The Sadness of Possessions

Monday and Tuesday in the 20th Week of Ordinary Time: Ezekiel 28:1-10, Matthew 19:16-30.

The end of Chapter 19 in the Gospel of St. Matthew must really stick in the craw of those who believe in the so-called prosperity gospel. This predominantly evangelical belief system is a type of vending machine theology: if you strictly obey God’s commandments, you will be blessed with wealth, health, and power. Let’s dive into these passages to see what Jesus teaches us through the rich young man and why this might completely refute the prosperity gospel.

‘For he had great possessions’ (1894), George Frederic Watts | Creative Commons, courtesy the Tate Museum.

This man approaches Jesus and asks, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” On the surface, this is a question that likely orbits within each of us as we contemplate our spiritual lives. We hear of the promise of eternal life many times from Jesus, and we’re Christian, so it follows that eternal life is really the goal here. But notice the transactional nature of the young man’s mindset: I do a good deed and get eternal life. He is looking to secure — to possess — eternal life. This should be our first clue that something is not right, as well as a reminder that we must be thoughtful in how we phrase our searchings, even silently in our hearts, truly asking for only what keeps us on the Way that is Christ.

Jesus responds incisively, not to the man’s question but to his mindset: “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good.” Christ must gently correct and re-orient him because what the man calls “good” is drastically off-target. Like many, the man sees good and evil as adjectives that describe works we do, perhaps even thoughts that we have. Jesus has come to re-educate humanity that “good” is not an adjective or an abstract noun but a person. “God is good” might be an approbation but more deeply it is a statement of fact. Anything that exists as a good thing exists that way because God is being made manifest through it. God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the source and reality of all goodness. So, it’s almost nonsensical for the young man to ask Jesus “what good deed must I do” as if he is the one creating goodness in a deed. As I contemplated all of the verses that follow, I realized that Jesus’s answer is contained here in this first statement: if we can truly recognize that God is the only one who is good, then we will devote everything to this source of goodness and eventually achieve our unification with him (i.e., eternal life).

Jesus then tells him, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Jesus is effectively slowing the man down, taking him back several steps. He does not answer his question about how to “have eternal life” but instead answers how he can simply begin the path, to “enter into life.” The man is eager, but not aware of his own spiritual infancy. 

The man expresses his eagerness by rushing forward, as if not hearing Jesus’s calm re-direction. He demands to know which commandments to keep. Interestingly, Jesus replies with the last six commandments that concern oneself and one’s neighbor but not with the first four that have to do with God. Why? I think that it’s helpful to remind ourselves that Jesus is telling him how to “enter into life,” which has much to do with orienting oneself in the manner God intends for us. Jesus meets the man on his own worldly turf. Perhaps he is leading him slowly to a realization.  

The man claims that he is already on this path: “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Note, though, that his question again uses the language of possession. He wants to secure something, to have it, to own it.

At this point, our Lord challenges the core of the man’s tainted mindset: “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.” Like so many conversations with the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus speaks to the need for the Chosen People to go deeper than a surface adherence to rules. He urges them not just to a conversion of heart towards God, but also to a radical abandonment of their own worldly concerns as they let the goodness and truth of God infuse them and explode into the world as selfless charity. For this rich young man, as with many if not most of us, the rubber hits the road when it comes to wealth and possessions. 

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1889), Heinrich Hofmann | Wikimedia Commons.

But let’s not misunderstand Jesus. It’s not just letting go of wealth for the sake of renouncing earthly possessions. This, as we see in Buddhism, retains the desire to bring enlightenment to oneself, to possess it, to have that enlightenment as a personal trait. Jesus is much more radical than this and promises us so much more. The real Christian transformation is that you empty yourself, forget your own needs and desires, in order to be filled by something new that is fundamentally not you and can never be possessed by you. God, the ultimate source and reality of all goodness, is the One who can fill you, the One you constantly strive to get closer to, the One whose endless generosity you can share profligately about the world in charity.

Note Christ’s last sentence: “Then come, follow me.” The man is not done when he sells his possessions and gives to the poor. No, he has just begun his glorious journey to God. And, with what must have seemed like astonishing directness to his listeners, Jesus points to Himself as God-on-earth, both a man who walks the way to the Father and the divine God who gifts humanity with the end of the reign of death.

But the young man doesn’t seem to grasp even half of this. Psychologically, this message is devastating for him: “When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (NRSV translation). Indeed, for anyone who views their relationship to life as a to-do list, a wall awaiting plaques of accomplishment, or a book detailing many conquests, this message is a stark wake-up call. God does not want us to possess anything. He wishes for us to wipe our minds of the drive to own, to possess, to accomplish for ourselves. He wants us to replace this drive with the thirst to love Him and love others. True love of God, by which Christ means a love that orients our every waking moment, provides us with superhuman endurance, true peace and true happiness. Nothing we can possess in our world can compare with this.

After 2,000 years of Christian monasticism and the ecclesiastic vow of poverty, this message isn’t exactly alien for us to hear. We’ve had some time to let it sink into our culture. But not the apostles! After the young man leaves, Jesus goes on to instruct His apostles: “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.” The Jewish culture of the time absolutely associated wealth and prosperity with blessings from God (and here we notice an early version of the prosperity gospel). God may very well bestow prosperity upon people as a blessing — who am I to deny the wonderful and mysterious works of the Lord? But prosperity comes with a great cost as well (perhaps, then, it’s a curse or a trial?). Christ’s strong statements here speak to the dangers inherent in wealth. On the heels of the interaction with the rich young man, it’s clear that the dangers lie in seeing possessions as an end in themselves, in being sidetracked by the accumulation of things and wealth and thereby fostering a selfishness that is offensive to God. If one dies rich, chances are that one held onto wealth and possessions to the very end and did not truly convert to God. Thus, it is hard for such a person to enter the Kingdom.

Our lectionary states, “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, ‘Who then can be saved?'” Fr. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis translates this as “the disciples recoiled with fear” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Volume 3, 185). He writes, “It is too little to say that they were ‘greatly astonished,’ because this verb refers to an upset in one’s rational capacity at confronting the unexpected. The context calls for something more visceral. … ‘To be panic-struck’ or ‘driven out of one’s senses’ is closer to the contextual meaning, since a clear element of fear is here present as the disciples suddenly see salvation itself hanging in the balance” (185-186). Their worldview was dominated by maintaining a national Jewish identity in the face of occupation by invaders; wealth signified power whereas poverty signified disgrace and being forsaken by God. Yet here is the Savior telling them that a rich man will find it hard to enter the Kingdom of God. Not only was salvation in the balance, their entire system of what signifies worthiness was being turned on its head.

Despite the apostles’ astonishment, this is an ages-old pitfall. Some 600 years earlier, Ezekiel passes down a harsh warning, as heard in Tuesday’s first reading: “And yet you are a man, and not a god, however you may think yourself like a god … By your wisdom and your intelligence you have made riches for yourself; You have put gold and silver into your treasuries. By your great wisdom applied to your trading you have heaped up your riches; your heart has grown haughty from your riches.” The problem that God points out through Ezekiel is that riches corrupt a person’s heart and make that person imagine personal godliness. Many preachers and writers make pains to point out that there is nothing inherently wrong in wealth. While this might be true (although below I argue it is not), I think the point is overplayed. We are all-too-soothed by these words that let us off the hook from the condemnation of being attached to ourselves, this world, and our power within it. So, yes, gold is not the devil; it’s a shiny, inanimate metal and it has historically been put to good use to adorn holy and sacred things. Such adornment is meant to be a sign — one that falls far short of the true, transcendent glory of God, but something acknowledging that true wealth, honor, power, and glory belongs to the Creator.

The Userer, ca. 1766-1774, after George van der Mijn (1721-1763) | Creative Commons, courtesy the British Museum. The poem under the title reads: “From Widows and from Orphans drain’d, / Old Gripus hugs the Store he’s gain’d — / Yet thinks his Money badly lent, / Unless he gets full Cent per Cent.”

But wealth is inseparable from possession. The definition of wealth is an amassment of valuables. In other words, wealth cannot exist without it being possessed. The syllogism is simple: if wealth is by definition possession, and if possession is (by Jesus’s definition) an obstacle to unity with God, then wealth is an obstacle to unity with God. Is wealth really not evil in itself? I’d argue it is because it operates on the level of covetousness and personal gain that is contrary to God’s law.

OK, what about gold and jewels, are they evil? Maybe not as an ornament, but as something that operates within a system of value and personal enrichment, then maybe that should give us pause. We can’t pretend that these “valuables” are just lying about the world and existing without an overwhelming human urge to use them for influence, power, authority, security, etc. (it’s called economics). Then let’s consider that when we hide valuable things from view, we commit an act of selfishness, distrust, and subterfuge. We don’t leave valuables out and about. Today, we don’t even use paper currency, much less gold and silver coinage. We use plastic cards hidden in wallets and bags, worthless in themselves, but carrying the weight of sometimes unimaginable power. These worthless cards and the stigma/badge of “creditworthiness” are manifestations of a world where wealth has taken on such importance that it defines our personal value. Your wealth determines your nutrition, safety, housing, education, and social status. What I’m getting at is that these inanimate things are no longer inanimate when they comprise our way of living in the world with one another. They become levers of power, ways of discrimination, and traps of self-absorption. So, I would argue, not only does “wealth” have a valence that weighs heavily on the side of evil, but so do “precious” things, money, credit, etc. They are evil because they are used to replace and fundamentally degrade the value of a human, of a person.¹

But into this world enters Jesus Christ, patiently telling those who will listen that wealth and possessions have absolutely nothing to do with true value (personal or otherwise). Leiva-Merikakis puts this nicely: “God’s revelation of his deepest self by becoming poor in our sight means that the riches that belong to him by his nature as God are of a wholly different order from what the world ordinarily means by ‘riches.’ Therefore, for us to become ‘rich’ through Christ’s poverty means becoming rich as God is rich and not as the world and our fallen nature envision being rich” (188).

So, in answer to the apostles’ “Who then can be saved?”, “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For men this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ Let’s first note that St. Matthew records how Jesus’s “answer” begins with Him looking at them. At this point, after their panic-struck recoiling with fear about salvation and their worldview being turned on its head, this is less of a Q&A and more of a moment when the apostles have realized they are nothing and are psychologically adrift. They are not yet the heroes and martyrs as we conceive of them. By noting how Jesus first “looked at them,” St. Matthew guides us to imagine the calm, powerful gaze of the Savior and Master, stilling their fear, feeding them the truth. And this truth is an unblinking reiteration that people cannot “save” themselves through any kind of action or possession or quality. People must simply empty themselves and walk to God with an open heart ready to do his will. It is God who embraces us, who does the saving. 

The Penitent Apostle Peter (1617-1618), Anthony van Dyck | Wikimedia Commons. I find it very heartening to think of the apostles as having very human frailty and flaws as they are portrayed in the gospels.

Jesus reassures them that they, in their nothingness and psychological angst, will have an honored place by His side in heaven simply by being His apostles. He explains that all who give of themselves, their families, and their possessions for the sake of His name “will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.” His message is clear: the order of things is reversed. Worldly wealth is not eternal, spiritual wealth. Amassing things for oneself decreases spiritual value while giving up what one has increases spiritual value. This is why he ends with “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” The inversion of our worldly order must be firmly understood if we are to grasp Christ’s message.

On a personal note, I’m no less susceptible to the psychological angst and panic than the apostles over this message. Apart from making alarming statements to my wife about the spiritual dangers of saving for retirement, I’m still struggling to find out how I can separate myself from attachments to money and possessions as I turn fully toward God. I think we all need prayers as we make this journey. 

 

¹ Lest you worry that this paragraph smacks too much of socialism, Marxism, or any other -ism, let me assure you that I hold these systems in as much contempt as capitalism (or patriotism!). In the end, they’re all Godless ideologies. They all see this world as the ultimate in importance. They all seek to give people a certain type of gain or wealth or value here in this world while alive, because (as the unspoken finale of each attests), there’s nothing else, nothing greater. They all operate in a mode where possession (of money, land, power, etc.) is the only meaningful mode they can imagine. How sad! And what an amazing and needed antidote Christianity, with all of its mystical transcendence, offers us. The Christian’s very first admission of faith is that something way greater than what we see or can possess — God — wants us to join Him in heaven. From day one, the Christian operates outside of ideologies of the world and joins himself or herself to a mystical reality beyond our understanding.

 

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