On Giving Everything

“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mk. 10: 21) These words of Jesus to the rich young man who says he wants to follow Jesus haunt us so powerfully that we all squirm and look for loopholes. Since few people have followed this advice literally, not even people who say they take the Bible literally, I guess I could say most of us have found at least one. My New Testament professor in seminary said that these words mean that we have to give up whatever it is that comes between us and the Kingdom of God That is pretty common loophole, but it also has much insight and doesn’t leave us off the hook altogether. As a Benedictine monk, I could self-righteously claim to have followed Jesus’ words since I have no legal title to anything, but the monastery I live in has possessions so I’m not so sure I follow Jesus’ words so thoroughly that I can look down on other people. On St. Benedict’s day, I think we can get a better idea of what Jesus’ words say us and how Benedict would have us understand them by looking at the other two lections for guidance.

Benedict models much of the Rule on the Bible’s Wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, often quoting or paraphrasing it, as in the admonition to apply the heart to understanding and call out for insight. (Prov. 2: 2–3) This suggests that understanding Jesus’ hard words requires commitment to know what they mean to us, no matter the cost. Speaking of cost, the Sage urges us to seek wisdom as we would for silver or hidden treasure. (Prov. 2: 4) The Sage seems to presuppose, as does Jesus, actually, that we tend to be greedy for riches and so the Sage and Jesus challenge us to desire wisdom at least as much as that. But why are silver and gold so desirable? They are desirable because they are desired. Other people want them so the rest of us want them too. Moreover, silver and gold are desired at the expense of other people. It isn’t enough to have some silver and gold; it is necessary to have more than the next person. Jesus, on the other hand, redirects us to the treasure in the field that is worth spending everything we have to obtain it. What kind of treasure is this? According to Proverbs, the treasure is “knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2: 6). Any takers?

In writing to the Colossians, St. Paul would have us clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Col. 2: 12) As if this isn’t enough, and it isn’t, Paul goes on to tell us to bear with one another, and forgive as God forgives us. And as if that still isn’t enough, and it isn’t, Paul admonishes us to clothe ourselves with love “which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col. 3: 14) Maybe that’s enough, but clothing ourselves with love takes all that we’ve got, or the cloak of love will be threadbare and cold. In any case, clothing ourselves in love leads us to “admonish one another in all wisdom,” which we are to treasure more than silver or gold. Wisdom is shown here to be a social quest, not an individual quest. We either grow in wisdom together, or we diminish into a bunch of fools. Rather than wanting more than others have, we value the well-being of others, even if it is at the expense of ourselves. Singing spiritual songs with gratitude is something Benedict expects his monastics to do all day. The Work of God (the Divine Office) is itself a great treasure, one that should be preferred above other treasures. To top all this off, we should “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3: 17) Once again, we have to give all that we’ve got. That’s all Jesus is asking of the rich young man and that’s all Jesus is asking of us. Sorry, no loopholes here.

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