In the Gospel of St. Matthew (19:16-26), we find this encounter between our Lord Jesus and a young man possessed by his many possessions.
At that time someone came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.
St. Peter of Damaskos reflecting on this Gospel lesson is quite critical of the rich, young man.
“It is with reference to this incident that St. Basil the Great observes that the young man lied when he said that he had kept the commandments; for if he had kept them, he would not have acquired many possessions, since the first commandment in the Law is, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul’ (Duet. 6:5). The word ‘all’ forbids him who loves God to love anything else to such an extent that it would make him sad were it to be taken away. After this the Law says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18), that is, ‘you shall love every man’. But how can he have kept this commandment if, when many other men lacked daily nourishment, he had many possessions and was passionately attached to them? If, like Abraham, Job and other righteous men, he had regarded those possessions as the property of God, he would not have gone away sorrowing. St. John Chrysostom says the same thing: the young man believed that what was said to him by the Lord was true, and this was why he went away full of sorrow, for he had not the strength to carry it into effect. For there are many who believe the sayings of the Scriptures, but have not the strength to fulfil what is written.” (The Philokalia: Vol. 3, p 184)
I suppose all of us fall into the young man’s temptation of selectively reading Scripture, and literally interpreting only those teachings with which we agree, and seeing those teachings that we actually do as more important than those we are not willing to fulfill.
Christ’s teachings do challenge us on what it means to own anything – do we really own things, or are they given to us by God as a stewardship for the short time we have them on earth? As some saints noted, property and possession are not really ours and the proof of this comes at our death when we leave them all behind, no matter how much we valued them or how hard we had worked to earn them. “You can’t take it with you,” is a truism that each of us experiences at death.
St. John Chrysostom reminds us:
“Some people see the houses in which they live as their kingdom; and although in their minds they know that death will one day force them to leave, in their hearts they feel they will stay forever. They take pride in the size of their houses and the fine materials with which they are built. They take pleasure in decorating their houses with bright colors, and in obtaining the best and most solid furniture to fill the rooms. They imagine that they can find peace and security by owning a house whose walls and roof will last for many generations. We, by contrast, know that we are only temporary guests on earth. We recognize that the houses in which we live serve only as hostels on the road to eternal life. We do not seek peace or security from the material walls around us or the roof above our heads. Rather, we want to surround ourselves with a wall of divine grace; and we look upward to heaven as our roof. And the furniture of our lives should be good works, performed in a spirit of love.” (On Living Simply, p 11)