October 12, 2003
So how are you today? Are you happy? Do you look at your life and feel it is good? Don’t look at me as if I don’t have the right to ask you that question. In fact, that question is in a real sense the most important question. In the end it is not how much money we have, how many people like us, how much work we have finished; but rather how happy we are that matters. Although it might not seem so at first, this question is a profoundly religious question. Because, as all people of faith know, our ability to be happy, our ability to live life deeply is directly connected to our relationship with God. If we seek life and happiness, we cannot find them apart from the One who is the source of all life and happiness. We cannot answer this ultimate question apart from God.
So how do we connect with God? How can we find that joy? It is at the same time both easier and more difficult than we imagine. On one hand connecting with God is simple and accessible, on the other hand it is challenging and elusive.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, one of the great religious thinkers of the last century, has said that only three things are necessary for us to connect with God: God’s willingness to love us, the capacity of the human soul to receive that love, and a moment in which those two realities can meet. Moreover, Rabbi Heschel insists that there is not a time in our lives when any one of those three things is missing. God is always loving us, we are always capable of receiving that love, and there is always a moment in which we and God can connect. Therefore, in this sense, finding joy and connecting with God is easy. It is simple, immediately accessible, like breathing in and breathing out, as present to us as our own consciousness.
Yet at the same time connecting with God is challenging and elusive. That is what today’s gospel is about. For in this gospel, Jesus and a man who runs up to him try to connect. All three things that are necessary are there. Jesus is willing. He loves the man and offers to him joy and discipleship. The man is open. He has kept the commandments his entire life. He seeks Jesus out and asks for his direction and advice. The moment is there, when Jesus and the man meet, where joy is offered and deeply desired. And yet—nothing happens. The man walks away grieving. How is this possible? How is it possible to have life and joy so freely offered and so deeply desired and yet have nothing happen? The simple answer is: something else got in the way. The gospel says that the man left because he had many possessions. We do not know what those possessions were, but whatever they were, the man put them before what Jesus was offering. Whatever they were, they distracted him from the life and the joy that Jesus was offering and that he so deeply desired. That is the tragedy of today’s gospel. It is a tragedy in which you and I can share.
Look at this day. Could it be more beautiful? The color. The air. The temperature. Beauty surrounds us. Yet we can be so involved in our work, in our responsibilities, in our problems, in our aches and pains, that we miss the beauty that surrounds us. In missing that beauty, we miss the joy that it can give us and the God who offers it to us. Think of the people in your life who love you, who belong to you, who give you joy. Could you imagine greater blessings? Yet we can become so preoccupied by all we need to do before we go to bed tonight, by the things which make us angry, by the way we want our lives to be different, that we miss the love that surrounds us. In missing that love, we miss the joy that it can give us and the God who offers it to us. Look at the real opportunities that are present to you in your life right now: the opportunity to grow, the opportunity to understand, to serve, to laugh, to enjoy what you have been given. Yet we can be so deadened by the routine of living, by doing the next thing, by responding only to the next impulse, that all of those opportunities pass us by. When they pass us by, we have lost the joy they can bring and the God who offers them to us.
So how are you today? Are you happy? If you are not, that could change. In this very moment, God is offering you what you desire. In this moment, there is love and joy and beauty. Take it! Do not turn and walk away. Do not place anything between yourself and what God is offering. Step over the obstacles and accept the embrace that God offers you.
Letting Go So As to Receive
October 11, 2009
In our society, we view very few things as more important than money. Money is power. It is power to build up but also power to destroy.
An elderly man bought a lottery ticket and won a million dollars. His children found out about this before he did. They were afraid to tell him because he had a weak heart and they feared that the shock would kill him. So they went to the parish priest, who was a close friend of their father’s, to seek advice. The priest said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of this. I’ll test the waters.” So he went to his old friend. They sat down and had a drink. In the middle of their conversation the priest said, “Frank, I often wondered, what would you do if you won a million dollars?” Without a moment’s hesitation, the man said, “I would give it all to the church.” And the priest dropped dead of a heart attack!
Money is power–the power to build up and the power to destroy. It is probably because of our focus on money that we might conclude that today’s story about Jesus and the rich man is about wealth. The story does tell us that the man went away sad because he had many possessions. But today’s story is not really about money or possessions. It is about love and trust.
The love is amply testified in the story. We can see it in the enthusiasm of the rich man as he runs up to Jesus and kneels down before him. We can see it in his honest desire to find eternal life and his belief that Jesus can show him the way. We can see it in his goodness as he shares with Jesus that he has kept all of God’s commandments since his youth. Jesus, too, sees this man’s goodness and he loves him. There is every reason to believe that the man knew that Jesus loved him. But the tragedy of the story is that the man did not believe in that love enough. He did not believe enough in Jesus’ love to trust him.
Jesus asks him to give up all of his possessions and that is something that the man cannot do. But his failure to do so was not a failure of generosity, but a failure of trust. He wondered whether Jesus would cheat him, whether Jesus would sell him short. He should have been able to trust that if Jesus was asking him to let go of what he had, it was only because Jesus was going to give him something better. But he could not believe that. His possessions were good things, but Jesus wanted to give him more. Because he could not trust Jesus, he walks away, holding on to the possessions that he has but leaving behind what could have been much more.
This story is asks us to trust that when we must let go of good things in our life, God has not forgotten us. In fact God is preparing to offer us another good thing. Jesus asked the rich man to let go of his possessions, his material wealth. Perhaps God is asking us to have a similar attitude in this economic downturn. Many of us are struggling financially. But there are a variety of things of which we could be asked to let go. We could be asked to let go of a relationship, of a project, of a dream, of ability. As we grow older, we may have to let go of some of our energy, our mobility, or some aspect of our health. All of these things are good things, but as life moves on there are times when we can no longer hold on to them. It is then we must let them go. It is then we need to trust that God has not forgotten us and God will still bless us.
Richard Rohr crystallized this truth in a beautiful saying. Rohr says, “Sometimes the greatest obstacle to the next good thing that God wants to give us is the good thing we already possess.” We can become so possessive of what we already have, that we close ourselves off to what is yet to come. Rohr points to a pattern of the Christian life: letting go so as to receive.
Today’s gospel is not about possessions. It is about the freedom to trust and believe that when we must let go of one thing in our life, God will still remember us. This is what the rich man in the Gospel could not do. We are called to make a different choice. We are called to support one another in the faith that when we must let go of any good thing, God is still with us. When we must let go of something we would rather hold on to, it is only so that we can make room for God to bless us again.
You Cannot Have It All
October 14, 2012
Mark 10: 17-30
Today’s gospel is not about money. It’s about making choices. Yes, the man who comes up to Jesus has money. He has many possessions. But they are not his tragedy. His tragedy is thinking that he can choose everything. This man is already a good person. He follows all the commandments. He has resources by which he can accomplish many good things. But, what he wanted to do was simply add something more to the good things he already had: being a disciple of Jesus. Jesus says to him, “You can be my disciple. You can inherit eternal life. But first you have to let go of something you already have.” The man could not do this so he walks away sad. His failure is a reminder to us that we cannot have it all. In order to say yes to some things, we have to say no to others. Unless we are willing to pass on some very good things, we will not be able to attain the best things.
To say yes to the intimacy and support of marriage, we have to be willing to say no the freedom that the single life affords. In order to say yes to any man or woman to be our spouse, we have to be willing to say no to every other man and woman in the world. In order to say yes to a challenging job that would stretch us, we have to say no the comfort of an ordinary job that places few demands upon us. In order to say yes to a circle of friends that will support us our whole life long, we have to say no to many wonderful people for whom we do not have the time to develop relationships. We cannot have it all. This is why we must determine is what is most important in our life and then be willing to let go of those things which hold us back from attaining it.
Now this is not an easy movement. We could be overwhelmed like the Apostles in the gospel when they say, “Then who can be saved?” That’s why Jesus’ words are so important: “All things are possible for God.” When we have to let go of something we love for a higher purpose, when we have to say no to a good thing in order to attain something that is better, we might not have the strength to do that on our own. But we are not on our own. God is with us and all things are possible for God.
So, first we must look at our lives and discern what is really important. And then we must pray, “Lord, you have shown me what to do. Give me the strength to let go of whatever holds me back from choosing it. Show me how to say yes by learning to say no.”
When Jesus Asks for More
October 11, 2015
The man has been waiting for some time. Perhaps he heard Jesus’ teaching or saw Jesus perform a miracle, but he has decided that he wants to be Jesus’ disciple. And he can’t wait. So he keeps watching from the sidelines, waiting for an opportunity to meet Jesus and introduce himself. Finally, one day as Jesus is setting out on a journey, he sees his chance. He runs forward and kneels before Jesus and asks for eternal life. Now he expected that there would be some questions, and he handles them well, telling Jesus that he has followed all of God’s commandments from his youth. Things are going just as he had hoped. He can see that Jesus loves him and wants to accept him. And then it happens. Jesus asks him for more. He asks the man to sell his possessions. The man is not ready for this. Despite his enthusiasm and desire to follow Jesus, he begins to understand that he is not able to take the next step. So his face falls, and he goes away sad, because he realizes that he cannot not do what Jesus asks him to do.
Today’s gospel invites us to reflect: When has Christ asked us to do more than we were able to do? Has Christ asked us to leave an abusive or manipulative relationship? Has Jesus asked us to see the dignity in a person of a different sexual orientation? Has Jesus asked us to forgive someone who has hurt us or hurt the people we love? Jesus’ requests can often be demanding, and at one time or another we can find ourselves realizing that we are not able to do what Jesus wants us to do. And so, like the man in today’s gospel, we walk away sad.
Now if our obedience to Jesus’ commands depended only on us, that would be the end of the story. But our obedience does not depend on us alone. Later in the gospel Jesus tells his disciples that all things are possible with God. This is his way of saying that God has the power to change us, to change us into people who are more able to do what Jesus asks of us. If today we find ourselves unable to do what Jesus wants, it does not mean that it will always be that way. As we grow, as we think, as we learn from our mistakes, God’s grace is at work in us, changing us, making us new. So one day we may be able to do what Jesus asks.
The gospels never tell us whether the man in today’s story returned to Jesus, but I like to think he did. I like to believe that a day came when he again was eagerly watching for an opportunity from the sidelines, ran forward, and asked for eternal life. And this time, when Jesus asked for more, he was ready, and he followed him. This possibility should give us hope. If we find Jesus asking us for more than we can deliver, it is time to trust. It is time to believe, to believe that God can change us into more courageous, less judgmental, more forgiving people. In that case the next time that Jesus asks us for more, we will be ready, ready to walk after him as his disciple.
The Camel and the Needle
October 14, 2018
In one of the wineries in Napa Valley there is a life size statue of a camel. The camel is contemplating an excessively oversized needle, straining his neck to look through the needle’s eye. But even though the needle is tremendously enlarged, it is still clear that it is not big enough for the camel to put even his head through its eye. Yet by the expression on the camel’s face it is clear that he is convinced that he will find a way to pass his whole body through the needle’s eye. He will not. Camels are simply too big to pass through even greatly enlarged needles. Jesus uses this vivid image in today’s gospel because Jesus wants to make it clear that our standing in God’s love, our entry into eternal life is not dependent on any action of our part but only on the action of God. There is no amount of thinking or trying or squeezing or pushing on our part that can force us through that needle’s eye. The passage is only made possible by God’s grace.
This truth explains why the rich man in today’s gospel did not follow Jesus. This man was sincere and dedicated. From his youth he followed all of God’s commandments, and Jesus loved him for it. The man was willing to do more, but Jesus did not ask him to do anything. He asked him to let go of everything. He asked him to recognize that all of his actions, all of his accomplishments were not what was essential. What was essential was God’s action. He asked this man to admit that God’s doing was more important than his doing. That was a truth that the rich man could simply not face.
Like the rich man we are called by God to do our best and to meet our responsibilities. But unlike the rich man Christ asks us to remember that God’s doing is more important than our doing. We are called to be good parents, to use all of our wisdom and energy to see that our children mature and become responsible and generous adults. But God’s doing is more important than our doing. Once we have done what we can, it is time to hand our children to God, and trust that he will guide them to what is best and heal in them what is broken. We are called to be holy people. We therefore work to avoid attitudes of envy and prejudice and seeing others merely as the objects of our sexual desires. But fighting these attitudes is difficult, and sometimes we fail. Then we need to remember that God’s doing is more important than our doing. Then we must turn to God and say, “I have done what I can, now it is up to you to save me.” God expects us to build a better world. So, we give our time to serve the poor. We become involved politically to work against injustice. We take up causes such as prison reform. But the efforts we make seem so small compared to the issues that surround us. Again, it is important to remember that what God does is more important than what we do.
Camels cannot pass through the eye of a needle. We cannot on our own do all the good that is necessary. But we are not on our own. God is working with us and through us. And that is why every camel needs to know that all things are possible with God.