Sometime in the 2nd half of the 3rd century, a young Egyptian named Anthony arrived at Church, just as the Gospel story we just heard [Mark 10:17-30] was being read. The future Saint Anthony of Alexandria, the so-called “father of monks,” was 19 or 20 at the time. Hearing Jesus’ words, Anthony felt that they had been spoken directly to him. Not long after, he gave away his possessions in order to lead a life of intense self-denial in the Egyptian desert. Every since, many have followed Anthony, interpreting Jesus’ words as a call - not necessarily for everyone in exactly the same way - to embrace an evangelical style of life, formalized eventually in what we now call the vocation of consecrated religious life in the Church.
Among them was the Church’s newest saint, Saint Junípero Serra, canonized by Pope Francis a few weeks ago in Washington, DC. Saint Junípero Serra gave up a career as a professor in Spain for the rugged and challenging life of a travelling missionary in far-away California.
All that, obviously, was still far in the future when Jesus looked lovingly at the rich man and said, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, then come, follow me.” These words, we are told, caused the rich man to go away sad.
So what, exactly, was the source of his sadness? Here was this man, who came to Jesus of his own accord, who all his life had, he said, observed all the commandments. But, when he heard Jesus’ invitation to go even farther, entering into a closer relationship with Jesus by changing his relationship with the world, his face fell, and he went away sad. Why? Because, we are told, he had many possessions.
That, the Gospel seems to be saying, is what possessions will do to you!
The rich man’s sadness reminded me of Pope Francis’s description of so much of our contemporary situation in his homily at the Mass for the opening of the Synod of Bishops last Sunday:
Today we experience the paradox of a globalized world filled with luxurious mansions and skyscrapers, but a lessening of the warmth of homes and families; many ambitious plans and projects, but little time to enjoy them; many sophisticated means of entertainment, but a deep and growing interior emptiness; many pleasures, but few loves; many liberties, but little freedom… The number of people who feel lonely keeps growing, as does the number of those who are caught up in selfishness, gloominess, destructive violence and slavery to pleasure and money.
Our experience today is, in some way, like that of Adam [The Pope here is talking about Adam alone in the Garden before the creation of Eve]: so much power and at the same time so much loneliness and vulnerability.
The remedy for Adam’s isolation was, of course, a relationship with another person, created (like him) by God. The remedy for the rich man’s isolation, Jesus seems to be suggesting, is likewise a renewed relationship with his fellow creatures, one which privileges people over possessions. Adam was lonely because he was, literally, alone in the world. Today’s individuals are lonely in a world full of people because they prize their individuality and thus suffer from a diminished solidarity with those with whom they share our common home.
It wasn’t just the rich man who was shocked and dismayed by Jesus’ words. In the kind of society in which Jesus’ lived, wealth was seen as a sign of blessing – a notion which our own consumerist society seems to have taken to its ultimate extreme. No wonder Jesus’ disciples were exceedingly astonished and worried “who can be saved?” No wonder if we, who live in the richest society in the history of the world, if we too ask that same question and ought to be worried as well!
Jesus’ challenge to the rich man – and, by extension, to all of us - was meant to be that kind of a radical, disconcerting challenge. For, as we just heard in the letter to the Hebrews, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart [Hebrews 4:12].
Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 11, 2015.