‘Go sell everything you own and give the money to the poor; then come, follow me’ (Mark 10:21).
Over this and the next Sunday I would like to talk to you about vocation, about being called by Jesus. When we think of vocation in the Church we immediately associate it with being a priest, or even a monk or a nun, this is not necessarily a bad thing because we do need more people to respond generously to these particular vocations, but today I would like to talk about vocation in a broader sense, that is about our common vocation to be followers of Jesus. This is the calling we all have received at Baptism and it is the calling that Jesus addresses to each and every person in the world; ‘come, follow me’.
Today our first look at vocation is accompanied by one of the hardest sayings of Jesus where he calls his prospective disciples to give away their possessions to help the poor, and to live with the determination of following him, without looking back. The words ‘Go sell everything you own and give the money to the poor; then come, follow me’ have been the subject of much debate from the very beginning of Christianity. Is Jesus really asking us to give up everything? or is he exaggerating, setting the bar high, as it were, so that we would at least do our very best to follow him? Is he talking in metaphors? or is he demanding this level of commitment only form a certain number of people?
I would like to give you three examples of how this verse has been interpreted by the early Church. One early commentator, Clement of Alexandria, wrote that what Jesus says here to the rich man
‘Is not … a command to fling away the substance that belongs to him and to part with his riches, but to banish from the soul … its attachment to [riches], its excessive desire, its morbid excitement over them, its anxious cares, the thorns of our earthly existence which choke the seed of the true life.’ (Clement of Alexandria, The Rich Man’s Salvation, 11)
So according to Clement, Jesus is talking in metaphors here, but somehow this interpretation does not fit with the rest of the gospel reading we have just heard. Yes, as Jesus calls each one of us to follow him he invites us to detach ourselves emotionally from all those things that might weigh us down, including our possessions, but I don’t think this is the only thing Jesus requires us to do here.
Another interpretation of this verse comes from the life of St Antony, the greatest of the desert fathers. Antony lived also in Alexandria; he had inherited considerable wealth and had plenty to live on. One day, as he walked into church, he heard a similar passage from the gospel being read; it said, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor…; then come, follow me.’ (Matthew 19:21). This verse struck him deeply, so he went out, gave away all that he had, and retired himself to a life of repentance, prayer, and manual work. He went on to become one of the founding figures of Christian monasticism, as thanks to him that world has never been the same again; a world where countless people following a monastic vocation remind all Christians about following Jesus in the strictest way possible. This is a very literal interpretation of our gospel reading, and not everyone has the courage or the vocation to follow it.
The last example I would like to put to you is from the life of St Basil, another Eastern saint. He and his siblings inherited a vast fortune but after having donated part of it for the relief of the poor, Basil consecrated the rest to the Glory of God, thus, he used his fortune not for himself, but to further the work of the Church, even to the point of building a new city composed by places of worship, free accommodations for the needy, and workshops so that both his monks and the poor could find employment and sustain themselves. In consecrating what he had to the Glory of God, Basil did not see himself as the owner of things, but as a faithful steward of what he had received, ready to administer his fortune so that the kingdom of God might advance touching those around him.
‘Go sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’.
These examples from the early Church show us three main ways of understanding our gospel reading, but as I said I would partly ignore the first, because it is too easy to fool ourselves with it – pretending we are emotionally unattached to possessions, whilst continuing to accumulate them. So, whichever one of these examples we decide to put into practice, one thing remains; our common vocation as followers of Jesus is to leave material things behind either entirely or administering them as faithful stewards of what we have receive from God. It is a tough thing to be asked to do; it is a hard, high calling, yet it is not something that can be done begrudgingly or out of coercion. Leaving things behind, emotionally or materially, is, like any other vocation, a generous response to God’s love. See what the gospel says about Our Lord’s encounter with the rich man, ‘Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him’ (10:21). It is only in response to the immeasurable love available to us in Jesus that we can fulfil our common vocation, it is only in response to this love that when Jesus calls, ‘come, follow me’, we can readily respond, ‘Yes, Lord, I come!’.