Give Up All You Have and Follow Me!

About a month ago, the Gospel reading was Mark 10:17-30:

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good?
No one is good but God alone.
You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother.”
He replied and said to him,
“Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
“You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
“How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words.
So Jesus again said to them in reply,
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
“Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.
All things are possible for God.”
Peter began to say to him,
“We have given up everything and followed you.”
Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.”

At first brush, this seems like a Gospel for works righteousness. In fact, a similar-sounding verse from the Deuterocanonical Sirach 3:30 is denounced as “Against the Bible” by a number of anti-Catholic sources. So what to make of this strange passage? Fr. De Celles, my priest, and the leader of our Wednesday Men’s Prayer Group, gave such an incredible homily on it that I just had to post the entire thing. He refused to post his own homilies, because he’s afraid it’ll lead to pride [Yes, he’s that humble]. Anyhow, without further ado, here’s the whole thing. If the formatting is weird, it’s because these were originally his speaking notes which I’ve tried to format for reading purposes.

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 11, 2009
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Mary Catholic Church, Alexandria, Va.

Today’s Gospel reading is one of the most rich and powerful in all of scripture. One of the most striking parts is Jesus’ command to the rich young man: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor.” Many people tend to focus on this when they read this passage, and understandably so, especially as it begins a rather lengthy discussion about the difficulty of having riches and going to heaven.

But before Jesus goes there he first answers the man’s question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” with a very simple answer: “You know the commandments”… and he precedes to list the 10 commandments. In other words: to go to heaven you must begin by keeping the commandments.

It’s only when the man says: ‘I’ve always kept these commandments’ that Jesus says: “Go sell everything you have and give it to the poor.”

Nowadays people kind of turn this on it’s head. They think, well if I do good things for the poor and needy, then those pesky commandments really aren’t that important. “Would Jesus really care if I’m having pre-marital or extra-marital sex, that silly “you shall not commit adultery”commandment, wouldn’t he really care more about me feeding the poor?” Even though Jesus says, clearly, if you want eternal life: “you shall not commit adultery.”

Some people want to think you can be greedy and dishonest and deceptive in business, as long as you give some of your profits to good causes, Even though Jesus says, if you want eternal life: “you shall not steal…you shall not bear false witness.”

And some people even think you can abort babies in their mothers’ wombs, But the very first commandment Jesus sites as necessary to gain eternal life is: “you shall not kill”!

This kind of attitude that acts of kindness to the needy sort of override the commandments reminds me of some of the medieval abuses involved in the illicit “selling of indulgences.” Now encouraging people to do charitable acts,including giving money to the poor or even to build a beautiful church, is in itself a good thing —so the Church used to grant indulgences to encourage these things. But sometimes in the middle ages, individual priests or bishops would abuse this practice by, in effect, marketing them as a way to buy your way into heaven —no matter how many terrible sins you had committed, they said, “you give so much money to building this church, and you go straight to heaven.” The church had always regularly condemned this practice, but there it was—some priests, bishops and even cardinals did it anyway.

It seems to me we saw a very similar thing in August, as various prelates and priests eulogized a certain deceased pro-abortion Catholic politician because in life he had championed laws giving money to support the poor. All this even though he had worked just as hard to support the killing of unborn babies. No amount of money, no amount of good deeds offset blatant disregard and even contempt for the commandments.

But beyond this, this false notion of Christian charity ignores one other fact. We need to remember that before he tells the rich young man “give to the poor” Jesus tells him to “sell what you have” —or as a more exact translation would put it: “sell everything you have.” This is very different from someone who writes a check to charity at the end of the month, when all the other bills or paid, or someone who considers paying his taxes as his gift to charity, much less a politician who thinks giving other people’s tax money to the need is charity.

“Sell everything.” Now, that’s troubling: does Jesus mean we all have to sell everything we have and give it to the poor?

It’s interesting, in his response to the rich young man Jesus doesn’t list all the commandments, but only the one’s that apply specifically to loving your neighbor: “honor your father and your mother.” “You shall not kill;…commit adultery;…steal;…bear false witness;…

Not a word about the first 3 commandments that refer exclusively to loving God: “I am the LORD your God: You shall have no other gods before me”; “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain”; and “Remember to keep holy the LORD’S Day.”

Is this some sort of oversight or mistake on Jesus’ part? Or is Jesus saying loving your neighbor is good enough –so the first 3 commandments about loving God aren’t that important:–for example it doesn’t matter if we have false God’s…

Clearly not. Then what is Jesus doing? I think he was setting the rich man up.

Look at what happens. When the rich young man first approaches Jesus he asks him: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus replies: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” It almost seems to be a non sequitur, or even rude. But Jesus is simply trying to make a point. The rich young man sees Jesus as a “good teacher,” and as Matthews account of this indicates he asks “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” He sees Jesus as a good man who can teach him what good deeds he, as a man, can do for other men to gain eternal life. But Jesus says: it’s not enough to do good things for your neighbor—you have to begin by doing good things for the only one who is truly good—God.

So Jesus, who is God the Son, looks at the young man, and Scripture says he “loved him, and said to him: “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor….then come, follow me.” “Jesus, God, loved him and said, “love me…follow me.”

Notice Jesus says “you lack one thing,” but then he lists three things to do. So what is the one thing the man lacks? It comes at the end: “follow me.” But one thing also stands in the way: he is too attached to all the things he has. Jesus has looked at him, as an individual, and recognized that while he’s kept the commandments regarding loving his neighbor, he’s broken the first 3 commandments regarding loving God, especially the first, which sums up all the rest: “I am the LORD your God: You shall have no other gods before me. The rich young man has made things and money more important than God, and until he gets rid of those things and loves God first, above everything else, he cannot have eternal life.

So you see, contrary to what too many people think, the point is not so much “to give to the poor”—as good as that is– but to get rid of anything and everything that comes between us and truly loving God, and following Jesus, God the Son incarnate.

That’s why you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t mention the poor again in this text. He goes on to explain that:”How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And again: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And again: “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up [something] …. for my sake …who will not receive ….eternal life.” But not one more word about the poor.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: Jesus loved the poor, and we’re supposed to love the poor—and help them. But that’s just not the point of this story, or rather, that’s only a secondary or perhaps tertiary point.

The main point of the story is first, keep the commandments: if you don’t get the basics down, what good is all the rest? This is true even in doing good works. I mean, I suppose it’s nice to “save the whales”, but what good is that if there are starving children down the block? And it’s good to provide food for starving children, but what good is that if you don’t protect their very right to life–“you shall not kill”? First, keep the commandments.

And in keeping the commandments remember to begin with the first and most important: the ones about loving God. That means being willing to give up anything that comes between you and God. For some of us, this means literally giving up everything we have to become a religious sister or friar or monk, or a priest. For others it means not being overwhelmed by economic worries—especially when God has blessed you have some savings in the bank. Or not being so distracted by working or buying or playing that you don’t have time to come to church—or to pray some time other than Sunday. Or being unhesitatingly generous with everyone God sends to you to help in their need.

You say, but father, I don’t know if I can do that. Maybe you’ve tried from time to time, you’ve made a resolve to love and follow Christ and to keep His commandments. But then you fall and get all caught up in all sorts of stuff—whether it be sins or just too many possessions. Sometimes it just seems impossible.

Sounds familiar. “They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,”Then who can be saved?””

Don’t worry—Jesus has that covered too: “For man it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”

As we prepare ourselves to enter more deeply into the mysteries of this Holy Mass, look deep into your heart and ask yourself: do I keep the commandments? do I put things or even people in front of loving and serving God, and following Christ?or do I make excuses, or think I can just buy my way into heaven by doing something nice for somebody? And as you do that, do not be discouraged by the times you’ve failed, and do not give up. Because God has not given up on you, and he can do anything. And as he comes down to this altar in the Eucharist, and you receive him in holy communion, know that he has come to you to give you his own power, his grace, to with make what is otherwise impossible for you alone imminently possible with him.

“You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

8 Comments

  1. The opening comments remind me of the Pharisees: seeking to scrupulously keep the parts of the law that they find important (assisting the poor) while waving away the core commandments (murder, adultery, greed, slander) as unfortunate necessities (Luke 11:39-43). What’s more, many of the people who find themselves agreeing with the pharisees want to condemn those who are keeping those core commandments. On the other hand, I’m not guiltless of having sometimes elevated niceties above the commandments. It’s an easy trap to fall into and it can prove very difficult to recognize at times.

    I loved the homily. Definitely gives one something to reflect on during the week.

  2. Whenever I hear these kinds of passages read, the radicalism is blunted by the end. Even those who should know better than I do, like Fr. De Celles, seem to reach this conclusion. So I guess I should defer. But at times it seems from reading many of the things Christ said (e.g. Lk 14:33; Lk 6:24-26; Lk 16:25; Lk 16:13; Mt 5:38-42; Mt. 8:20; Mt 25:40 and of course this parable and most notably the “it is easier for a camel…” portion) that we are faced with a radical choice between heaven and a normal–or even nearly normal–western life. In the light of Lk 14:33 can you save to buy a decent house, put your kids through college, and all the rest?

    I know that the Church doesn’t have a defined position. But they also haven’t said that the radicals’ interpretation is wrong. So what is your take–if you’ll indulge me? Doesn’t it seem that Tolstoy and all the rest who insisted that voluntary poverty is imposed on us as an obligation have a point? Is there a true Christianity that doesn’t call on us to be radicals?

  3. UdoCanis,

    All Christians are called to live lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but what that looks like will vary by one’s station in life.

    The Centurion in Mt. 8:5-13, for example, appears to be saved, despite being a powerful man, since his own rank and power enabled him to understand his unworthiness before his superior, God (Mt. 8:8-9). In other words, he was still living out the virtue of obedience, despite being a man who others obeyed. For many of us, it would work the opposite effect: we’d get drunk on a tiny taste of power, and it would hurt our sanctity.

    Likewise with poverty. There are some who own many goods, without getting owned by their goods, and who use these things for the glory of God. This wealth reminds them of their utter dependence upon God, so they’re able to live lives of poverty, even in the midst of wealth. So be it: for most, I think it would work the opposite effect.

    I am not well read on the dispute, but I understand the Church’s condemnation of the Fraticelli (a.k.a. the “Spirituals” or “Spiritual Franciscans”) as having settled the Tolstoy question. They attacked material wealth as inherently evil, while Christ denounces not money, but the love of money.

    I think the Jesuits hit the nail on the head with holy indifference: rejoice in feasts, rejoice in famines, and give all to the glory of God. That, I might add, is much harder than it sounds, and voluntary poverty of the sort Tolstoy calls for might be the answer for many people.

    I.X.,

    Joe

  4. Ok thanks. That seems technically correct. But it is so abstract, that I think people in the pews (as it were) can’t see the full application.

    So let me try to force concreteness. Can I buy a Mercedes even though a beater would get the job done in a world where people starve so long as I put God before the Mercedes? That sounds snarky, but its not meant to be. What I’m getting at is: is luxury ipso facto putting ourselves where love of neighbor should be? Or is lavishing yourself with things you don’t need in a world where people go without things they need a violation of the golden rule?

    It seems that being rich *involves* a violation of the golden rule. And, as such, is per se wrong. Where did I go wrong?

    **Edited for clarity

  5. UdoCanis,

    The best explanation I’ve heard defending owning an expensive car would be a functional one — that it’s necessary for one’s station in life. For example, (1) a priest who owns an expensive SUV with four-wheel drive so he can visit shut-in parishioners in inclement weather, or (2) perhaps a financial analyst who needs a nice car (since driving a bad car would make it appear, to clients, that he was a poor businessman), or (3) someone who buys a nice car since its a better investment over the lifespan of the car, or (4) someone who owns nice things out of respect for their office [e.g., St. Thomas More wearing fine clothing over his hairshirt].

    The most troubling of these four examples is the second one, but I think it’s defensible. I’m sure that you’re familiar with the axiom that it takes money to make money. It’s possible that someone who surrounds themselves with expensive trappings as a way of (essentially) marketing themselves as a successful professional can do so with a legitimate love of the poor in their heart.

    Think about charitable trusts: precisely because they have a lot of capital can they generate a perpetual flow of interest, that then goes to charitable causes (assuming that I’m understanding how charitable trusts work). If you were to drain and donate the entire trust tomorrow, that’d be great, in the sense of a lot of money going to help the poor. But it would be a one-time shot in the arm, rather than a steady stream. Over the course of its life, the charitable trust left to accrue interest provides more to the poor.

    So Peter Singer’s idea that each dollar spent on oneself over the bare minimums is ripped from the mouth of the poor strikes me as flawed, since it seems to assume a mercantile world with a finite amount of wealth.

    So if the choices are “give up 100% of everything you have to the poor, and become poor,” or “continue to make money, but give of it to the poor,” I’m not personally convinced that the first of those choices is the only morally licit one.

    Having said all of this, if memory serves, St. Thomas is quite clear that the right to basic necessities trumps the right to private property. So if a person who is poor through no fault of their own needs your excess goods to live, it’s not immoral for them to take them.

    And St. John Chrysostom says, “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”

    So while I think it’s possible to live a life of wealth in the face of poverty and still be a faithful Catholic, there are certain serious hazards to this approach.

    I.X.,

    Joe

  6. That is very nice. Thank you. You could almost make Singer’s idea work (though I wish we could name it for someone more honorable) if you were to say that dollars such as the money in the charitable trust (or even on a car for the right reasons) are not “spent on oneself.” Rather they are indirectly spend on someone who needs it (or some other worthy cause; art maybe, to press the illustration).

    But I think that’s pretty radical! I mean, yea, it’s not per se bad having these things. But “luxury” kind of is. That is not how we live in the west (or at least not me!).

    Anyway, thanks. Interesting, troubling stuff.

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