What is the meaning of life? Everyone has that question at the back of their minds, and many of us want to keep it there. We avoid the question by joking about it. We all have seen the search for life’s meaning depicted in cartoons or the subject of a sitcom segment. A person is portrayed as struggling up an incredible mountain precipice to ask a guru, sitting cross-legged on a ledge, the ultimate question of life. The mystic responds with a simple, obvious answer that makes the seeker’s quest seem unnecessary or foolish. The question of what is the essence of life is anything but silly. It needs to be the focus of much contemplation by every thoughtful person. It should be on the minds of every faithful Christian.
The question of the meaning of life was on the mind of the man who approached Jesus in today’s gospel story. He may have stumbled upon Jesus and his disciples as they walked on their way to Jerusalem and recognized Jesus as a man of profound insight. Maybe he had been following them for a while as they moved from town to village. Perhaps he had heard from a friend or family member about this itinerant rabbi moving about the area and believed he had the answer to the most crucial question of life.
Mark tells us that the man was very impressed with Jesus. Filled with excitement, he ran up to Jesus and showed him great respect by kneeling down in front of him. Like the mountain guru, he asks Jesus to give him the answer to the most important question we can formulate.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Immediately Jesus recognizes the man’s faithfulness and puts it to the test. Jesus tests to see if the man is genuine in his faith in Jesus or hypocritical like the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus seems to rebuke him for calling him good. Jesus tells him no one but God is good. Jesus is asking the man if, by calling Jesus good, he recognizes Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus wants to know if the man has true faith.
Believing in the man’s sincerity, Jesus puts him to the test to see if he is authentic. Jesus reminds him of the importance of faithfulness to the Mosaic Law. In response, the man claims he is faithful to the Law and has been since his youth. He hurts no one and shows love and respect to his family. He is devoted to the religious standards of the times.
To most observers of the day, this man should have felt secure in believing he already had the gift of eternal life. He was rich. Being rich in Jesus’ day didn’t always suggest material wealth. Material wealth can easily be lost or stolen. It was often a sign of greed or abuse of others, and those with material wealth thought to be often sinful. Material wealth can be fickle. Great wealth was instead considered the blessings of having good connections. Wealth was the existence of a network of family, friends, patrons, and dependents, all of whom could be depend on to care for them in times of trouble. With a network of benefactors, a person had less to worry about in life. People saw this kind of wealth even more than money as a great blessing from God.
The man also would have been considered blessed because of his faithfulness to the Law. He did nothing to hurt others. The man was faithful to his role in supporting his family and held up his obligations to the other members of his social network. The man would appear to have nothing to worry about in his desire to receive eternal life. He was on the way to heaven.
Yet, the man thirsts for more. He wants to know the meaning of life. He seems to recognize there is more to receive a place in God’s eternal kingdom than just being good to others. He feels God demands more than just following the rules and not hurting anyone. Receiving eternal life must entail more than following social norms. Jesus is impressed by the man’s sincerity. Jesus recognizes the man as being more than just a superficial follower, but someone who could develop into a faithful disciple.
Jesus tells the man of the ultimate requirement for eternal life. He must give up his wealth. Jesus calls the man to sell his material wealth and give it to the poor. He must cut his family and social ties, everything on which he feels he can depend. The man must put all his trust in God and join Jesus and his band of followers.
The man can’t do it. He can’t take the tremendous risk of placing all his trust in God. He can’t cut ties with his past and jump in to belong to Jesus and his group of disciples. He wants to get to heaven, but not at this price. Yes, he loves God and wants a relationship with God but not if it requires this much from him. The price is too high, and the risk too great for him to love God that much. The man chooses not to be all he can be. He settles for being good enough for this life but turns down the greatness of eternal life.
As the man walks away, Jesus looks on in love. He isn’t angry. Jesus doesn’t condemn nor write the man off. He hopes the man might have a change of heart sometime in the future and choose to put God at the center of his life. Jesus still hopes he can have a relationship with the man.
Jesus turns to the apostles and tells them how hard it is for most people to attain eternal life because they are so attached to this life. It is difficult for most people to surrender entirely to God. No one can achieve eternal life on their own. Our good works, obedience to God’s Law, and love for our families and friends will not earn us life with God. Eternal life is something given to us freely by our compassionate and merciful God.
Jesus tells his apostles they have to live in appreciation for the gift of eternal life by spending themselves for others. They must be sacrificially generous in spending all their gifts of time, talent, and treasure on their neighbor. They need to willingly share not only with those with whom they have family or social connections but with all those in need. Their charity can know no bounds.
Jesus reminds his apostles’ wealth is something we hold in trust. All our material goods, intellect, skills, and abilities come to us as blessings from God. We cannot consider them things we own or possess for our well-being. All our gifts are entrusted to us by God for the building of God’s Kingdom on earth. Wealth is not the problem. Our attachment to our wealth is what causes us to become committed to this world. It obstructs our vision of eternal life and blocks our access to a loving relationship with God.
Jesus warns his apostles eternal life isn’t something to be concerned about in some distant future. Eternal life isn’t only after we die. We begin to live eternal life today. Eternal life isn’t limited to loving those we are close to in this life. It isn’t just being good and not hurting others by being faithful to the commandments.
Eternal life isn’t only about being good. It is about being exceptional. Exceptional because we love God and believe we need to share God’s goodness with the world. Eternal life means our relationship with God is at the center of our lives. Eternal life is demanding.
Even Jesus’ disciples were taken back by the demands of living eternal life on earth. They don’t fully understand its meaning. They reminded Jesus they had left their livelihoods, homes, families, and all they depended on to become part of a new support system. They felt they had done everything eternal life called on them to do. Jesus reminds them they have room for improvement. They still cling to honor and an aversion to suffering. The apostles believe they deserve honor and deference for the sacrifices they made to follow Jesus. They fail to see they must share in the grief, indignation, ridicule, and pain Jesus will endure on the way to the Cross. They still fail to understand how thoroughly they need to be detached from the world.
The meaning of eternal life is something we struggle with today. As Christians, the demands placed of eternal life are no easier than in Jesus’ day. After two thousand years, disciples of Jesus still struggle to make our relationship with God the center of our lives as Jesus was able to do.
For our relationship with God to be the center of our lives, we need God’s grace. We need Jesus to be alive in our hearts and open those hearts to follow Jesus’ example. That isn’t something we have to do on our own. Before he died for us, Jesus pledged to share His Real Presence, His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity with us in the Eucharist every time we come together as the Body of Christ at Mass. Jesus pledged to enact on this altar his sacrifice on the Cross so we can gain the strength to surrender everything that obstructs us from offering all we are to our relationship with God. All the grace to come to believe the meaning of life is a relationship of love for God.