Our Gospel today is often called “The Story of the Rich Young Man”. We hear about the character in focus as a “RICH MAN” in Mark, but it is actually only in the version of Matthew in ch. 19 where we hear about him as a “RICH YOUNG MAN” in verses 20 and 22 of that chapter.
In the story, as told by Mark, we are told that the man wanted to know what he needed to do “to inherit eternal life”. When Jesus reminded him of the commandments, the man said he had observed them all from his youth. Was he boasting? I don’t think so. I think he was actually expressing to Jesus the emptiness that he was feeling in spite of everything that he had achieved—namely, despite all his religious compliance and all his material wealth.
Mark tells us Jesus “looked at him with love.” I think he is implying that Jesus saw the man’s sincerity and his genuine desire for true happiness. That was when Jesus began to talk to him about “THE ONE THING NECESSARY.” It was after that that the man went away sad because “he had many possessions”.
I read that positively. It means the man had come to realize why he could not find his HAPPINESS in the things most other people think can give them happiness. Hopefully, the realization could lead him to start doing something about it. Perhaps Jesus’ look of love meant that he understood the man’s sincere struggle, and his way of assuring him it’s never too late for him to start searching for what can truly give him happiness.
In his Spiritual exercises, St. Ignatius gives a name to this “One Thing” that Jesus is talking about. He calls it “THE FIRST PRINCIPLE AND FOUNDATION” of Christian discipleship. The text has been reformulated and given a contemporary flavor by the Jesuit David Fleming. Here’s how he put it: “The goal of our life is to live with God forever. God, who loves us, gave us life. Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit.”
TO LIVE WITH GOD FOREVER—that was what the rich young man wanted, ETERNAL LIFE.
St. Ignatius says our goal is to respond with love to the God who loves us and gives us life, so that this life will “flow into us without limit.”
Actually I still prefer the classical traditional formulation for the rest of the First Principle and Foundation laid out by St Ignatius. In the paragraphs that follow, he says, “God created all other things on the face of the earth to help fulfill this purpose. From this it follows that we are to use the things of this world only to the extent that they help us to achieve this end, and we ought to rid ourselves of the things of this world to the extent that THEY GET IN THE WAY OF THIS END. ”
Ignatius refers three times to “all other things”, which he also calls “the things of this world.” They are supposed to lead us to the “One Thing.” But when instead of serving that purpose they become an obstacle or a hindrance to our goal, then we must learn to reorder our priorities by “getting rid of them”, especially when we get too attached to them that we put them at the center or the top of our list of priorities.
For Ignatius we cannot take the first important step to our liberation from what he calls DISORDERED AFFECTIONS or INORDINATE ATTACHMENTS unless we keep ourselves anchored to our goal, the first principle and foundation of our being.
There is one book in the Bible that I thought before was too cynical or negative about the “things of this world”—the Book of Ecclesiastes. He opens his book with a shocking declaration: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” It took a long time and a lot of experience before I realized that he was not being cynical when he said so. His point is rather simple—namely, that the secret to true happiness is never to hold on to anything in this world as if it was everything. Why? Because all things in this world are passing. If you regard them your everything, what happens when you lose them? YOU ARE LOST!
The author is merely reminding us never to lose sight of our goal, never to forget the first principle and foundation of it all: GOD. Remember the spiritual principle promoted by Teresa of Avila? QUIEN A DIOS TIENE NADA LE FALTA; SOLO DIOS BASTA. “Whoever has God will not be wanting of anything. God alone suffices.” Teresa’s good friend, San Juan de la Cruz calls it EL CAMINO AL TODO ES EL CAMINO DE LA NADA. The way to everything is the path of nothingness.
We are therefore not to allow the passing things of thos world to serve as a hindrance. Rather they should serve only as means to our real end.
Jesus said this also to Martha. Remember when he said, “You are worried about MANY THINGS, and yet, only ONE THING is necessary.” In the Gospel, Jesus lists down the many things as “houses, relationships, properties (lands)…” and he even includes among them “persecutions”. I think he is referring to the many things that we tend to be anxious about. The poem of Teresa of Avila which I mentioned just now begins with the reassuring words, NADA TE TURBE (Let nothing make you anxious.) What she means is, we must not let the “many things” of this world disturb us or distract us from pursuing our real goal.
Even among the many gifts and charisms, St. Paul asks us to know how to pursue the “more excellent gifts”. Paul says even “prophecies will be brought to nothing and tongues will cease, and knowledge will pass away.” What will remain? Only three: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest is that which never fails or will never pass away: LOVE. That is why keeps saying, “If I have NO LOVE, I have nothing.” Only LOVE is eternal; because God is love. It is only when we have this “One thing” that we can truly appreciate “the many other things” in life.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this in another way. He says, Matthew 6:33 “But SEEK FIRST the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” There, the “One Thing” is defined as the KINGDOM OF GOD. He is is teaching is to put it as first in our order of priorities. He is not denying our need for the other things. He is just reminding us not to allow them to become a hindrance to our true purpose: to respond with love to our generous God by living a generous life.
In management, they call this putting FIRST THINGS FIRST, or learning to ORDER OUR PRIORITIES. That is why it is important for us to always be mindful of our vision and mission, our first principle and foundation. Without this foundation, all our endeavors can turn into VANITIES. They become meaningless.