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 (what we now call a “young adult,” the age group the church is especially focused on right now in the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment meeting in Rome). Hearing Jesus’ words, Anthony felt that they had been spoken directly to him. And so, not long after, he gave away his possessions in order to lead a more seriously spiritual life in the Egyptian desert. Ever since, many have followed Anthony as priest, brothers, and sisters, interpreting Jesus’ words as a call - not necessarily for everyone in exactly the same way - to embrace a Gospel style of life, formalized eventually in what we now call the vocation of consecrated religious life in the Church.
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, someone who seemed to have it all, who seemed to have everything going for him, everything to live for, and who, on top of all that, had observed all the commandments. Yet, when he was personally invited to have 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!
I like to think that one reason the rich man was so said was because he was lonely – in the way that wealth isolates people from one another (as Jesus himself illustrated in his famous parable of the rich man and Lazarus). The remedy for the rich man’s isolation, Jesus seems to be suggesting, is likewise a renewed relationship with others, one which privileges people over possessions. Last Sunday, we heard a story about how lonely Adam was when he was still, literally, all alone in the world. A lot of people today are lonely in a world that is full of people because so many things separate us – wealth, obviously, which is so unevenly shared and so builds barriers between people, but other things too, technology, for example, which, far from connecting us as promised, seems instead to isolate us at a deeper level.
Is it any wonder that so much of our religious talk tends to focus on other issues, other subjects, other sorts of sins – rather than on this problem of possessions, on the spiritual danger in riches, the thing that Jesus diagnosed as the greatest threat, the greatest obstacle to becoming who God created us to be, the greatest obstacle to our ending up where God wants us to be?
It wasn’t just the rich man, after all, who was shocked and dismayed by Jesus’ words. After all, in the kind of society in which Jesus’ lived, wealth was seen as a sign of blessing – a notion which our own consumerist American 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!
Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, October 14, 2018.