“’Go, sell everything you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow Me.’ But his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth”
There is this parable about how to catch a monkey that I love to share with us today because it relates very much with the central theme of our message today – “Let go, to take hold!” The monkeys, by nature are very difficult to catch. They are very quick and agile animals. They live in the forest on trees, sometimes as high as a hundred feet and more, and can traverse miles jumping and skipping from one branch to the other. So how do you catch an animal like this? The best way to catch a monkey is to make a hole in a gourd or a container firmly secured, or make a hole into a termite mound (where possible). The hole must be just wide enough to fit its opened hands through. Put some nuts or something the craves inside. And wait. Later the monkey comes around smells the content and stretches in through the hole, grabs a fistful of the nuts or whatever, then tries to pull back out. But they cannot! The hole can only let out the empty hand of the monkey but not wide enough to let out its clutching fist. The monkey is trapped and stuck. At this point the only option for the monkey to regain its much needed freedom is to let go of the nuts and pull out its empty hand. But no, the monkey wants the nuts. And so, it struggles, pulls and pulls, refusing to surrender the nuts. At last the hunters come and snatch it for their purposes.
The story in the Gospel of today (Mark 10: 17-30) narrates the encounter of a rich young man who approached Jesus: “ran up, knelt before Him and put this question to Him: ‘Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Mark 17: 17). The need of the young man is clear – he would love to inherit eternal life. But he did not know how. So he went to Jesus, Whom he believed could help solve the burning quest in his heart. He came to Jesus in very expressive humble gestures of homage: running and kneeling before Him and even addressing Him as “Good Master.” Jesus saw his zeal and earnestness and could perceive his profound sincerity as He could decipher his innermost thoughts. But Jesus’ answer was a bit puzzling: “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10: 18). Was Jesus denying His goodness and divinity here? Some scholars argue along this trend but the fact is that it would have been absurd for Jesus do that and then later turned around to invite the young man to follow Him. What Jesus was doing in essence was to open the man’s mind to deeper probe into his action: on what bases does he call Jesus good? Does he realise that the teachings and works of Jesus are ultimately and undeniably attributes of one who is good? Could he relate Jesus’ actions to His divinity? Was he sure of what he meant by the exact word? Jesus was leading him from the physical to the spiritual; from the natural to the supernatural.
Then Jesus rehearsed the Commandments for him, as if to tell him, “Keep the Commandments!” The young man’s answer to Jesus was quite striking: “I have kept all these from my earliest days” (Mark 10: 20). Mark tells us that “Jesus looked at him steadily and loved him” (Mark 10: 21). This is the first time in the Gospel where Jesus is said to have looked and loved at anyone. It therefore means that truly, Jesus could see that the young man was honest in his answer. He had kept all the Commandments. But that’s not all. There is more to life in Christ and having eternal life than simply keeping the Commandments. Keeping the Commandments is essential but that is certainly not all. “There is something you lack” (Mark 10: 21) Jesus told him. “What could that be?”, the young man must have thought to himself. Jesus explained: “Go, sell everything you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow Me.” Is this a rather strange condition? Perhaps, because for the ancient Jews, wealth and riches were signs of God’s blessings on the one who fears the Lord, and poverty was perceived as curse on the one who is disobedient (Deuteronomy 28:1). So to ask him to sell everything and give the money to the poor invariably means to render him poor. While this is not the issue here, Jesus saw something more destructive in the life of the young man. He saw something fundamentally obstructive to reaching his goal. His wealth was not a problem but his attitude to it was a definite impediment. This is why Jesus gave him that one condition – “Go, sell all you have and give the money to the poor.”
The young man was sincere, zealous about his faith and desired to enjoy eternal life in the here-after but only one thing stood in his way. He was too attached to his wealth. This explains why his face dropped and “he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth” (Mark 10: 22). He was not only a man of great wealth but of great attachment too. What an anti-climax! What could have caused a young man, who came to Jesus with so much earnestness and profound humility to turn and walk away from Jesus refusing to choose His option? Could it be fear of the unknown? Was he overwhelmed by a deep sense of insecurity? This is the force or the pull of attachment. The same thing that made the monkey in our story not open its hands and let go in order to break free is holding the young man here. This is the danger of believing in material wealth as an irreplaceable source of security. This is the danger we often let ourselves be trapped in. Jesus’ heart must have dropped at this choice that He uttered those eternal words: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10: 23). Do not mistake that Jesus is condemning riches and wealth for He is not. It is the wrong attitude, the “love of riches” that is the problem here. Jesus is equally inviting each of us to let go of everything and follow Him, “The Eternal Wisdom.” As the First Reading (Wisdom 7: 7-11) eulogises, we are to esteem Wisdom to be more than everything else for He is greater than thrones and sceptres; for compared to Christ riches are nothing, gold and silver are like sand; health and beauty cannot surpass Him, who is reckoned as “The Lady Wisdom” in Wisdom writings.
By alluding to the camel passing through the eye of a needle, Jesus was teaching, as He continues to teach us, that eternal life is by God’s grace and not by mere human efforts. It does not depend on how much we are able to obey the Commandments and avoid sins nor on how much we are able to do anything; but by how much we are able to cooperate with the grace of God in communicating God’s love to others. Eternal life is not by merit but by grace.
Attachment to material things in general is a sign of lack of faith in God. It impedes one’s ability to surrender and let go. But the truth about holding on is that we never get anything new so long as we hold on to the old. In the case of the monkey, it could not break free so long as it held to the nuts. In the Gospel story, the rich young man could not follow Jesus nor have eternal life so long as he was not ready to “sell all he had.” Therefore, each of us is called here to let go in order to take possession of eternal life. We have to detach in order to attach. Each of us, like the monkey has something we are tightly holding on to. Like the rich young man, each of us has something he/she is attached to. Shall we open those fists and let go so as to break free? Or shall we hold on and be stuck there? What is it that we have to sell and give the money to the poor? What are we attached to? So, let go, to take hold!
May the Lord grant us the grace to be blessed with His riches and to always acknowledge Him, the Source of every good wealth, as greater and always to be preferred to everything else. Amen.