Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Jesus' High Ideals

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler ~ Heinrich Hofmann 1889

As he was starting out on a journey, a stranger ran up, and, kneeling before him, asked, 'Good Master, what must I do to win eternal life?' Jesus said to him, 'Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: "Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not give false evidence; do not defraud; honor your father and mother."'
'But Master,' he replied, 'I have kept all these since I was a boy.' Jesus looked straight at him; his heart warmed to him, and he said, 'One thing you lack; go, sell everything you have, and give to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; and come, follow me.' At these words his face fell and he went away with a heavy heart; for he was a man of great wealth. Mark 10:17-27

Notice that Jesus is "starting out on a journey" - he's on the road; he's in motion. I would suggest that these few words indicate what true religion is: an inner, spiritual movement. Now, Jesus is on the road, moving within you, within me. 

St Mark calls the fellow who ran up to Jesus a stranger. St. Matthew calls him, young. St Luke calls him a ruler.  If he is a stranger to Jesus because they have never met, still, we see that Jesus knows him already. That he was young suggests he has a lot to learn. Don't we all? That he was a ruler suggests he not only possesses money and wealth, but also power. 

We also understand that he was religious: not only does he know the commandments but he tells Jesus that he follows them. Jesus presses on. Oh, if religious people (including the clergy) only knew how often the instruction of Jesus is directed at them, instead of thinking his words are intended for someone else.

And as Jesus held up the ideal of marriage (no divorce) and the ideal of children (dependence, trust, vulnerability) in chapter 9, so here he holds up the ideal of owning nothing. We've forgotten that our nature is essentially spiritual, and so we remain unaware of the West's first sin which is consumerism: owning, buying, saving, stock-piling, exploiting, possessing. 

I said in a Sunday sermon once that there are many Christians who are more familiar with their bank books and stock portfolios than with their bibles. Quick: other than Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) name the favorite psalm you know by heart. But I digress.

I don't know how possible it is for Christians to live, "Go sell everything you have and give to the poor and come follow me." Chesterton says St. Francis of Assisi came closest to it. But I'd venture most of us could live closer to that ideal than we might imagine. I know a young Franciscan priest who has a number of times walked the 121 miles from Assisi to Florence (and back!) - carrying only a toothbrush, a change of underwear and some holy cards to give to people who extend to him any kindness along the way. And while no one is saying, "You have to do that too!" we probably could be more creative with this Jesus instruction than we are. 

The Greeks say, The fish stinks from the head. Maybe a suggestion the clergy could be the first to tryout Jesus' own nothing command. We notice too that this Gospel fellow, so hung up on his stuff, is the only person who ever goes away from Jesus sad.  Is Jesus proposing a remedy for us whose national suicide and addiction statistics are so sad and troubling?


  1. I don't think that I or anyone I know would give up all material things even if heaven was promised to us. I'd also be walking away with my head hung low. Even now this thought fills me with sadness.

  2. Well, that's VERY honest. But here's a way to begin to step up to the Jesus invitation - follow the rule of St. Basil, "If you haven't used it in a year, it no longer belongs to you, but to the poor." Whoa! That makes sense to me. That I can do. "If you haven't used IT" - whatever "IT" is - clothes, pots and pans, books, gadgets, sports equipment, entertainment stuff, shoes (that's a big one for lots of people), stuff in the linen closet, dishes....on and on. Salvation Army is my go-to place when I get to following Basil's rule. They have stores filled with stuff that folks can use. Also, this is just a rule I've got for myself: if I wouldn't wear it because it's old and worn out - then I don't give it away expecting it's okay for someone else. Those kinds of clothes are called rags. When I was a new priest the pastor put me in charge of a clothing drive. I was so disappointed: sequined bags, old gowns, old furs, high heals, bathing suits, even an old girdle! What the...!

  3. But giving away things that I don't use any longer doesn't seem like much of a sacrifice. Even though I give away clothes, shoes, coats, etc., it isn't the same as the coat off my back. Sometimes I buy new things with tags and donate them to church thrift shops and nonprofits that address children's needs. It makes me feel better to give something new and unworn. But still it is not a sacrifice. I always think of the saying "Give until it hurts". Maybe that is what Jesus really meant for this rich young man.

  4. I"m not sure. Americans are hoarders - that's why these storage bins are such big business. I think I heard that if they lined up the storage bins end to end, it would reach the moon. I don't know what's the national psychology behind that - all that collecting and having. Anyway, giving away stuff that we don't use is "not for nothin" - it keeps life simpler for starts. And we could feed people with the money we spend on securing all the stuff. But yeah, I've always said, "When you buy yourself a new pair of shoes, could you imagine buying two pair - one to give away?" And we could afford two pair perhaps if we didn't buy "the best" for ourselves. I said that to one congregation and they were ready to throw fruit at me. But then once I met an African priest who visited the rectory and in the conversation I found out he was the rector to a seminary, in Tanzania I think. I asked, "What do your seminarians need?" He said, "They have no underwear." So I told the folks at Mass on Sunday about the need and by Wednesday they had gone out and bought so much underwear, T shirts, socks, boxers ( I said, 'No sexy underwear") the priest couldn't carry it all back with him. Very generous. Everyone deserves something new!

  5. Thanks for the encouragement Father. If we could remember this every day and not only at certain times of year or when there is a disaster. I recall that you told us about collecting "basic needs" for the seminarians when the parish was taking donations for the families that had lost everything after we Sandy.

  6. I was assistant to a parish on Long Island that kept a large wooden box which parishioners filled with food to overflowing every week. It was very clear that when people went shopping for themselves and their families they also bought food to give away. They weren't giving left-overs or stuff out of date. On Monday morning when everything was gathered up and brought to the food pantry, I always felt it was a real witness to generosity and care for other people.

  7. I like the idea that Jesus is on the road with me each day, leading me, coaxing me, encouraging me to be charitable, humble and pure.