Our Political Possessions
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
The Gospel story of the rich young man can teach us how to deal with our political possessions.
The gospels tell us that the man asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus restates the commandments. The man replies that he has observed the commandments since his youth. Mark’s account says that Jesus looked at the man, “loved him,” and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Most reflections on the story focus on how merely following the commandments was considered insufficient - at least for the young man — and on Jesus’ warning, immediately after the departure of the young man, that it is “easier for a camel to pass through eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” There is, however, more to the story.
It would be a mistake to think that Jesus was instructing everyone to give all their possessions to the poor. He said that possessions would make it difficult, but not impossible, to receive eternal life. Jesus instructed this particular young man to sell all that he had. Why? I think the answer is found in Mark’s explanation that Jesus looked at the man and loved him. It was a very personal message by the only one who can see straight into a person’s heart. Jesus saw that with this man, adherence to the commandments would not be enough. The man’s attachment to possessions would always be a barrier to giving his life fully to God.
For that reason, we should consider the story to be about more than material wealth. We all have attachments and possessions to which we hold on, even as we follow the commandments and precepts of the church.
Political and ideological beliefs can become such possessions. People can buy-in to certain philosophies and partisan positions to the point that they cling to them like the young man and his wealth.
Some politically conservative Catholics, for example, have a hard time letting go of the presumption that individualism and the free market, not government, can solve all problems, even though the church warns about potential dangers of both. Some politically liberal Catholics have difficulty accepting that religious freedom includes the right of institutions to exercise their religious beliefs in the public sphere. Some Republican Catholics refuse to accept the Catholic doctrine that all workers have a right to unionize. Some Democratic Catholics adhere to the idea that all state funded education must be in public schools, despite that fact that Catholic doctrine clearly teaches that the state has a duty to financially support a child’s education at the place of the parent’s choosing. The examples are endless. No political party or ideology is truly Catholic. When we adhere to any at the expense of embracing the fullness of the Catholic faith, including her social doctrines, we become like the young rich man holding on to his, not His, possessions.
There is another aspect of the story that is often missed. The gospels say that the young rich man went away sad. That is so unusual, at least in today’s context, that the fact that it is overlooked should be surprising.
Most people who disagree with the church’s social teachings — in other words, “possess” a contrary view — get dismissive or angry. They don’t get sad. We hear and read rejoinders like “I’m Catholic, but . . ,” “Well, the Pope is not an economist,” “The Church should stick to making people feel good and stay out of politics,” “Times have changed,” and “The Pope did not really write that.” Then there is the standard fallback position, “It is a matter of prudential judgment.”
These are not statements of sadness. They are expressions of rejection. The rich young man might have walked away, but he did so with a sadness that can only come from humility and a realization that he had heard the Truth. Otherwise, why would he be sad?
I often wonder what happened to the young rich man. We don’t know if he eventually disposed of his possessions followed Jesus. Sadness can lead to repentance and conversion. Anger and willful ignorance cannot. In that respect, the young man is one step better than we who stubbornly cling to our political “possessions.”