Like the rich man in today’s gospel, we are all seeking for true happiness in life. Like the rich man, we too ask, “what must I do to inherit eternal life? Indeed, the truth is that many of us are like this man, so desperate to find the fullness of life. This is particularly true for those of us who have already achieved much in life, especially in terms of career, business, wealth and pleasure. The irony is that after spending all our energy, time, efforts and labour in securing wealth, power and status, we still find our lives empty and meaningless. In spite of the fact that we have everything, we are not happy.
Sad to say, after so much striving, we only arrive at the realization that power cannot bring security. Look at all the so-called powerful people around us, they are the most insecure. They need security guards wherever they go. They have no privacy. They need to hide from the public, especially the paparazzi. And even when they have so much power, they never seem to be satisfied with the power they have. Often, they feel threatened by others and so would always look at every person with fear and apprehension that one day they might snatch power from them.
If power cannot bring security, money cannot bring happiness as well. True, money can provide a comfortable living and a life of pleasure. But pleasure cannot bring happiness. What is enjoyed is over the moment the pleasure ends. Then one begins to feel empty and bored again.
What about glory, status and prestige? They too cannot bring happiness. If our lives are so dependent on what people think of us and how they look at us, then we will always live under the threat of rejection. We become slaves to public opinion. We spend our energy trying to stay popular in opinion polls. We are not in control of our lives but the world and the public control us. We do not do what we are convinced about or what we believe in. We are prisoners and have no freedom of our own. We do not overcome low self-esteem just by seeking popularity. Happiness begins with self-acceptance. When we cannot accept ourselves, even if the whole world congratulates us, we will never believe that we are good enough. So the problem lies within oneself; not what the world thinks of us.
What is even more frustrating is that not only does happiness elude those who seek the things of the world, but even those who are supposedly faith believers cannot find happiness. Many law-abiding Christians and Catholics, like the Jews in the gospel, are not happy. They obey the laws but they do not appear to be happy and joyful. They are obeying out of fear and with hidden hostility against God. Life seems to be a tiresome set of rules to be followed, or one risks being punished by this vindictive God. This was the case of the rich man. When Jesus queried whether he had obeyed the commandments, his answer was in the affirmative. Then why was he still not happy when he had fulfilled the laws. Something was still missing. Indeed, as Catholics and Christians, we must ask ourselves whether we are happy, joyful, liberated people. If we are not an alleluia people, then it shows that Christ has not set us free and He is not our savior.
Well, if religion cannot set us free and make us happy and give us fulfillment, then perhaps, doing humanitarian works might help. This seems to be what Jesus was suggesting to the rich man when He said, “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.” Indeed, there are many philanthropists and those who have sufficient resources doing voluntary social work. Although initially they might feel passionate and happy, but along the way they become resentful because of organizational, institutional, political and inter-personal clashes. Also, sometimes the poor are not so easy to please either. They can be rather demanding and unreasonable. Caregivers in attending to them often feel exasperated and get hurt in the process.
What, then, is the crux of the problem? Because we lack true wisdom! What is true wisdom? This is what the author says about true wisdom. “I esteemed her more than sceptres and thrones; compared with her, I held riches as nothing. I reckoned no priceless stone to be her peer, for compared with her, all gold is a pinch of sand, and beside her silver ranks as mud. I loved her more than health or beauty, preferred her to the light, since her radiance never sleeps. In her company all good things came to me, at her hands riches not to be numbered.” The day we come to see that riches, honour, health, beauty, etc are just illusions and are transitory, then we know what true wisdom is. We will then not hanker after such things and even if we have them, they are not possessions to be hoarded but to be shared and given away or used for love and for mercy.
What can be even more lasting than the things of this world if not authentic love and lasting relationships? But alas, even relationships today are so fragile. True and lasting love is rare. Beautiful relationships and even marriages break down. So much so many of us are skeptical of relationships. This explains why many have given up on marriage even. Most are contented with passing relationships. That is why even love alone cannot suffice, if we are seeking real happiness. Human love, even if it were lasting, cannot make us truly happy because one of the partners will also die. At any rate, total unconditional, caring love is rare today.
So what is the secret? It is to follow Jesus. The rich man was not simply told to give up his wealth. Giving up your resources to the poor might not make you happy. In fact, one might end up feeling short-changed and cheated that one has given up everything for nothing. When we experience bitterness in service and ministry, we end up giving up faith completely in goodness and in human beings. For this reason, Jesus did not say that the rich man would be happy if he were to give up everything. The giving up of his wealth was a condition and preliminary to the following of Jesus. Only in following Jesus, can the man be truly happy, not so much in giving up his wealth to the poor.
But in following Jesus, he will find happiness in giving up his wealth to the poor because he will live a life of true freedom and unconditional love. He begins to live like the Lord, in love and in total dependence on God, detached from the things of this world. The whole creation becomes his. He enjoys what he is given but not missing what he has not. Indeed, the true wisdom is Christ Himself. He is the wisdom of God in person. Anyone who possesses wisdom has put on the mind of Christ. When we discover Christ as the wisdom and the love of our life, and when we give ourselves totally to Him, we will find lasting and true happiness. Only Christ can fill the emptiness in our hearts and only Christ can enlighten our minds. Only Christ can fill us with the divine love of God and His inner peace and joy. Living in and from Christ, we will find true joy and peace.
How, then, can we find Christ as our Wisdom? Not by our own strength of course. This is what the Lord told the disciples when they said, “In that case who can be saved?” Jesus gazed at them and said, “For men, it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.” Indeed, we cannot give up our wealth and follow Jesus without His grace.
The book of wisdom says we need to pray for His grace. “I prayed, and understanding was given me; I entreated, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me.” The psalmist prayed and his prayer was answered. Prayer indeed is the gate to the wisdom of God. If we want to find Christ and His love, we need to pray.
Most of all, we are called to pray the scriptures. Only the Word of God can enlighten us in the truth about love. The author of Hebrews describes the power of the Word of God. He wrote, “The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely: it can slip through the place where the soul is divided from the spirit, or joints from the marrow; it can judge the secret emotions and thoughts. No created thing can hide from him; everything is uncovered and open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give account of ourselves.” So if we are serious about true wisdom, distinguishing the illusory values of the world from what is true, lasting and valuable, we need the Word of God to help us and to guide us. Most of all, only the Word of God can expose our deceptive ways of thinking, of which we may not even be conscious.
The result of prayer and discernment is to know the truth of God and His love for us. We become freer in love and for love. Because we know that our destiny lies in God ultimately, we no longer cling to this world and its possessions. Because we know our destiny is to share in the life of God, we begin to live this life already. That is why, like the apostles, we already have a foretaste of the kingdom that is to come. Possessing nothing, we own everything. This is what the Lord promised the apostles when they asked, “What about us? We have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land – not without persecutions – now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.”
Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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