Want to be miserable? Then spend your life keeping score. Go ahead and pay close attention to how much you do for people and how much they do in return. Make sure it is always even. Or, better yet, keep track of how often somebody does something to offend you. It is a guaranteed formula for misery. It is diabolical in its effectiveness.
This season is not about waiting to see what is under the tree. We are not celebrating Christmas yet, even if we are decorating and listening to Christmas music. We Catholics are focused on something much greater. We are focused on preparing for the coming of the Lord. We are preparing for the end of time.
In Mark 12:28-34, a scribe comes to Jesus and asks, “which is first of all the commandments?” In a sense, he is asking, “which commandment is the critical one? You know, the thing I should be focused on.” Jesus’ answer is crystal clear. First, love God. Second, love your neighbor. There is no wiggle room in it. He doesn’t just say love God. He says to love God with your heart, your soul and your mind. That is your body, your spirit, and your intellect. Everything that you are is called to love and serve the Lord.
On weary mornings the alarm can’t be loud enough or the coffee strong enough. The shower can’t be hot enough or long enough. On weary mornings you stand in front of the mirror, and all you can see looking back is a mask. Sometimes it’s pain over loss, frustration over things that seem out of your control, failure where you feel like you should have been better or any number of other things. On weary mornings it is hard to hear God say, “you are my beloved” and all too easy to hear the devil’s whispers of “you will never be enough.”
Read the Gospels, and you will see that the relationship the disciples had with Jesus was special. It is clear that Jesus was the master, and they were his students. But, to imagine that their relationship was cold and mechanical would be a significant error. Jesus loved the Apostles, and the Apostles loved Jesus. That is demonstrated in Mark 10:35 when James and John, whom Jesus called the “sons of thunder,” come to Jesus and say “Teacher, we want you to do for us anything that we ask of you.” The question almost seems scandalous. Two creatures approach the creator and ask him to “do whatever we ask of you.” Perhaps the original Greek conveys it better, but in reading the English translation, it doesn’t come off so much as a question as it does a demand.
Jesus’ response might surprise you. He doesn’t retort “How dare you!” There is no admonishment at all. Instead, he just replies, “what do you wish me to do for you?”
Sometimes we forget that salvation isn’t so much about what we do, as it is about what He does.
In Mark 10:17-22 we see a young man run up to Jesus, drop to his knees, and ask “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him to obey the commandments, and the young man says “Yes, I already do that.” Jesus does not argue with him. Instead, it says that he looked at him and loved him. This young man was a good young man. He was living a good life, following the rules the way he was supposed to. Jesus continues, “Go sell everything you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in Heaven; then come follow me.” The young man leaves “sad, for he had many possessions.”
The Apostles, seeing this exchange, despair “Then who can be saved?” Jesus replies, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
Let’s take a closer look at this story. The young man begins by asking Jesus a question that a lot of modern-day Christians are asking as well, “What must I do?” Do you see the problem? The position he is taking with the Lord is “how do I earn this inheritance? What can I do? Me, me, me.” That is not how this works.
It is a false start because it assumes that there is a rule book to follow and, if a person were to follow that rule book perfectly, they could somehow achieve their own salvation. Ultimately, that kind of thinking is about self righteousness. It is about us making ourselves righteous. It leaves little room for the Lord and is, instead, focused on what we are doing.
That is why Jesus’ words to the Apostles are so important. It is impossible for anyone to be saved apart from Jesus Christ. Only he makes our salvation possible. It is His work of salvation, and our cooperation with that work in our lives, that enables us to inherit eternal life.
It seems clear that, in the case of the young man of Mark 10, Jesus was not just asking the young man to give up his treasure. He was also asking him to put all his security in the Lord. He needed to give up the idea that somehow he could just “be a good person” himself to Heaven, and take a hold of the concept that it was only in and through Jesus that he would find security in this life or in the life to come.
I do not think there has ever been a period of Christian history where this story has not been challenging. God is calling us to let go of the things we place our trust in, and place our trust solely in Him. For some of us, that means we might need to give everything to the poor in order to follow him. For others, it might mean we need to give up our plans and open our hearts to His. And yet for others, it might mean letting go of an idea of faith that is based on the completion of a set of minimums, and embrace a faith that is based on a relationship with the living God. It is time to stop asking the Lord “what can I do” and start inviting him to do what only He can do.