LIFE OF WISDOM AS A LIFE LIVED IN DETACHMENT THROUGH ATTACHMENT TO JESUS
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ WIS 7:7-11; HEB 4:12-13; MK 10:17-30 ]
Man has an insatiable thirst for everything. Underlying the pursuits of every person is his desire to escape his emptiness in life. He might own many things; he might have many so-called friends; he might be laughing loudly; yet deep down inside him, he feels empty, lonely and poor. That is why he is restless and cannot rest until he is satisfied. This is precisely the dilemma of the rich man and ours as well. Like him, we are all seeking the fullness of life. But the problem is that nothing seems to satisfy us and make us complete. We try to find life in some ways. Basically, there are two ways to life; through the wisdom of the world, the way of foolishness, or through the wisdom of God, the way of Jesus.
Let us begin with the way of the wisdom of the world. In this way, there are two approaches. Firstly, most people seek fullness of life through fame, wealth and prestige. The rich man in today’s gospel symbolizes all those who are rich, powerful and successful in life. According to the standards of the world, they should be the happiest people on earth. But the truth is that they are not. In fact, many suffer from deep-seated insecurity, as exemplified in their rocky relationships and family life. They are often lonely and misunderstood. Something seems to be lacking. Those of us who have supposedly made our mark in life would be able to identify with the sentiments of the rich man. It is clear therefore that being rich and famous is no guarantee of happiness. More often than not, it leads to real misery.
Realizing that fame, power and wealth alone cannot bring true happiness, others seek happiness by living a moral life, just like the rich man in today’s gospel. This is the second approach of the way of the foolish. It is the path of moralism or legality. They try to be faithful to the teachings of their religion, or at least to their conscience. Catholics and non-Christians alike, including agnostics, all feel consoled so long as they do not do harm to others. Such a moral life is indeed commendable, for we are told in the gospel that when the rich man said that he had fulfilled all the commandments, Jesus “looked steadily at him and loved him.” Nevertheless, it is obvious to Jesus that a life of morality, while noble, cannot assure us true happiness. At most, it can give us a clear conscience. But it is not sufficient to make us feel alive. For those who are not careful, they might even fall into legalism and become self-righteous.
But both ways, the way of earthly pursuits and the way of morality, did not bring the rich man in the gospel happiness in life. If only worldly success and a good conscience are sufficient to sustain us in existence but not keep us truly alive, then what can make us truly alive? The answer given by Jesus to the rich man in the gospel was simply this: “There is one thing you lack. Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come and follow me.” This, then, is the way of the wisdom of God. It is the path of detachment and compassion.
Yes, what the rich man lacked and what we are lack is simply this: the spirit of detachment. The rich man was attached to both his money and his righteousness. He was not truly free. That was why he went away sad. Even though he was rich, he could not be happy. Like him, we all have our attachments in life. Some of us are attached to our loved ones, some to their career, others to their vices, still others to their pride and reputation. So long as we are attached to anything or any person in life, we have lost our freedom to love and to be available. This inability to be detached is the cause of all our emptiness and misery. That is why the rich man “went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.” The irony of life is that the richer we get, the poorer we become. The richer we are, the more we are enslaved to our riches; but the poor have nothing to cling on to, and that is why they are totally free to receive anything that God wants to give them.
Consequently, the command to give everything to the poor must not be simply understood as surrendering our material wealth to the poor. Material wealth in itself is neither good nor bad. It depends whether we are enslaved to our wealth or whether we use them for the good and service of humankind. If our happiness is dependent on external factors, our lives will always be full of insecurity. True happiness is not determined by material and personal wealth or living a legalistic life. In both, we are slaves to some external reality. Such a kind of life robs us of our joy since that life becomes one of unending anxiety – the materialistic person lives in fear that his wealth, power and status might one day be taken away, whereas the legalistic person is always burdened by having to observe all the commandments of God for fear of God’s punishment.
What is absolutely necessary for happiness is to have an interior spirit of genuine freedom from everything. The apparent difficult command of Jesus is simply to help us to break away totally from the chains that bind us. Unless we surrender everything to God, we cannot use everything we have freely for the service of love. It is only when we surrender them and no longer consider them our own, that we become free to love authentically. Detachment is therefore a pre-requisite for the work of compassion. The paradox of life is that the moment we let go of all that we have, that is when we possess everything. Indeed, this is the promise of Jesus to His disciples. By surrendering their attachment to their families, they become friends to all; by giving up the need to have anything, the whole world becomes theirs. Compassion therefore makes us one with God and with all.
This is the only way to happiness or eternal life because if we really want to have eternal life, which is the life of God, then we must realize that this life consists of His Freedom in love. The nature of God is that He is total freedom and His freedom is the ability to love totally. The corollary of this is that if we want to share in the life of God, we must be free to love and be able to exercise this freedom for love. Without the freedom to love and the power to love freely, we cannot be happy in life. For it is only in freedom and love that we find true joy.
Even if we realize this, many of us still do not have the courage to let go. Like the rich man, we know what is to be done but we feel that the command of Jesus is simply beyond us. What Jesus seems to be asking of us is just too much! Just like the disciples, our initial response is astonishment, then despair. For many of us, such a life is only for the reserved few. Yes, most of us would readily join in the chorus of the disciples, “In that case, who can be saved?”
Jesus understands our frustrations, for He said, “For men, it is impossible, but not for God because everything is possible for God.” That is why Jesus did not simply tell the rich man to give away his wealth. No, he said, “then come and follow me.” That is to say, we do not simply detach ourselves from things and people. It is too painful. There will be such a big hole and emptiness in our lives if we do. We need to fill that emptiness with something else. We need to fill that emptiness with the love for Jesus and the love of Jesus. Indeed, the key to true detachment lies in our attachment to Jesus and His life. The more we fall in love with Jesus and His way of life, the more we find ourselves able to live in a spirit of detachment.
Concretely, what does it mean to follow Jesus? First and foremost, the second reading tells us that we must contemplate on the Word. It is the word of God that reveals the truth of ourselves and of life. Unless we see the wisdom of the life and the path of Jesus, we will not surrender ourselves to God. Unless, we contemplate on His life, we will not see the wisdom of what Jesus is inviting us to. And then we would end up just like the rich man, leaving Jesus, which means living life sad. Yes, in attaching ourselves to Jesus, we will come to discover Him more and more; why He is the Wisdom and the Word of God that the first two scripture readings proclaim.
By being with Jesus, we will come understand deeper the reality of His teachings and the true meaning of life and how life should be lived. That is why the more we become attached to Jesus, the more we too want to follow Him in a life of service and love in freedom. And very soon, we will come to experience His kind of life, freedom in love, as the greatest wealth of life. This is what truly brings life, when we love and serve freely. And for those who are in love with the whole of humankind and in love with love and life itself, they have everything even if they have nothing that the world considers to be of value.
Yes, Jesus lived such a full life simply because His whole life was lived in love. He could love totally and freely because He transcended poverty and riches, success and failure. We too can enjoy this life when we free ourselves to love our fellow human beings and to love God. This, then, is the eternal life Jesus is offering us today. This life is nothing less than the life of God.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
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