The saints we call "great" are not great because they knew how to follow rules. Rather, their greatness and holiness were a result of their willingness to go beyond what was required, to go beyond the letter of the law, to follow Christ. It is the holiness of Saint Francis who not only kept the commandments, but gave all he had to live among the poor. It is the generosity of Mother Theresa of Calcutta who left her native land to seek out and serve the poorest of the poor. These great saints teach us what it means to follow and to serve Christ. It means not only keeping the commandments and following the rules, but being willing to sacrifice anything and everything to do God's will.
In today's gospel reading, Jesus meets a young man who is full of enthusiasm for his faith. He has been keeping the commandments throughout his life, but, deep in his heart, he knows that God has something more to offer him. And so he throws himself at Jesus' feet asking what more he can do to inherit eternal life. Unfortunately, he is not prepared for the challenge Jesus places before him. " Go, sell everything and follow me." The young man is utterly shocked by Jesus' words and, despite his initial enthusiasm, cannot bring himself to sell his possessions. He was torn between his desire to follow Jesus and his attachment to his belongings. He is not free to follow Jesus because he is held back by material things. Interestingly, the gospel does not tell us that the young man felt relieved or grateful the he was able to keep his possessions. Instead, it tells us that he went away sad. Our possessions can never replace the joy and freedom that comes from following Jesus.
Our Lord is offering a challenge to each of us who have gathered here today to ponder his word. He is extending an invitation to go beyond an approach to faith that is based just on following rules. He is challenging us to stop trying to figure out how little we need to do and how much we can get away with. He is inviting us to be like the young man in the gospel and to discover that religion is about having a deep love for God and experiencing the joy that the Holy Spirit gives. At the heart of it, Jesus wants us to welcome him into our everyday lives and to make him our friend. As Cardinal Basil Hume once put it, "Holiness involves friendship with God. There has to be a moment in our relationship with God when he ceases to be just a Sunday acquaintance and becomes a weekday friend." That is what the young man was seeking when he ran up to Jesus. That is what is being offered to each of us here today - friendship with our Savior, Jesus Christ.
There is another challenge, however, that Jesus is extending to us. If we want to continue on this journey to his kingdom, there is going to be something we need to leave behind. It may not be every single one of our possessions, as it was for the young man in the gospel. It is more likely a bad habit, an unhealthy relationship or something else that is keeping us from experiencing all the joy and peace that God has planned for us. Every single one of us has something we are holding onto, something we are trying to keep hidden from God, that is draining life away from us and keeping us from getting closer to him. He is asking us if we love him enough to let go of it for good. Or will we continue holding on and letting it keep us in darkness and in slavery.
As we look into our hearts and consider the invitation that Jesus is making to us today, it may be clear to some of us what it is we need to give up. For others of us, however, it might not be so clear. It begs the question, how do we know what God's will for us is? How can we be sure that it is God asking us to give something up or to do something for him? These are questions which the saints have been grappling with throughout the centuries. There are no hard and fast rules for recognizing the voice of God because it involves mystery. The most important thing for us is to put ourselves in God's presence daily and ask him to give us the wisdom we need to sort out his will and the strength to carry it out. Today's first reading promises us that if we ask God for such wisdom and seek it out, he will not fail to give it to us. And, as so many saints before us have learned, we will come to desire it and treasure it more than any material possessions.
For the Christian, religion means more than following rules, keeping commandments and attending church services. It means, above all else, having a close and personal relationship with Jesus. That friendship is what gives life and meaning to the dogmas we hold and the principles we live by. As we grow in love for our Savior, we will find that spending only one hour a week with him on a Sunday is not enough for us. We will find ourselves making more time for prayer and looking for opportunities to go to Mass during the week. We will find ourselves going out of our way to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The material possessions that once gave us a sense of security will no longer be as important to us. We will find ourselves wanting to live a simpler life so that we can give more of our money to the needy. And we will no longer look on our faith as something we have to do but as someone we have to love - namely, Jesus and our neighbor. Then we will know what it is to be on the path to everlasting life.