One of my favorite movies is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s a story about a man who is pursuing his father’s quest for the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. It’s a movie with a lot of action, unexpected plot twists every minute, and it ends up in the desert in a deserted city where both heros and villains alike find the Holy Grail. In the last scenes, the German Archeologist, who is tough to figure whether she’s good or bad, tries to take the Grail out of the city, which is forbidden. There’s a great earthquake, and she’s hanging from a huge crack that opens up in the floor, just inches away from the Holy Grail, which is resting on a ledge beside. Indiana is hanging on to her one hand and she keeps reaching over with the other one to grab the Grail. Indiana is saying: “Give me your other hand, I can’t hold you with one hand.” But she keeps trying and eventually she lets go and almost pulls Indiana in with her.
Now Indiana is hanging there by one hand, with his father keeping him from falling to his doom. Indiana is just inches away from the Grail, and he’s telling his father: “I can reach it, I can reach it.” This time it’s his father who’s saying: “I can’t hold you by one hand. Give me your other hand.” This must seem a bit odd to Indiana, to be this close to something that his father has spent a lifetime looking for and being told to let it go. But that is what his father tells him to do, Indiana swings up his other hand and gets pulled to safety.
Today’s Gospel story about the rich young man is about someone who can’t let go of something. He’s a virtuous man; he gives Jesus the right answer about how to live, he’s eager to go one step father until he finds out that the step is bigger than he can make. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in retrospect: we’d like to thing that we’d leave everything behind to follow Jesus, in fact, that’s one of the great pillars of classic monasticism is to leave everything behind to follow Jesus, relying on Jesus’ promise of the last part of today’s Gospel.
Things run a little deeper than that. If we took Jesus’ words literally, we’d all be living on the road or in a desolate place without possessions, and we wouldn’t have a church for more than one generation. The Christian community realized early on that there would have to be some way to live an ordinary life and follow the Gospel, otherwise the Church wouldn’t have survived as long as it has. The Shakers of American history tried to live this text literally and had a community composed entirely of people who lived in community without families, and they died out. Although we welcome people who make the commitment that Jesus calls for in today’s Gospel with its rewards, what can this reading say to the rest of us?
For those of us who have moved lately, we can testify that how much stuff you might have makes a big difference. The longer it takes to get everything together, the more tempted one is to stay put. That’s not an issue if things are fine and you’re settled down for a long stretch, however, it cuts down on flexibility. The rich young man in the Gospel may have been unable to follow Jesus because he couldn’t take his stuff with him. Inanimate objects that we think we own can own us. Protecting our stuff can get in the way to doing what we ought to be doing; dividing our loyalty where it shouldn’t be divided, and even making us make choices that hurt others just so we can keep our stuff.
Our stuff may not be material possessions. It may be attitudes, it may be prejudices, it may be habits, it may be fear. The assumptions that we make, the things that we’re willing to see or not see can be a burden. The rich young man thought that he had been particularly blessed since he had a lot of possessions, and that was a common assumption in his day. He may have had trouble with the concept of giving all that up as an act of faith, and that may have kept him from Jesus; he might have been afraid of what would happen to him next, and that could have stopped him.
We come here to give ourselves to Christ as we share his Body and Blood. We come here to put Jesus first, and to be willing to give up anything that keeps us from him. The gospel reading today doesn’t tells us whether the Rich Young Man was able to give up his possessions and follow Jesus. Sometimes, that kind of story leaves the ending up to us: how will we respond to the challenge posed by the parable?
But what comes first in our lives, do we own our possessions, or do our possessions own us? The German Archaeologist in Indiana Jones couldn’t give up the Grail, and that meant her death. We may not be able to give up everything, but as we hang by one hand over the precipice, let me ask this question. What do we need to be able to give up in order to be able to reach our an grab onto to Jesus with both hands?