This parable is probably the most striking to me. I’ve heard this parable, along with many others, a lot throughout my Christian journey. I heard this as a Protestant, I heard this as a Roman Catholic, and I hear it now as a Ruthenian Rite Catholic. It is a parable I will hear at least once every year. But why does it strike me?
We all know the story from Matthew 19:
16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’[c] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
The thing is that every single pastor I had ever met had focused on one thing. That the guy was too greedy to follow Jesus. He liked his possessions too much to even seek after eternal life. Every sermon or homily I ever listened to was a scoff-fest. We would all listen disapprovingly, and then the pastor or priest would lay into his greed. And I agreed with them. The man knew what he had to do and rejected it to keep his possessions. Most sermons never called on US to change but rather chastized “the rich” in our society who choose money over God.
Then, one Sunday, the priest of my parish read the gospel and began the homily. This homily stands out above all of his other homilies since he had the tendency of putting me to sleep. He was so boring and I could predict what he was going to say. “Gospel was about this and that and this relates to the eucharist because blah blah and in the eucharist we can…” But on this day, his rhetoric was somewhat different. I remember snapping out of a daydream (I was 16 at the time) and he said “here is a man who’s observance of the commandments could put all of us to shame.” And that statement struck me. We were so busy accusing him of greed that we ignored the part where he had never broken a commandment. His issue wasn’t greed. If he was greedy, he’d have been violating the commandment to not covet. In fact, he obeyed the law to “love his neighbor as himself.” This means that he was even GENEROUS with his possessions and gave some things away to help others.
He was more righteous than the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t chastise him for deception or for only following the letter. Jesus recognized in him a genuine heart that wanted to serve Him. But he was too attached to the world. He helped the poor, but he also enjoyed his money. He liked the licit pleasures of this world too much. He figured he could serve God while maintaining a comfortable standard of living. Even after the man walked away, Christ didn’t condemn him. Christ said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. After the disciples noted the impossibility of that statement, Christ said that with God, it is possible. Essentially, it is possible, but it will be very difficult. But Christ can save him.
The ironic thing is, that all of us scoffing at him are essentially in the same situation. Everyone reading this has access to an internet browser, probably lives indoors, and probably hasn’t genuinely faced starvation. Even more ironic is that everyone scoffing at the churches I went to all had cars and owned homes. Some had 2 cars. Some had fancy cars. Some had fancy homes. Then they come to church and hear the Gospel messages. And when they (myself included) heard this call to give up EVERYTHING, they make excuses to why it doesn’t apply to them. And guess what. They are NOT wrong. Nowhere does Christ say that owning property is a sin. No saint has ever said that rich people can’t get into heaven. There have been some really well-off people who have been canonized. In fact, many Popes who went on to become saints lived in a very luxurious Vatican. They spent their days sitting on a papal throne, being carried about the streets like a king.
The issue isn’t a question of sinfulness but rather of theosis. We can begin our transformation now or after our death. It’s going to happen sooner or later. The difference is that it is easier for us to do it while alive since we can use our bodies to help perfect our souls, but while dead, it is a lot harder to purify our souls without a body. That is why it is said that being present at a single liturgy in life will benefit one’s soul more than hundreds of liturgies offered for them after death. That is why it is hard.
But financial possessions aren’t the only thing that tethers us to this world and prevent our theosis. What about family or friends? What about our desire to be successful? What about our education and careers? Every person, unless they are a monk or nun who has literally given up everything and has no possessions, spending their days at a monastery praying and helping others, is that rich young man. We have to give up even our relationships with our family and friends if we want to be someone who follows Christ directly.
That is the purpose of that parable. Many of us are that rich man, unable to part with our possessions, while still upholding the commandments. And this parable is actually a message of hope. Even though we can’t part with everything to cut ourselves off from the world, God says that it will be hard, but not impossible for us to enter into the kingdom of heaven. The Church teaches that those who repent and try to seek after Christ will be saved. And for those of us who never get around to abandoning all of our possessions to enter into monastic life, maybe as we go through purgatory in the next life, we will realize how foolish we were for holding on to something that we were destined to lose anyway.