Rich Young Man

Excerpt from the book "The Mustard Seed" by: Fr. Joseph Gardon, S.J.
The three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – tell the challenging story of the young man who wanted to be holy. He had been good in the past. He told Jesus that he had always kept the commandments, but now he wanted to do more: he wanted to be better. Jesus was impressed with the young man. As Mark tells us: “Jesus looked on him with love.” And then He told the young man: “If you want to do more, if you want to be holier, sell everything you have and give it to the poor and come, follow me.’ Then Mark tells us that the young man became very sad and went away, because he had many possessions.

In this story of the rich young man, we see the three stages of all growth in holiness – the path we have to follow as well if we want to be better people.

The first stage is what we might call essential holiness – keeping the commandments. That is quite an accomplishment in itself, and most of us have to struggle to maintain this basic holiness. Regular Mass and prayer, fundamental love and acceptance of one another, not to cheat or steal or lie – these are not easy things to do in our human weakness, in our love of pleasure and comfort. But they are the essentials and the beginning of all holiness.

The highest level of holiness is to follow Christ. But to do that, to make that final surrender of love to the Lord, we have to get rid of all the baggage that gets in the way between us and God. The spiritual writers use the word “detachment.” We have to be detached from the persons, places and things that get between us and God, because they block our love and growth in holiness. We have to eliminate in our lives everything – a person, places or things – which is keeping us from becoming holier people. We have to get rid of the sinful relationships, the friends or the sinful actions that are dragging us down.

But not all of us can do that, because it is hard to give up all those things that we like so much.

Jesus was pleased with the young man and challenged him to rise to this second stage of holiness. He said, “Go sell what you have and give it to the poor.’ But the young man couldn’t do it. He had too many attachments, too much excess baggage. Matthew and Mark says he was very rich. Luke says he came from one of the leading families of the town. He was a good man, but he had too much baggage to follow the Lord all the way.

To simplify our attachment and to get rid of our excess baggage, we have to sacrifice. We have to give it up. As one of the writers says: “We have to die a little bit.” That’s a hard thing to do, and in the daily choice between pleasure and sacrifice, pleasure almost always wins out. We are good people, we do love the Lord, but we also want the trip to Hong Kong or the new dress. It isn’t a question of being good or bad, because we are good. It’s a question of being better. And that’s what the rich young man couldn’t handle- the sacrifice needed in being better.

Once we have simplified our lives and minimized our attachments, once we have learned to ‘give things up to the Lord,” we are ready to the third stage of holiness, which is to follow Christ. This stage is the challenge of total surrender to what the Lord wants- a long life or a short one, success or failure, sickness or health. They’re really all the same, because the only thing that matters is what God wants.

Mary had that surrender when she said “yes” to the angel’s message at Nazareth. Christ had it in the garden that night before He died when He prayed to His Father: “Don’t do what I want. Do what You want.” Samuel had it in the temple when he said: “Here I am, Lord, what do you want me to do?” One of the most difficult things in the world is to tell God: Never mind what I want. You do what is best.” But that’s what it means to “follow the Lord.”

Following the Lord means openness to what God wants from us, and not a stubborn insistence that our way is best. It means self-transcendance. We have to go above and beyond our own petty needs and selfish desires. Following the Lord means being vulnerable, because surrender to the Lord often means that we will be hurt or rejected, or have to suffer in one way or another.

How the young man responded to the challenge of detachment and surrender changed his whole life. He could have been better, but he chose not to. And we ought to, since God is never satisfied when we are just good. He always wants us to be better.

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