When I first came to Missoula in 1962, Vann’s Appliance Store was one-year old. Pete Vann nurtured that business into a significant piece of the Missoula economy. The business grew and expanded. However something went wrong and recently Vann’s announced it was going out of business. When an old and familiar landmark like Vann’s closes its doors, it is hard on the employees but also illustrates the struggle of the rich, young man in our gospel today.
Mark’s story occurred while Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Two different conversations take place in this story.
The first involves a dialogue between Jesus and an unnamed, rich, young man who seemed to have everything, except the one thing he desired most – “eternal life.” I hear this story differently when I hear those two words – “eternal life” as code language for “becoming fully human.” “His face fell” when he learned that Jesus told him to give everything to the poor. The point is it is not possible to become fully human when we are attached to possessions or people for we then lack the freedom to love without condition. The young man “went away sad.”
The second conversation occurs between Jesus and his disciples. They were “amazed” (astounded) at his comment, “how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Their amazement is understandable. All Jews knew Israel’s prophetic and wisdom tradition. Wealth and good fortune were considered a gift from God for those who kept the commandments and observed all the required social norms.
I mentioned the closure of Vann’s Appliance Store because the experience of Vann’s employees teaches us a lesson similar to that in our gospel about the rich, young man. Those employees are forced to let go. Like all of us, the rich, young man had a deep yearning for something deeper and more meaningful than he had yet discovered. He, like most of us mistakenly thought he could fulfill that yearning by grasping, holding tightly, being attached to possessions or people.
Jesus knew how difficult it would be for the rich, young man to “go, sell everything [he has and] give to the poor.” He “looked at [the rich, young man and] loved him.” He didn’t judge the rich young man, didn’t view him with contempt or scorn. No. He loved him for he understood how difficult it is to let go of our attachment to people or possessions. And so Christ loves us regardless of how rich or how poor we might be.
This text is not a “pie in the sky” sort of promise –“give your wealth away now and when you die you will get ‘heaven’.” That is not the point. I suggest you hear this text as a story about what possesses us. The challenge facing all of us is to be free from attachment to things or people. It is so easy to profess love for someone while actually loving self. It is so easy to be possessed by my possessions. Valuing our family or friends and using our possessions is normal and natural. It is another thing to be held prisoner by them. Attachments lessen our freedom to love and thus our ability to become more fully human.
I struggle constantly to free myself of attachment to people and to things. Recently I have discovered a new way to identify when such attachments are holding me prisoner. It is simple. Pay closer attention to my “inner voices.” There are times, every day, sometimes even more often, when I feel upset, angry, resentful or frustrated by someone or by some situation or event. Those feelings are a signal informing me of my attachment to someone or something. When I pay attention to those signals it becomes easier to let it go. The result is I feel freer to love without condition.
That is the way Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught. He is both model and mentor of what it is to be fully human. The freer I am of attachments to people or things, the freer I am to be fully human. So listen to the story, contemplate the message and check out your own life. Take the risk and become more fully human!