long-lost twin of Saint Paul, who also claimed perfection under the Law of Moses.)

Here's where the story really becomes touching: Jesus looks at the man and is moved with love for him. Jesus sees something in this guy, beyond the affected address and the posture of submission, that is for real. The guy may be a little on the dramatic side, but he's a good person at heart. He loves God and is putting his faith in Jesus as a teacher of goodness. He wants to do the right thing. He's really trying.

And maybe Jesus, in his line of work, sees a lot of phonies--people who are very diligent about being religious but not very interested in the will of his Father. People who bow and scrape in front of altars and then go about their business, indifferent to the poor, unforgiving of their parents or children. This fellow, however, is bowed before Jesus. And he's asking what he should do. Jesus' heart fills with tenderness, and so he issues an invitation that very few have answered: Come, follow me. Sell what you have, give to the poor, and join me on the way.

We can believe that the man was earnest in his intention when he ran after Jesus. He may not be quite as perfect as he thinks he is, but he's at least an attentive disciple of the Law.

He's not a notorious Law-breaker, at any rate, and we can imagine that he's even a charitable man, caring for the poor insofar as the Law recommends. He's been really careful about coloring in between the lines, morally speaking. He hasn't made the sort of mistakes that have filled many of his friends with regret.

So what was he thinking of, when he knelt before Jesus and asked his question? Did he want confirmation that he was on the right track? Did he want Jesus to commend him for a job well done? Or was he sincere about wanting to be presented with a greater challenge? Maybe he felt he had graduated from obedience to the Law, that it had grown too easy for him. He was prepared for the next level of responsibility in the spiritual life. What did he expect Jesus to tell him? To pray longer hours? To practice mortification of the body?

Whatever it was, he was certainly caught off guard by Jesus' reply. Sell everything? The Teacher couldn't be serious. then wander off with this band of--excuse me, but it's true--smelly fishermen? And where exactly were they headed, and how long would they be gone?

The man dropped his fervent gaze and looked away. He didn't know how to answer Jesus. He was speechless at the idea. It's not that he said no. He just couldn't even conceive of it.

Scripture tells us that he wandered away a much sadder man than when he came. Jesus was sad, too. It was heart-breaking to see how even a person with the best possible intentions may be deeply possessed by the things of this world.

Did Jesus really want the man to sell all his possessions? Does Jesus expect this from us as well? That's the real question beneath our concern about this would-be disciple. This fellow could have been Frederick, the 13th apostle. He could have had epistles named after him. Instead, he is remembered as a nameless man who went away sad. Does our discipleship depend on our fulfilling the mission that he abandoned? Is this the line that Jesus draws in the sand for all who would follow him?

IF SO, THE CHURCH HAS GONE 20 CENTURIES DOWN THE wrong path. Christians should be known today as that nomadic tribe of peasants who don't have two nickels to rub together. All of Catholicism would look like the first generation of Franciscans in the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon--barefoot, cheerful, accompanied by a Donovan sound track.

I like Donovan. That part doesn't bother me. But it seems unlikely that Jesus preached complete renunciation of worldly goods as a standard for his followers. He was clear about matters of justice and big into forgiveness. He exhorted crowds to champion the poor, pray much, trust God, and use what they had in service to others. He taught humility, generosity, attention to the truth, and love, above all. He warned about the need for sacrifice and of the suffering that would inevitably find those who imitated him too perfectly. Jesus may have been an idealist, but he was also a realist. He taught the way of the cross because he knew that a sinful world can only tolerate so much truth before it silences the truth-teller.

But he didn't teach total renunciation of goods as a requirement for discipleship. When Jesus issued this invitation to one particular fellow, he did it out of love. He did it to raise the bar for someone who asked him outright to raise it. He did it to show our friend Frederick that there is always so much more to do than give simple obedience to the Law. We may never think of ourselves as perfect in discipleship, because there is always more room to grow beyond where we are. If we begin to feel self-satisfied at having colored within the lines of obedience our whole lives, then we must consider the next bend in the road, which could be radical. If we've grown used to charitable giving, then we should double our gift, until our hair stands on end. Once we've put the risk back into discipleship, we're back on the right road.

When where we are becomes too easy, it's possible we've stalled and are not moving forward at all. Christianity is organic. It's either living or dying within us. Plateaus are dangerous. We can't set our spiritual lives on cruise control and expect the life of Christ to remain viable within us.

Jesus understood this. Frederick didn't. The pilgrim way is the only way to be a follower of Jesus. Pilgrimage is not traveling to a holy place, as a local bishop once pointed out, but is always a journey to meet God. Pilgrimage assumes the language of travel, movement in the direction of greater holiness. You can be a pilgrim and never leave your hometown. But you can't go on pilgrimage and remain the same.

THE GOSPEL DOESN'T TELL US WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR nameless friend. Like so many who emerge from obscurity and encounter Jesus, this fellow goes away and melts back into history. Most folks assume he was broken by this unexpected challenge and returned to his possessions more fiercely attached than ever. Maybe he even lost his zeal for the Law and grew lax altogether.

But the gospel doesn't say this, so we are free to dream another destiny for this seeker. I'd like to think he went home and sulked awhile, but not too long. Maybe he raised his head and started to look at what he was really clinging to: four walls and a roof, some trophies of his achievements, a very pleasant and comfortable life on the sunny side of the street. He may have glanced out the window of his upper room in time to see Jesus and the 12 apostles vanish down the road and out of town. They were going someplace. He wasn't.

And maybe he looked down the opposite way and saw the poverty that never seemed to go away at the far corner of the city. He couldn't make it disappear, even if he sold every thing he had, down to the last silver spoon. But he could help a few families. He could make a difference for a handful of children. He could promote a few struggling businesses and change the ledgers from red to black.

Sell everything he had? The idea made him dizzy and frightened, No, he wouldn't do that, couldn't. Nor could he bring himself to chase after Jesus and his band and ask to go along for a little while, though not for keeps.

Sell everything? How about selling half; no, a quarter. He'd sell a quarter. Much better than a tithe and far more than anyone would ask of him. Anyone, that is, except Jesus.

I'd like to think that the rich man resolved to distribute a quarter of his assets to the poor that day. And that he really did become Frederick the 13th apostle before his life was over. He didn't follow Jesus out of town, but he did become a pilgrim after all.

Of course, I write all of this from inside my very nice apartment, spoon-fed on freedoms, rich with opportunity. I'd like to think that someday I might be coaxed out of a portion of my wealth, a hair-raising portion. If Frederick can do it, I reason, so can someone like me.

ALICE CAMILLE, writer and adjunct faculty member at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California. She is the author of God's Word Is Alive! and the scripture series "Exploring the Sunday Readings," both available through Twenty-Third Publications.
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Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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