Every once in a while I read something about an all-too familiar Bible story and suddenly I see it in a new light. Take the anecdote about the rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to gain eternal life, the one who inspired Jesus’ remark, “It is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
I’ve never thought that story held any lesson about prayer. But recently I was reading the book Praying the Truth, by Jesuit writer and spiritual director William A. Barry. He continually stresses how essential it is to be honest when we pray: to say all the difficult, unkind, unsaintly, angry things that cross our minds.
He gave a talk at a university and afterward a professor came up to him and said, “I want to have a closer relationship with God, but I know that if I do get close, God will ask something of me and I’m afraid of that request.” Barry blurted out, “You can tell God exactly that.” Then he goes on to talk about the rich man who asked Jesus, “What must I do to gain eternal life?” (Mark 10:17-27).
Jesus gave the man the litany of commandments to follow: Don’t commit murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat, honor your father and your mother. The rich man responded, sounding a bit smug, “Teacher, I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”
Then Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. “Go, sell what you own,” Jesus said, “and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” The rich man said nothing but went away saddened because, in the Bible’s damning phrase, “he had many possessions.”
What if he hadn’t walked away? What if he had exclaimed instead, “Jesus, I want to follow you, but what you’re asking is really hard?” What if he had lingered and listened? What if he’d kept the conversation open and stayed present as you do in prayer? He would have heard one of the best lines of all about what seems impossible to us. “All things are possible for God,” Jesus said.
Barry’s point: Just ask. You can’t go wrong asking.