Sell All You Own and Follow Christ

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”

So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.

And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”   (Luke 18:18-27)

It is often debated as to  how literally we are to obey some of the Gospel commandments of Christ.  If everyone tried to sell all their belongings and give them away, what would happen?  Well for one thing there would be no one to buy anything since everyone else was also trying to sell everything.  And if everyone gave up everything, all of civil society would soon come to an end as no one would ‘have’ anything.  It wouldn’t take long before poverty set in and then famine and disease as no one was able to do anything because they couldn’t claim ownership of anything.  So it is not too hard to see that Christ’s teachings were not always universal laws that all must obey.  Rather, He was a wisdom teacher and gives to individuals the medicine they need for their own healing and to become fully human.  The teaching to give everything away was aimed at a particular man who seemed to trust that his riches were the sign that God favored him.  In effect Christ tells the man, since God seems to favor you and has given you all these blessings, give them all away – let’s see if you love and trust God the giver of every good and perfect gift or if you really only love your blessings.  Obviously the man loved the blessings more than He loved God and he certainly wasn’t willing to trust God to provide for him if he gave his blessings away.

In the desert fathers, we find a story of one monk who decided to take the teachings of Christ literally:

One of the monks, called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: I have sold the book which told me to sell all that I had and give to the poor. (From Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 37)

Anyone person is capable to literally following this teaching of Christ – even to give away the Scriptures to fully keep the commandment.  The monk had already abandoned civil society and moved to the desert to live the harsh life there.  He had given up the comforts of society, but decides to take the teaching to the next level and even give away the scriptures which had taught him how to live.   We do not know what became of this monk, but we do learn that it is possible to follow Christ’s teachings to the limit.  It is not necessary to have an abundance of possessions in order to be a Christian.  The blessings of God are not something to be accumulated, but to be shared with others.

Ambition

The desire of the righteous ends only in good; the expectation of the wicked in wrath.  (Proverbs 11:23)

From the fruit of his mouth a good man eats good, but the desire of the treacherous is for violence.  (Proverbs 13:2)

Desire is sometimes presented in spiritual writings as a root cause of humanity’s problems.  Certainly, in Buddhism, desire is the cause of suffering, and in fact in some forms of Buddhism, desire is what brought the world that we know into existence.  Christian Scriptures on the other hand present a far more nuanced view of desire.  There is evil desire and the desire for evil, but there is also good desire as well as the desire for the good.  Desire can motivate us to seek God, to seek that Beauty, Truth and Goodness which is beyond the limits of the self.  Desire, on the other hand, can be nothing more than sinful passion – a selfishness moving one away from God or even against one’s fellow human beings.   Thus desire can lead to love for God and for the good of others, or it can bring us to total self love with a disregard for all others.

If desire becomes strong enough it can motivate us to forgo immediate gratification and instead strive for long term goals.  That we sometimes term ambition and at least at one time was connected to being willing to work hard to achieve a goal.

Ambition: a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.  (online Dictionary)

Today, however, ambition is often viewed more negatively and nefariously as self-serving:

Ambition: an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

We are warned in the New Testament about such ambition:

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.   (James 3:16)

Perhaps because of the negative connotation of ambition, I was really struck by the Revised English Bible’s (REB) translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12:

Let it be your ambition to live quietly and attend to your own business; and to work with your hands, as we told you, so that you may command the respect of those outside your own number, and at the same time never be in want.  

By contrast the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translates the text this way: “aspire to live quietly…”

I can desire or aspire to live quietly and attend to my own business.  It is easy for me personally as a person who is both an introvert and shy.  But to make it my ambition?  This is a challenge for me and maybe for all of us.  We might hope that somehow things will fall into place and be peaceful, but St. Paul says we are to make it our ambition to live quietly.  There is a seeming contradiction in terms, which is what makes the text stand out so in my mind.  We are to strive to live quietly and peacefully.  My ambition should be to live quietly!   The jarring nature of the phrase is exactly because for us ambition is viewed mostly as a self-serving pursuit of self-glorification.  It is the difference, as I heard someone say, between the explorers who were seeking knowledge about the world as versus the adventurers who are seeking fame and glory for their own name.

But ambition itself is not the sin or the problem.  The issue is what are we ambitious to do?

Our ambition as Christians is to live the values of the peaceable Kingdom.  Our ambition is to be peaceful, meek, patient, poor, humble, gentle, always putting the good of the other ahead of our own wants.

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.     (Acts 4:32-35)

St. Paul Living On Earth as In Heaven

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

St. John Chrysostom writes about the Apostle:

“For this Paul, who stripped down to his flesh, renouncing his body, and almost naked, encircled the whole world with his soul, having exiled from his mind every passion. And imitating the apathea of the bodiless powers, and living on earth as if in heaven, and standing with the cherubim above, and taking part in their mystical song, he easily bore everything – enduring, as if he were in another’s body, imprisonment, chains, arrests, scourgings, threats of death, stonings, dunkings, and every other kind of punishment.”

(Letters to Saint Olympia, p. 78)

Cultivating vs Chaos

“Woe to the road if no one walks along it nor hears in it the voice of man, because it has become the den of wild beasts!  Woe to the soul in which the Lord does not pass along its route and from which the Lord does not drive out by his voice the spiritual wild beasts of evil!

 Woe to the house where the master does not abide!

Woe to the earth which does not have a farmer to cultivate it!

Woe to the ship without a navigator, because it is carried along by the waves and by the heaving of the sea and is lost!

Woe to the soul which does not have the true navigator, Christ, in it, because finding itself on the sea of frightful darkness and tossed to and fro by the heaving of the passions and beaten by the winter storm of evil spirits, it finally gains perdition!

Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ, cultivating it with care so as to bring forth good fruits of the Spirit; because left sterile and filled with thorns and thistles, its fruit finally is burning in the fire.  Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ as its Master dwelling in it, because being abandoned and filled with the foul odor of passions, it finds itself a dwelling place of iniquity.

Just as the farmer, when he girds himself to cultivate the soil, must take the tools and clothing for cultivating, so Christ the King, the heavenly and true cultivator, when he came to humanity made barren by evil, put on the body and carried the cross as his tool and worked the barren soul and removed from it the thorns and thistles of evil spirits and pulled up the weeds of sin and burned up with fire every weed of its sins.

And in this way he cultivated it with the wood of the cross and planted in it the most beautiful paradise of the Spirit, bearing every fruit that is sweet and delectable to God as its owner.”

(Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES AND THE GREAT LETTER, pp 184-185)

Naked I Came Into the World

When the same Abba Macarius was in Egypt he found somebody who had a beast of burden carrying off his things. Standing beside the robber as though he were a stranger, he helped him load up the beast then sent him on his way in great hesychia, saying: “‘We brought nothing into this world and it is clear that neither can we carry anything out’ [1 Tim 6.7].

The Lord has given and it has transpired as he willed it to; blessed be the Lord in all things [see Job 1.21].”

(Give me a Word, p. 184-185)

Where There is No Struggle, There is No Virtue

Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it: where there is no struggle, there is no virtue; where there are no temptations for faithfulness and love, it is uncertain whether there is really and faithfulness and love for the Lord. Our faith, trust, and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow, and privations.      (John of Kronstadt, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, p. 391)

Looking Death in the Face, Seeing Christ

Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd. And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

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Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother. Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us”; and, “God has visited His people.”    (Luke 7:11-16)

In any given week any of us might hear about a tragedy which has struck someone we know.  Someone is diagnosed with cancer, a young couple suffers a miscarriage, mental illness interrupts a family’s plans, a father loses his job, a wife is told her husband plans to divorce her.  A death occurs and we must attend a funeral.

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Many of us have experienced such news, and perhaps we felt totally sick deep inside because of what was going on.

In today’s Gospel, we see our Lord Jesus moved to compassion for a woman when he learns that she is already a widow and now her only son has died.  Jesus was deeply moved by the grief he observed in others.  Thirteen times in the New Testament we read about Jesus being moved to compassion when he encounters the suffering of others.  And we might note the word compassion is used in the New Testament only of Jesus.  No one else in the New Testament is said to be compassionate except Jesus.

When Jesus encountered this widow, the text of the Gospel says Jesus felt the loss in a gut wrenching way.  His stomach tightened.  His throat constricted and he swallowed hard.  His body was moved by the pain he saw in another.

And yet, he was not defeated by death, as Isaiah the Prophet had said of God:

He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken.   (Isaiah 25:8)

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And we who are united to Christ are to bring the compassion of the Savior to all of those who weep and grieve, to all of those who cause us to be moved to compassion. We can pray:

O Lord, be merciful to each person who is suffering pain or loss.  Bless those who mourn.  Comfort those who grieve.  Give us the gift of compassion so that we too might care for those who are sick or grieving or suffering.  Give us courage not to look away from them or their need, but to approach them and offer them our hand in fellowship, to help us care for them with co-suffering love, so they may know that they are not alone in their sorrow.  Grant us to be your servants, caring for your people.

Jesus  who wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, tells this sorrowful widow not to weep.  He knows the pain of loss and separation.  He is not telling her it is wrong to weep for He Himself wept.  He comes to take on Himself our pains and sorrows and to heal our broken hearts.  He wants her to hear His words of hope.  As Jesus proclaimed:

Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.  . . .   So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.  (John 16:20, 22)

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Jesus says to all His disciples including us that we will weep and lament  in life.  He says we will experience sorrow – He does not promise constant prosperity.  He does not promise that we will be spared the  trials of life or the sorrows of this world.  However, He says He has overcome the world, and Christ promises that we will have a joy which will not be taken away from us.  His promise is echoed in the words of St. John:

and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”  (Revelation 21:3-4)

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Every year at Pascha we go with the Myrrhbearing women to the tomb of Christ.  And we hear the same words that Mary Magdalene was told by Jesus:  Go tell my brothers what you’ve seen and heard.  That is our task.  To look into the face of death and see the Risen Christ, and then to find the way to share that  vision with friend and neighbor, family or enemy so that they in turn might believe that Jesus is Lord.

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We cannot lock ourselves up in the safety of our private worlds.  We cannot protect our faith by running away from life’s trials and tribulations.  For if we know Christ, we know that suffering and the trials of life are part of His existence.  We are able to stand with all those who suffer in the world if we are in Christ.  We can offer the hope of Christ to all those who suffer.  We have been with Mary at Christ’s tomb, and realize that tomb is empty because Christ is risen.  The grave is not the end of life.

A Thorn in the Flesh

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me. And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.  

Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  (2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9)

St. Silouan writes:

The love of God gives strength to continue in prayer the whole night through, but pain in my head wears me out and I am obliged to give up and rest. These headaches have been given me because I insisted on having my own way, and left my task as steward to go into the ‘desert’ to have great freedom for prayer; but the Lord wanted me to spend my life in the Monastery as steward. Twice they would have made me prior, and once senior steward, but each time I refused, and for that God punished me. It was only later that I understood that everyone is needed in the place where he is, and we may all be saved whatever our office. (St. Silouan the Athonite, pgs. 465-466)

Christian: Obey Christ

Among Christians no one is unaware that he is under obligation to undertake the whole task. All alike, when they joined Him [Christ] in the beginning, vowed to follow Him through all things, and it was after they had thus bound themselves by those covenant that they underwent the sacred rites [of Baptism].

Since the Saviour’s commands are thus binding on all the faithful and are capable of fulfilment by those who are willing, they are most necessary. Apart from them it is impossible to be united with Christ, otherwise we should be at variance with Him in that which is greatest and noblest, will and purpose. If we share in His blood we must share in His will. We cannot be joined to Him in some ways, and yet be separated from Him in others, neither can we love Him in one way and be hostile to Him in another, not be His children on the one hand and worthy of blame on the other.

(St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 160-161)

God So Loved the World: Unlimited Love

No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.   (John 3:13-17)

Fr Lev Gillet writes:

Limitless Love forces open doors. Perhaps I had not achieved some sort of peaceful coexistence with God. Perhaps I had succeeded in believing that, as far as my soul was concerned, I was more or less “in good order,” and so had come to feel more or less at rest…And now all those presuppositions have been turned upside down by a divine intrusion. God asks something from me that I am quite unprepared for. It is like the news of an unwanted child..to listen to this demand, to take the costly decision, ah, but why?

Everything seemed to be going so well! Must I have new uncertainties and anxieties?…And now limitless Love wants to erupt into my life. It comes to upset everything in it. It comes to break up what seemed stable and to open new horizons to which I had never given a thought.

(in Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church, p. 94)