“Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” In these words, this Sunday’s Gospel gives the heart of Catholic thinking about wealth and economics.
Jesus loves the man. It is for his sake that he demands poverty. So much of our political discourse is utilitarian: we focus on how best to accomplish goals out there, but we ignore what is happening in the human heart. Jesus looks to the heart. He calls the rich man to love the poor not for the poor man’s sake, but for the rich man’s. He calls the rich man to give away his riches not because Jesus is worried about money, but because he is worried about the rich man’s heart.
The first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, highlights Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he says, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” And, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” And, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” We might not “hate” the one outright, but we will “despise” it, treat it cheaply.
Our reading from Wisdom says, “I preferred her [wisdom, the knowledge of God] to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her . . . because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand, and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.”
The focus on Wisdom puts an important spin on our discussion of worldly goods. Wisdom sees other things in light of our first love. It sets things in order.
So “all good things together came to me in her company, and countless riches at her hands.” Or at the end of our Gospel reading, Peter says, “We have given up everything and followed you,” and Jesus says he will “receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.”
Now, that doesn’t mean that Peter ended up with a lot of vacation homes, with a separate family in each. I hope that’s clear, though there is a Prosperity Gospel, vigorously opposed by the Church, that turns the Gospel inside out and thinks we love God so we can get stuff.
To the contrary, the way we possess all those things is in God – or in divine Wisdom. The love of God does not destroy our love of the world. Rather, we rediscover the world in God. But we rediscover the world the poverty of divine love. The poor man can love the world in a new way, because he is no longer trying to grasp it.
The rich young man in our reading is called to discover love of neighbor in a new way. Renouncing his possessions doesn’t turn him away from the world. It turns him to deeper love of the poor. But this passage is only through the way of poverty and renunciation.
As long as we value our riches more than Christ, we can never rediscover the world, can never receive all things in God.
Our second reading, from our end-of-the-year tour through Hebrews, puts a point on this by saying, “the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow.”
Our rich young man discovers this in the words of Jesus. Jesus sees to his heart, sees the attachments that dwell there. His words cut the man to the heart – and so “he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
And so we Americans rage against the Popes when they call us to love the poor. On the surface, we say the Popes don’t know what they’re talking about. Deep down, like the rich young man, we say, How could I live without my riches, without clinging to privilege and worldly success? Because Francis – like Jesus, like so many words of Scripture, like the Tradition and the Popes before him – sees into our hearts, and sees that this is the one thing lacking.
The problem is not that the Popes are wrong about economics. The problem is that they are right about the human heart. Their words cut us to joint and marrow. To abandon our worldly privilege, our “scepter and throne,” and to love the poor would mean making God alone our true treasure.
“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God,” to heed the call to the rich young man. “For men it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
What ruling-class attachments is Jesus calling you to renounce?