An Encounter “Along the Way”
A man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Immediately our story sets up an encounter between Jesus and an unnamed individual. The narrative begins to offer us clues about who this person is from the nature of their meeting. We notice that the man’s approach to Jesus is formal and proper. He kneels before Jesus and calls him good teacher as a sign of respect. We suspect that this person has considerable social standing. The man asks about eternal life, a religious question that undoubtedly comes from the heart. Yet Jesus responds rather aloofly, “Why do you call me good?”
The Invitation to Discipleship
As if they were sparring with each other over the keeping of the ten commandments, Jesus deliberately inserts, “Do not defraud!” as a warning to the rich not to deprive workers of their just wage. Here the story takes a remarkable turn. Jesus looks upon the individual and loves him. Jesus’ initial aloofness yields to a genuine love for the individual standing before him. Recognizing the potential for discipleship, Jesus issues to him an invitation:
“You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.”
At that, the sadness of the man betrays his inner struggle and, ultimately, his failure to respond to the invitation. As he turns away we learn for the first time that he was indeed a rich person, “for he had many possessions.”
Placed side by side, the gospel text and the story of Francis are two analogous stories of “rich men” in a fundamental crisis that arises from the contradiction between the demands of discipleship and the possession of wealth in the presence of the poor. In response to this crisis, the one, genuinely seeking to move forward in his faith journey, is confronted by Jesus with this contradiction. Sadly, he turns away, unable to let go of his possessions and thus respond to the invitation. In the other story, the second rich man, from Assisi, takes a radical leap of faith; he relinquishes his hold on all worldly ties and possessions. Francis transposes himself from the world of his family and the emerging bourgeois class to the world of the most marginalized poor whose plight worsened as their numbers steadily increased.
We as “first-world” people may not think of ourselves as rich. Middle-class persons may not perceive themselves as well off or even financially secure, but if we look at the global reality, we know that we are indeed the rich, that the political and economic power wielded by the industrial Western nations makes us wealthy beyond comparison. In hearing this test, we as non-poor people of faith come to a crossroad in our own discipleship journey.
At this juncture it is important for us to reflect on what made it possible for one wealthy person, and apparently impossible for the other, to respond affirmatively to the invitation to discipleship.