by MOST REV. MICHAEL NNACHI OKORO
Catholic Bishop of Abakaliki Diocese, Nigeria
“GO, SELL ALL THAT YOU HAVE”!
(AND GIVE TO THE POOR, THEN COME FOLLOW ME) MK. 10:21
“And to my friends I must say: beware of the temptation of riches. It is much more serious than it may appear today to well-mentioned Christians, and it sows destruction primarily because we underestimate its danger. Riches are slow poison, which strikes almost imperceptibly, paralyzing the soul at the moment it seems healthiest”. Carlo Carretto.
The gospel periscope for our reflection focuses on riches and the call to discipleship. All the synoptic gospels have an account of it. Matthew calls him a rich young man, Mark calls him a man, and Luke refers to him as a Jewish leader. What is fundamentally at stake is neither age, nor gender nor religious position. It is simply put, the fact of the possession of wealth. Carretto captures our theme most succinctly. “Beware of the temptation of riches.” It has the capacity to compromise the soul’s desire for eternal life by making it ignore the call to authentic discipleship.
In the passage under consideration, after the man left with a gloomy countenance, the words of Jesus looking at his disciples cannot be ignored. He says, “How hard it will be for rich people to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mk. 10:23). The disciples were shocked at these words (verse, 24). Further on, in complete amazement the same disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Mk. 10:26). One could begin to wonder, what would be the reaction of the men and women of our time to the words, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor . . . .”? What could possibly be your response?
To proceed with our reflection, the letter of St. Paul to Timothy comes readily to mind where he says, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” By craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and broken their hearts with many sorrows (1 Tim. 6:10). Taking a cue from these words of St. Paul, it is not actually money that is at stake but the love of it. Similarly, Christ is very specific on the danger of possessions. He is not against possessions per se. The warning is clear; money has the tendency of turning itself into a ‘god’ and to make a worshipper out of its owner. Money is not lord (dominus) but a servant (servus) and should be treated as such.
When it comes to the quest for Christian perfection, Christ in our context reminds us that the initial or primary step is the observance of the commandments. Just as justice precedes charity, every authentic spiritual growth begins with the keeping of the commandments. This fundamental step cannot be ignored for it is the foundation of all authentic charity towards God and neighbour. The call to voluntary poverty for its part remains an evangelical counsel and a virtue in so far as it reminds man of his limitations and emphasizes his indispensable need for God to arrive at his true end and achieve the purpose of his existence. As a vow in the Church, poverty aims at detachment from material things and as a ‘means’ of making charity possible. For Christ himself, rich though he was, became poor to enrich our poverty.
The imperative, “Go, sell all you have!” was shocking and amazing even to the disciples because wealth was seen as a blessing from God. The same perception is not lacking in our time. However, in addition to this concept of wealth as divine blessing is allied the modern man’s conviction that astuteness is key to wealth and earthly progress. For politicians and public office holders it is all about ‘knowing the way it is done.’ It is about method. The ability to manipulate and outsmart others, in fact out-right cheating is celebrated among the sons and daughters of men. The manipulation of figures and scales referred to in the parable of the astute steward and by the prophet Amos is still much with us today. The situation is such that people now question freely the value of the virtues of honesty and sincerity.
Without leaving any doubt the evil of dishonest wealth, the source of wealth is not so much the issue at stake in our reflection. Whether wealth is honest or dishonest, a fruit of divine blessing or human ingenuity and astuteness, the real warning is that wealth or riches constitutes a real danger to eternal life. The Psalmist warns, ‘in his riches man lacks wisdom. He is like the beasts that are destroyed (cf Ps 49:20). In truth, the rich and the poor alike are called to discipleship as a means of eternal salvation. Discipleship implies that there is a master, a teacher, a role model, a guide. This creates some impression of dependence. This exactly what the rich man reacts to. Wealth or riches create some sense of independence. The wealthy is tempted to forget that it is God and not his wealth that saves him.
At a deeper or more profound level, the imperative, “Go, sell all you have . . .”, is an opportunity to make a fundamental choice on which master to serve. On this point, Christ is very emphatic, “No one can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or be attached to the first and despise the second. You cannot be the slave of God and of money” (Matt 6:24). The truth then is that the sense of independence that wealth creates is a false one. The rich get the impression that they are free but indeed they are slaves to their possessions. As Fulton J. Sheen would put it, “Wealth is a pitiless master”. Little wonder the Latin adage says that ‘amor habendi habendo crescit – the love of having increases by having.’ ‘Having’ and specifically the ‘love having’ enlarge the appetite to have more. If this crave is not controlled, it becomes overwhelming. Unfortunately, it does not just continue as a pleasure desire. The fear of the possibility of losing his possessions and the prospect of becoming poor begin to dominate the person’s life. At this point, the rich man is often tempted to protect his wealth even at the risk of his life. Selfishness and fear fuel this ‘craze/madness’. With time, the preoccupation with how to remain rich turns into a gnawing fear that strikes at the soul and paralyzes it. While people around him are busy asking what he is going to do with all the money, the rich man is lost in his pursuit of wealth as his only hope of ‘salvation’. That is the price man pays when he chooses to worship/serve a thing instead of God, the Supreme Being. This is the definition of idolatry.
In a word, life is always a choice to serve God or a god. To put oneself at the service of higher ideals and virtue or to be enslaved by our lower passions. Each time we reject the demands of virtue and self-sacrifice (true love), we in a way tend to have chosen the alternative which is vice. Little wonder the Catechism of the Catholic Church presents us not only with a table of seven (7) capital sins but also adds the contrary virtues. Pride is opposed to humility (its remedy), avarice to liberality, envy to brotherly love, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth are called ‘capital’ sins because they engender other sins and vices (cf. CCC 1866). At a closer glance, they are all choices which are inimical to the eternal life of the soul and therefore opposed to God.
In conclusion, the general experience of life seems to be one of frustration for all mortals that lack a deep and spiritual contentment. In our life pursuits, every success or achievement seems to be followed by the question, is this all I have been laboring for? After this what next? The feeling that something is lacking is always there. This explains St. Augustine’s position in his Confessions that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. The rich man not only had wealth but had also kept all the commandments. Yet he lacked the perfection of charity. Only God and not earthly ventures and achievements can calm the restlessness of the immortal soul.
The sadness of the man at the command from Christ, “Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor . . .”, reveals the profound situation of the heart that is attached to riches. A certain translation puts it thus: ‘gloom spread over his face’ and another says, ‘his face fell’. It is important to note that it was the words of Christ that caused the sadness. Indeed there is nothing saddening in the words of Christ, for the same words made a saint out of Anthony of Egypt. The point is that the words of Christ spoken after a penetrating gaze laden with salutary love brought to the surface the real condition of the soul of the rich man. He was profoundly and in reality a sad man, a salve to his possessions. He was like the Church in Sardis (cf. Rev 3:1), with a reputation for being alive but in reality dead. One may begin to wonder how many Christian souls are in this condition. These words of Christ are being addressed again to all trapped in similar darkness of sadness. It is another opportunity to regain your freedom from slavery. This also includes the materially poor who are covetous of heart. Indeed, the rich man and the covetous poor man are afflicted with the same malady. The difference may just be opportunity.
The rich man was fundamentally poor and the only way to heal him of his poverty was for him to let go of his riches by giving them to Christ who is to be found daily in the poor and downtrodden of every time and clime. Unfortunately, just as the person with body odour is the last to perceive it, and just as the mad person sees the sane as the mad one and therefore thinks nothing of his madness, the rich man is often the last to realize his destitute state. But the love of Christ sees all. Let us trust him and let go of our riches by serving him (Christ) in the poor in order to be healed of our poverty.
+ MOST REV. MICHAEL NNACHI OKORO
Catholic Bishop of Abakaliki Diocese, Nigeria