I can identify, a little at least, with the rich young man to whom Jesus says “sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mt 19-21). It is easy to let money of any amount, or possessions of any size, get in the way of following Jesus.
When I was in second grade, a small circus performed on our playground after school. That morning, my mother had given me 35 or 40 cents to spend on snacks (that should tell you how long ago this was), and I looked forward to buying myself some candy and soda.
But when the kids around me found out I had money, suddenly I had more friends than I realized. “Hey, can I have a nickel? How about a dime?”
Pretty soon, my money was gone, and I’d bought nothing for myself. I went away sad, for I had accumulated no possessions — OK, no junk food.
I recalled that episode many years later when I became friends with David, a talented musician who was far from wealthy. One of the reasons is that he often gave his money away to homeless people in his neighborhood. Usually, he ran out of money before he ran out of homeless folks asking him for money, but it didn’t seem to bother him a bit.
David was amazingly generous with his time. He visited jails and sang for the incarcerated, he taught catechism classes in his parish. He played his guitar for free at church events. And he did it all with the brightest smile, a smile that in no way indicated he had any sort of financial worries.
That is one reason why, after he died in a late-night solo car crash on a desert highway, his memorial Mass drew more than 1,000 people. But David, I am sure, would have been embarrassed by the outpouring of affection expressed by those gathered to celebrate his life and who mourned his passing. He felt he was no one special, only someone who tried his best to follow what the Lord taught by word and example.
In David’s mind, he simply shared with others the possessions and the talents with which he had been blessed. That is exactly what Jesus invited the rich young man to do — and what he invites us all to do, gladly and without reservation.
I can’t say that I was gladly and without reservation following Jesus’ invitation by giving away my money that day in the second grade. If anything, I was trying to make sure no one called me cheap, that no one thought poorly of me, hardly a selfless attitude.
On the other hand, I did give away something that was meaningful to me (even if it was only a few coins) and forsook something meaningful (even if it was only junk food). Could I, in some way, have been responding to Jesus’ invitation that day?
I’m not sure. I do know that life went on for me without candy and soda pop. I know, too, that my friend David gave until it hurt, and he smiled as he gave.
I also know that my parents and grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression, struggled to make ends meet, and yet they put food on their tables and shared what little they had with others.
I have never been wealthy. I’ve never been poor, though there have been times in my life when making ends meet hasn’t been easy. But I am learning, I hope, what it means to realize, appreciate and share my God-given gifts.
It doesn’t matter what the gift is, or how much of it we have. In some way, each of us is blessed. Jesus invites us to recognize our blessings, and share them with others.
Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.