Updated: Aug 22, 2019
The late comedian Richard Prior, when caught out in an incontrovertible lie, liked to say, “are you going to believe me or those lyin’ eyes?” An audacious but funny line. It seems to me that Jesus may have felt like uttering those words a number of times during His ministry. Throughout the gospels, for example in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), and also in The Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6), Jesus teaching must have been hard to grasp for two major groups: the poor, who as usual comprised the majority, and the established power base, whether religious, political or wealthy.
The poor may have thought to themselves, “you’re kidding right?”. It sure doesn’t feel blessed to be poor, hungry, abused and so on. However, Jesus message to them spoke not just to their physical bodies, but to their spirit. And while Jesus did perform miracles to show the glory of God, it was His word, unfiltered by riches, status or power that enabled the poor to get it (The Good News); because it resonated with the divine inside them. This doesn’t mean that the poor were without sin, but merely that they had fewer barriers to internalizing the truth of Jesus message.
For the second group, those reasonably happy with the status quo because they held power in one form or another, Jesus teaching made no sense. In the early going, they may have dismissed Jesus teachings as intended for losers who just couldn’t cut it. After all, who puts in their high school year book that they would like to be Meek? Or perhaps Humble…….I don’t think so! When hearing of Jesus popularity with the masses, maybe those with power used refrains that we hear to this day: these people need to get their act together; nobody helped me why should I help them; some people are just destined to fail; why should I share my hard earned money. But as Jesus teaching spread, it caused fear in this group because He was upending things with radical statements like: “the last shall be first.” A message that didn’t play well, resulting in many attacks on His teachings.
However, it would be unfair to be overly critical of those who couldn’t (or can’t to this day) grasp Jesus message. After all, we are all given gifts and talents we need to use, and these sometimes do enable us to accumulate wealth or status. Not necessarily a bad thing. The challenge for us becomes one of control: do we control our possessions, including our popularity, status in the community and so forth, or do they control us. How difficult is it to let them go to pursue something, when judged through the eyes of the world that is less admired. When Jesus told the rich young man that he should sell his possessions and give the money to the poor because “He loved him”, Jesus wasn’t trying to be harsh. He deeply cared for this young man, and so wanted to share the path to ultimate happiness. And while the young man sounded like a good and holy guy, apparently his possessions controlled him because “he went away sad”; which he wouldn’t have done if he hadn’t realized what he was giving up by not following Jesus.
But why did Jesus ask this man to sell all of his stuff and give it to the poor? Obviously we need to share with those in need. But there’s another message. To fully grasp Jesus teaching and deepen our relationship with God is not a “head” exercise. We can’t intellectualize our way to right relationship with God. It’s probably best summed up by Fr. Richard Rohr who says: “you can’t think your way into right living, you have to live your way into right thinking”. Our “treasure” whatever it might be, can be an obstacle to this. Perhaps this lent we might want to consider what is preventing us from “right living”.