Billy Robb on the ‘radical call’

March 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

My friend and former colleague, Billy Robb, offers a guest post describing a recent lecture of his on the topic of poverty and spirituality, questioning how well he’d measure up to the rich young man from the Gospel of Mark.

Detachment and Eternal Life

March 13, 2013

By Billy Robb

“When you ask Jesus what you need to do to inherit eternal life, what does he say?”

I was standing in front of a small audience of students and teachers at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert when Jimmy Tricco, a dear friend and former colleague, asked me this question.

I had just delivered a talk about spirituality, justice, and Jesuit education. I spoke about the radical call to discipleship and the dire need for us to activate this call for the sake of love and peace in our world. I said that only by giving our whole selves to this call, following the example of Jesus, do we become fulfilled as human beings.

Early in the talk I had used the story of Jesus and the rich man, as told in the Gospel of Mark. Fittingly, this Gospel passage was also used as the central theme at Xavier that week for the school’s Summit on Human Dignity: Education in the Margins.

In the story, the man asks Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells the man to part with his possessions and “come, follow me.” For the rich man, this request hit a raw nerve, the final desperate grasp of his inordinate attachment, the last “yes, but not THAT” in his arsenal.

When the question turned on me, I babbled. I got caught by the phrase “eternal life” and talked about how God loved me no matter what. I am a loved sinner, thank God. I evaded the question, pretending like I hadn’t just used the story as the entry point into a conversation about human fulfillment.

Jimmy clarified: “What are those attachments you need to give up, in order to answer the call to discipleship?”

Again I waffled, giving a few examples of how I benefit from unjust social structures: I would never want to spend all day in a cramped factory sewing shoes together, but I am happy to pay and receive the fruits of some distant person’s dreary life. I like to criticize our country for exploiting the Earth and mingling in international affairs, but I am happy to burn oil flying here and there at my fancy. In order to become truly fulfilled, I answered, I would need to find an exit strategy from these troublesome conveniences.

But the question cut deeper than that, and it has been burning in my thoughts and prayers ever since. What do I cling to, more than anything? What causes me to walk away sad, attached, unable to face the love of my creator?

It’s not so simple. My entire life is interwoven into the American superstructure: Lights burning, refrigerator cooling, laptop screen glowing, streets upon streets of houses doing the same. Concrete oceans, interrupted by steel buildings. While our cities pulsate, our humanity suffocates. Instead of engaging in each other through community, we live separated, ignoring each other in our busyness while raving about our increased connectivity. And I am guilty.

What do I need to do to inherit eternal life? Not comfortable life, not impulse-satisfying life, not feel-good-about-myself-for-doing-good-deeds life. Not pretty good life or bearable life. Eternal life.

In reflecting on this question, two profound insights that I received when making Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises struck me (again): First, I am not in control. Second, this is not about me.

My own eternal life is inextricably tied to everyone else’s eternal life. The doorway to the truth of God’s love was opened to me gradually, thanks to many people on various steps of my life journey. If we stepped backward through time we could trace a stunning web of interpersonal influences tied back to Jesus himself, and then still further to the historical, philosophical, and religious underpinnings that set the stage for His message. Looking forward, I cannot step through this doorway alone because I exist as one of seven billion souls on this planet. My life will be a thread in the fabric of humanity.

When preparing my talk, I stressed for months. I labored over each line, as if grammatical structure would determine whether students would “see the light.” It all depended on me. My talk was on a Thursday. On Friday, the last day of the Summit, we celebrated Mass. The setting created a reverent space for the teenagers to process all of the information from the Summit. Fr. Scott Santarosa, a Jesuit priest from Dolores Mission in Los Angeles, delivered a soul-igniting homily using the week’s Gospel passage. The words seemed to flow out of him: stories from his parish, metaphors for the Kingdom of God, and an interpretation of the story of Jesus and the rich man. He said Jesus is telling us to give up control, to give up power. To let go.

In that moment, I felt he was speaking to me. Any salvific movement will be messy and require courageous forfeitures of the status quo. But the saving work is God’s, not mine.

Billy Robb

Billy Robb

Billy Robb is a first-year graduate student at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, CA. Prior to attending the JST, Robb taught psychology at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, CA. He can be reached at


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