It goes without saying that most of us want to “improve” our lives, in spite of the downside that many of us often feel. How do we do it? But, to gain clarity in the question, we have to figure out what we mean by “improvement.” Is it making more money? Is it having a prestigious job? Do I need more possessions?
The fact is that we have to know what part of us needs “improvement.” The inside or the outside? What God and I see (inside) or what others see (outside)? We are actually speaking of two levels of “improvement.” The first level is “outside.” What do other people think about me? How do they think that I could improve? The second level is “inside.” What do God and I think about my motivations while dealing with others?
The first level of improvement (outside) can be a relatively selfish one, because it is very important that people have a good impression of me no matter how I gain it. It is important that I look good to others. The second level of improvement (inside) is the relatively generous one, because only God and myself know my motivations when I am dealing with others.
In the Gospel reading for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mark 10:17-27), we have an example of someone who is forced to choose between the two levels of “improvement.” A well to do man approaches Jesus and asks, “Master, what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus looks at him and notices that this is a person of wealth who appears to be looking for something more than what he has in order to gain salvation.
So Jesus proposes the dual level approach to see which one the man will choose. “You should keep the commandments.” This is the the minimal level for being considered a “good person” in the Christian scheme of things. How does one appear before others? The man responds,”But I have kept these from my youth.” Now, the bar of discipleship has been raised. Jesus is aware that the man is serious about his search for eternal life, so he probes the issue of motivation which is the interior reason for outward action.
Jesus then says, “Only one thing is missing. Go, sell what you have, give the money to the poor, then follow me.” I feel certain that this statement by Jesus was more than the man, with the good will, was able to handle. What to do? What to do? After some thought, the man left somewhat disappointed, quite likely because he felt that Jesus was asking too much. As the Gospel tells us, the man had many possessions. No doubt he was unwilling to accept Jesus’ raising the bar of discipleship.
We can learn many things from the Gospel, but I would like to suggest these reflections. All of us are frequently challenged by the question “Am I doing enough to be called a true disciple of Jesus?” Keeping the commandments is the minimal level of being called a disciple of Jesus. But there are many who, like the man in the Gospel, realize that that is not enough.
And it was for this reason that Jesus told the wealthy man that something was missing in his life. The man was told to sell what he had, give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. But he couldn’t do it because he had too many possessions and he couldn’t say “no” to the now. Jesus does not want all of us to be a Francis of Assisi, but he does want us all to aim higher than just keeping the commandments in our journey to eternal life.
This is why motivation is so important, because it provides the “why?” for the “what?” that we do in dealing with others. And quite precisely not everyone will be aware of our motivation–that is, except Jesus. And if we keep this in mind, we will no doubt be seeking a “better” life, namely, by becoming a more effective disciple of Jesus.