Saturday, August 1, 2009

Can a Good Catholic Be Wealthy? Part III of IV - The Rich Young Man

I venture to make a hunch that 99.9% of Christians worldwide is familiar with the story of the Rich Young Man in the gospels. You know, the story about the man who goes up to Jesus and asks what he must do to gain eternal life, and then goes home disappointed because he was very rich and didn't want to give up all his belongings? See, wasn't I right? You do know the story! This story used to bother me, not a lot, but enough. And I bet it bothers some of you, too. Let's take a look at the story as Matthew narrates it in 19:16-22.
Now someone approached him and said, "Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?" He answered him, "Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." He asked him, "Which ones?" And Jesus replied, " 'You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother'; and 'you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"The young man said to him, "All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "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." When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
Why does this story bother me? It's quite obvious! Jesus says, "it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven." Uh oh! I guess I shouldn't really be rich then. Actually, that wasn't really the scary part. The scariest part was that it appeared that in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven, we need to sell all of our belongings and give them to the poor.

Let's hold our horses a little bit. One thing that I learned in my biblical courses is that in order to perform exegesis on a passage, meticulous analysis of each and every sentence is required. Let's backtrack a little and see what actually happened. First, the young man approaches Jesus and asks him how he could gain eternal life. Jesus replies by telling him to follow the commandments. That's it! There's no mention of giving up all of one's belongings or anything to that effect. If giving up one's belongings were a prerequisite for entrance into the kingdom of heaven, just think about how many people would be left out!

So, what is the real message of this story? Let's continue with the passage. After the first exchange, the young man continues to probe Jesus. His motive is unclear, but he does seem to be genuine. Jesus then tells him that if he wanted to be perfect, then he should give up his belongings and follow Him. It is true that we should all aim to be perfect, but it is also true that not many of us will ever attain that lofty level.

Let's continue this thought along the lines of vocation. St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 7:25-31 that it is better for one to remain single because one is spared of worldly worries. So, becoming a priest or a religious is a more direct route to God. However, we know that not everyone is called to become a priest or a sister. Nor is married life an unholy way of living. In fact, married life is really good (I can attest to that)! It's just that a married person has a lot more to worry about aside from his faith. I, for example, need to worry about my job, the economy, what kind of flowers to get my wife for our anniversary, whether to buy pampers or huggies, etc., etc. The same goes for wealth. Once a person attains a certain amount of wealth, he needs to figure out how to make use of it for the good of his family, friends, and society. One thing that is important to note is that these worries are not necessarily bad. If you have these worldly worries, it shows that you are being a responsible person. However, they do detract us from the ultimate good, that is God. That is why St. Paul tells us that it is better to remain single and also why Matthew recounts this story to us.

Therefore, the message of this gospel story is the same as that of Part I and II of this series: it is alright to be wealthy, but God must ultimately come first. The young man, wishing to be perfect, was not able to leave everything behind, and therefore, chose a more indirect and imperfect route to the kingdom of heaven. But it is possible for him to get there, just like the rest of us sinners, because "for God all things are possible" (Matt 19:26).