The Essential Question in Life

Several years ago, Tony Dungy, the coach of the Super Bowl champs, and a devout Evangelical Christian, gave an interview where he shared part of his locker room talk: “I told my players that winning the Super Bowl shouldn’t be their ultimate goal. What will happen after the Super Bowl? I then shared with them one of my favorite verses in the Bible, which says, “For what profit is it to a person if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” There’s a much greater goal and purpose than the Super Bowl, and this other goal has eternal consequences.”

What a beautiful witness Coach Dungy gave not only to his football players, but to our entire nation. In a country as sports-crazed as our own, where too many spectators look upon the many self-centered, arrogant, and immoral athletes as superstars and even role models, simply because they’re talented players, it’s refreshing to hear Coach Dungy keep the entire sports world, and even his own achievements in proper perspective. And obviously, such a perspective transcends sports, entailing every aspect and pursuit in life.

“What does it profit a person if he gains the entire world, and loses his own soul?” These words of our Lord, which Dungy quoted, hopefully will make each of us pause and reflect for a moment upon our own lives, and the direction and spirit in which we live our lives.

We live in such a “here and now” society, one which too often focuses on our own egocentric desires and pleasures and one which tempts us to try and fulfill these passions immediately. So easily we can lose sight of life’s essential purpose. One of my favorite stories in the Gospels is when our Lord Jesus reprimands his dear friend with a similar warning. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things, but one thing is needful.” And this one essential purpose is our pursuit for a deep, intimate, rich relationship with our Creator. Entering into the kingdom of God, and allowing ourselves to live under His eternal reign, happens when we cultivate and develop this living relationship with our Lord. Only in such a relationship will we fulfill our deepest desires and wishes. As St. Augustine noted, “Our soul will remain restless until it rests in the Lord.”

Thus, today is as good a day as any to ask ourselves, “Are we spending enough time in our own lives reflecting upon the essential, not the seemingly urgent, issues of life? Do we carve out enough time in our daily schedules to pursue this vital relationship with our Creator? And are we aware of those obstacles that hinder a healthy relationship with God?

In today’s Gospel reading, we meet a rich, young man who wrestled with these issues. One day, he approached our Lord and asked the right question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This man had progressed in his spiritual journey to the point of asking the most crucial question in life.  “What must I do?” he queried.  So Jesus responded by reciting the basic ethical commandments of the faith - do not steal, do not murder, do not lie, do not commit adultery.  Here we learn that the beginning of eternal life starts with obedience to a certain way of life. Christianity is not a philosophy or an intellectual set of beliefs; Christianity first and foremost is a way of life. And to begin our path towards eternal life, we must learn to obey the basic teachings of our Lord and His Church.

For the rich young ruler in the Gospel, however, obedience to the commandments didn’t appear to be his problem. He seemed to sincerely try to follow all the commandments of God since the days of his youth. He was progressing down the right path. In this particular case, however, Jesus saw something holding this man back from a truly abundant life in God. Our Lord knew the ruler was rich, and could sense that his riches were enslaving the young man, so Christ challenged him, “There is still one thing lacking. [If you really want to discover eternal life] sell all that you own and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  And at this extremely difficult command, the rich man became very sad and walked away from the Lord.

“There is still one thing lacking.” Imagine, the young ruler said that he had obeyed all the commandments of the faith from his youth, and yet he still lacked one thing. Here, Jesus warns us of a great danger in the Christian life – the heresy of reducing our faith simply to following certain rules. Of course we must obey; that is the first step. Yet it is only one step in our journey into the perfection of the kingdom of heaven. As we strive to deepen our relationship with God, we need to continually proceed to a higher level – a level where nothing possesses us and stands between us and God, a level where we understand that everything we have is not our own, but is a loan from God – whether our possessions, our pleasures, our family, or even our life itself!  Our path towards eternal life in Christ cannot proceed in a proper manner if any such barriers stand in our way. 

Now, many of us struggle with step one – simply obeying the commandments. We must first strive with all our heart do this. As we proceed, though, then comes the important question, “What is the one thing still lacking in our own life?  Is there something that hinders us in experiencing a vibrant relationship with Christ?” Jesus’ advice to the rich young ruler was a particular commandment to a particular individual, for he realized that riches enslaved this young ruler.

For other people, though, our danger may be something else. What is the one thing holding us back from a rich relationship with our Lord? Can it be our work? Our money? Our desire for success? Our desire for quick and easy money through such things like lotteries and casinos?  Our greed? Certain hobbies and pleasures? Are there any sins, or continual habits, that we can’t get rid of in our life like some hatred or disagreement with another person.  Maybe even our obstacle is something that appears good, like our families or life itself. Remember, even our children and families, and our lives themselves, are gifts from God that He loans us. We cannot possess them, or allow them to possess us.

All these things can become gods in and of themselves, replacing the one and only true God.  We must surrender all other desires and loves to our first and primary love -- Jesus Christ.

Remember, our Lord didn’t congratulate the rich young ruler by saying, “You have followed all the commandments from your youth. Great job! Don’t worry that you still have one problem hindering your spiritual growth.”  No, Christ said no such thing. Instead, he challenged the young man, “One thing you still lack.”  Correct that one thing and discover eternal life!

Tony Dungy reminded his Super Bowl winners “For what profit is it to a person if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” Today’s Gospel reading reminded us of a rich young man who asked a related question, yet in the end, didn’t like the answer and walked away.

May each of us begin by asking the necessary question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and then proceed in listening to the answer, striving to cast off anything that hinders us in experiencing a rich, vibrant, living relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the beginning of eternal life!

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