All You've Got

O Man, as long as you exist, know, have, and cherish,
You have not been delivered, believe me, of your burden.     
--Angelus Silesius

What does it take to find God?  It takes all you've got.  This is what Jesus told the rich young man who came to him asking what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus replied, "Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will find treasure in heaven."  The gospel account does not enumerate the young man's riches, but it could have been almost anything: money, goods, position, talent, knowledge.  Whatever it was, the young man was not prepared give it up in exchange for eternal life.  According to the story, the young man "went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions."

There is an old radio comedy routine in which that notorious skinflint, Jack Benny, is accosted at gunpoint by a robber who growls, "Your money or your life."  There is an exquisitely long pause, and then Jack Benny says, "I'm thinking! I'm thinking!"  That exchange got a big laugh, which may have been a laugh of recognition.  What is it about our possessions that we will hold on to them for dear life, even at the risk of losing the life we hold so dear?  Yes, we need money to survive.  But there is clearly more to it than that.

I believe our quest for ownership is born out a deep-seated desire to reclaim something that has been lost even to memory.  As newborns, we live for a brief time in sublime oneness with our surroundings.  But our growing physical mastery of the world is accompanied by a radical shift in perspective.  The mother who once appeared as a magically responsive extension of ourselves is now viewed as a separate being.  We now find that we have been cut off from our original source of nourishment and comfort. 

And so begins a lifelong struggle to regain what was once ours.  We lay claim to ourselves, first of all, and then to as much of our surroundings as we can.  Like little Hitlers on the march, we grab toys away from our playmates and loudly proclaim them to be ours.  Gradually, we learn more socially acceptable ways of gaining ownership.  In the end, we may come to define ourselves exclusively in terms of what we own, becoming easy prey for advertisers bent on selling us well-being through the acquisition of consumer products.

The rich young man in the gospel story went away sorrowful because he was not prepared to give up all that he had, which to him meant all that he was.  Regardless of whether or not we define ourselves in terms of what we own, the young man correctly understood we are ultimately being asked to surrender ourselves.  What the rich young man could never appreciate is that if we give up ownership of ourselves, we gain tenancy over the whole world.  What is ownership other than the establishment of boundaries?  As soon as we mark off boundaries between what we regard as "mine" and "not mine," we must defend them against all trespassers.  If we surrender ownership of the self, we regard nothing as mine.  But we also discover there is nothing that is not mine.  We give up all we've got and discover we have inherited the earth. 

Matthew 19:16-22

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