Dear Editor: I’m sure my parish was not the only one that endured the tortured, “Don’t worry! Jesus didn’t mean what he said!” homily in response to Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man. If we were to look at the Gospels honestly, though, this passage is actually the heart of the Gospels, with the themes of wealth and poverty, greed and generosity, and prioritizing heavenly rewards over earthly wealth appearing over 50 times in the four Gospels, literally more than any other theme and by a long shot.
While it is true that Jesus’ command to “sell what you have and give it to the poor” is only said to one person, and not a universal requirement of poverty, it was followed by an obviously universal “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!…It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The apologist for the wealthy focuses on the “All things are possible with God” as if Jesus had not just said how incredibly difficult it in fact is.
Imagine the HHS said it was possible for a 500-lb. man to live to be 100 years old with no health problems, but it’s about as likely as fitting his body through the eye of a needle. How much would you listen to a doctor who then said the HHS just affirmed it’s perfectly healthy to be 500 lbs.? That’s how bad this level of theological understanding is. Can we not read Jesus’ “Woe to you rich…woe to you well-fed…” in Luke 6 and imagine he meant what He said? Do the parables of the Rich Fool, the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the Final Judgment mean nothing to priests who give this tired homily? Are we that much a church of the wealthy, that we run to their defenses like Joel Osteen or some other ridiculous Prosperity Gospel charlatan? Can we continue to pretend, with a straight face, that the 800 million malnourished in the world can stay hungry? Will the richest continually increase their share, because everything Jesus ever said that could require a sacrifice to feed their hungry mouths was meant on a spiritual level? Are we that blind to the poor that we can honestly believe that?
This Sunday, the Church canonized Archbishop Romero, who experienced poverty in a much more real way than most Americans ever will, and wrote of the “shantytown dwellers, whose wretchedness defies imagination – suffering that is permanently mocked by nearby mansions.” When Origen commented on the passage of the Rich Young Man, he retold the story and had Jesus ask how the Rich Young Man could claim to follow the commandments, which say he must love his neighbor. How could he claim to love someone if he lives in wealth and luxury while his neighbor starves? A good question for anyone with wealth seeking salvation.