Lent is the part of the liturgical year that we commit to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We unite this time of year with his Passion and, as we enter the final week of Lent before Holy Week, it is fitting to contemplate what it truly means to follow Christ. All through Lent, we have been offering, or doing our best to offer, sacrifices so that we might separate ourselves from this world and live more fully in the kingdom of Heaven. An appropriate story to contemplate as we near the end of Lent is the story of the rich man in the Gospel of Mark; this story reminds us that living in heavenly patria with Christ is our ultimate goal, not this passing and mortal earth.
In the story of the rich man, situated in the Gospel of Mark immediately after Christ blesses the children (Mark 10:13-16, RSV), a man comes to Christ and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17). This man clearly recognizes that Christ will show him the ultimate way to Heaven; he has unfulfilled desires in his heart, and he knows that Christ has the answers to them. In response, Christ says, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother” (Mark 10:19). The man says that he has followed all of these commandments, taken only from the second tablet of the law, from his youth (Mark 10:20). Does this mean that the rich man did not follow the first tablet of the law? Quite the contrary: we can only assume, at this point, that the rich man did follow the first tablet, because he followed the laws concerning love of neighbor.
But then, Christ offers the rich man a challenge; “looking upon him, he loved him” (Mark 10:21). When we are following Christ, we can never remain stagnant or lukewarm: we are either moving closer to Christ or moving further away from him. As St. Augustine explains, God is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves: in such a way, Christ already knows where the rich man could follow him more deeply. Christ loves the rich man—he loves each of us infinitely—and thus, calls him to pursue the divine life more deeply: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). As we know, the rich man goes away “sorrowful” (Mark 10:22), because he owned many possessions. While he had kept all the commandments from his youth, the one commandment that Christ omits from his list is that against covetousness: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 10:17). It now becomes clear why the first tablet of the law, concerning the love of God alone, is not listed. Because the rich man had many possessions, he turned them into idols, and thereby could not love God with all his heart, mind, and strength. The fact that he could not sell his possessions reveals his idolatry: he was unwilling to sell his possessions to follow Christ. He remained attached to the things of this world and could not give himself entirely to the pursuit of Heaven.
How many of us can picture ourselves in the place of the rich man? How many of us have idols, or, in other words, material possessions and things, which prevent us from giving ourselves fully to Christ? How many of us claim to have followed the commandments since our youth, but yet hold on to things that prevent us from fully following Christ? Lent is the ideal time for evaluating our lives and rooting out those material things that are preventing us from giving ourselves entirely Christ, depending on our current state of life. While some have vowed themselves to lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience, most of us are living in the world and need material possessions in order to carry out our daily duties. Nevertheless, we can still be like the rich man; given our materialistic culture, we can still be too attached to material goods—a new car, a bigger house, a bigger TV—such that we turn those things into idols and cannot follow the way of Christ.
What Christ really desires for us is that we become like little children: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). The disciples are amazed when Christ says that it will be difficult for those with many possessions to enter the kingdom of God; they are amazed because he followed the commandments of the law. Nevertheless, the rich man was not willing to become like a child: he was unwilling to give himself entirely to Christ and to trust him above all else. Rather, he placed his trust in the riches of this world. When we focus on our material possessions or wealth, we are refusing to become like little children and follow in Christ’s footsteps.
What does it mean to become like a child and follow after Christ? It means picking up one’s cross and following Christ: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). To become like a child of God is to follow the royal road of the holy Cross, as Thomas à Kempis reminds us in The Imitation of Christ. As he explains,
Why, then, are you afraid to take up your cross? It is your road to the kingdom of Christ…Take up your cross, then, and follow Jesus; and you will go into life that has no end. He has gone ahead of you, bearing his own cross; on that cross he has died for you, that you may bear your own cross and on that cross yearn to die. If you have died together with him, together with him you will have life; if you have shared his suffering you will also share his glory (II.12.2).
We ought not be afraid to submit ourselves to Christ, since he has gone before us. We cannot gain eternal life except by following him, and to follow Christ is to follow in the way of the Cross. Taking up our cross looks like following the way of the disciples, not the rich man. The disciples of Christ did give up everything in order to follow after their Lord; they left their employment, their homes, and their families. They took up the Cross in order to follow Christ. As we near the celebration of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, let us consider those things that are hindering us from following after Christ and taking up our own crosses.