What does it mean to follow Jesus? Today’s gospel tells us. “As he was going out into the way…” Mark uses the phrase “the way” to remind us that Jesus is on “the way” to Jerusalem and the cross.
It is at that moment that a man runs up to Jesus with the urgent question, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” He wanted to know what we all want to know: how to live in this life so that we might live forever in the Kingdom. Keep the commandments, Jesus tells him. To which the man responds “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth.”
Jesus gazed on him with love. It is a gaze of invitation to follow him; to leave his possessions, his attachments, all that he considers valuable, “and come follow me.” The rich man’s reaction? “…his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
It would be grossly misleading to interpret this passage to mean that we are literally to give away our material possessions in order to follow Jesus. Ronald Rolheiser, in his excellent book “Sacred Fire,” offers a deeper insight to this gospel. Life, he explains, – and with it, Christian discipleship – has its stages, and they involve struggle: youth, maturity, and old age. “The call to follow in the footsteps of Christ takes on a unique character during each of these struggles.” God meets us at each stage of our life; his invitation to follow him is different at each stage.
In the first stage, our youthful discipleship, we struggle to get our lives together, to find our own identity as we learn to relate to others – our riches, our gold. How does the man respond when Jesus instructs him to keep those commandments that concern relationship with others? He’s done all that from his “youth.”
In the second stage, our mature discipleship, we struggle to give our lives away – in marriage, children, religious life, community, church, civic involvement. It’s no longer about me. It is now about others. It is at this stage that Jesus meets the man. He calls him with love to now give his life away, his youthful riches, and enter into a different kind of discipleship. This can be a tremendous struggle for us. It was for that man who felt the need to cling to his riches.
In the third stage, radical discipleship, we struggle to give our deaths away. What does such discipleship look like? Jesus shows us. He gave his life for us through his generous actions for us. And he gave his death ultimately through his dying for us at Calvary. That was his final and greatest gift, and it is ours.
What does it mean to follow Jesus? The answer lies in Jesus’ gaze of love. He calls us to follow him – whatever our struggle, whatever our stage of life. Jesus invites us disciples to follow him “on the way,” the way that leads to Calvary.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.