Scripture for this Sunday:
Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Some 25 years ago, well before I was ordained to the priesthood, I served as a lay assistant, a chalice bearer in an Episcopal church in California. One Sunday, a young man – a teenager – came to the altar to receive communion and as I administered the chalice, I used the words, “preserve your body and soul to everlasting life.” According to his mother, he then skipped back to his seat, singing to himself, “I’m going to live for ever.” And, well, yes, that’s the point, of course. As Jesus said, “In the age to come, eternal life …”
Children and young people often have a sense of wonder and mystery that springs from youthful innocence when approaching the sacraments, such as holy communion – and, if we are honest, there is a certain amount of mystery in the Eucharist. Innocence also leaves children with a more open-ended attitude towards such ideas as eternal life.
The young man in the gospel who approached Jesus with a question about eternal life does not seem to have been naïve, although there is a certain innocence in the question that he asked. Jesus threw a few commandments at him, which elicited a rather self-confident response – and then Jesus delivered the challenging part: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor …” We are told that the young man went away grieving – but not why, nor what happened next. Was he grieving because he couldn’t do what Jesus said? Was he grieving because he could, and was mourning his soon-to-be-lost possessions? We don’t know.
Perhaps Jesus was challenging him to consider the way in which his possessions had come to possess him. Or was it a matter of being possessed by hubris? Either way, the message is that spiritual health and growth arises not from concern for self, but rather from concern for those around us, especially those who are poor or disadvantaged.
We are told that in looking at the young man, Jesus loved him: so the challenge delivered was a form of tough love. Eternal life may involve emptying ourselves rather more than acquiring anything, and being willing to embrace mystery in innocence. After all, if we believe that we are fully enlightened in this life, what would eternal life have to teach us? For those who are willing, eternal life is an invitation to start by letting go and living for others. That’s how we join the eternal life club.