Yesterday we welcomed the incoming first year class of law students at the University of St. Thomas and the head of University Campus Ministry said our opening mass. One of the great sources of joy for me is hearing a homily that draws a link that I had not previously considered or that otherwise causes me to think of something in a different way, and, fortunately for me, this particular priest has delivered such homilies on more than one occasion when I’ve been present at a Mass at which he has presided.
The Gospel for yesterday’s Mass was Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus gives him a list of the important “laws” that must be followed, the young man is unsatisfied. I do all that, he says, what else must I do? Jesus tells him to go and sell all he has, give it to the poor and come follow Him.
What Jesus is asking the young man to do is to put Him first. In talking on this theme, the priest linked this passage to God’s request to Abraham to leave his country and his people and go to the land to which God would leave him, where God would bless him and make of him a new nation, causing him and his descendants to flourish. I had never before connected the exchanges between God and Abraham and Jesus and the rich young man, but as soon as the priest mentioned Abraham, the linkage between Abraham and the rich young man made perfect sense to me. Both are asked to give up what they know and what they’ve accomplished on their own and instead to follow God and God’s plans.
What came into my mind as soon as the priest started talking about Abraham was God’s request that Abraham sacrifice Isaac. Many people have difficulty with this passage, wondering how God could ask Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son. When we look at the two passages together, however, I think it becomes clearer to us that in neither case does the literal request capture God’s desire. God doesn’t want Abraham to kill Isaac any more than Jesus literally expects the rich young man (and the rest of us) to sell every single thing that he has.
In both cases the real issue is God’s desire that God come first in our lives. That our lives are oriented around our relationship to God our Father and to Jesus. When God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and Jesus asks the young man to sell all he has, what we are invited to ask ourselves is: what prevents us from putting God first? What do we cling to in such a way that we cannot follow Jesus wholeheartedly? That is what we are invited to give up.