One of the amazing things I find about Scripture is that the human emotions which underlie so much of life are so evident throughout its pages. It’s not hard to imagine the fear and confusion of Mary as she encounters the angel at the annunciation, because it’s right there in the pages of Luke. We don’t need to dream up the pride of Peter as the Lord tries to wash his feet at the Last Supper, because it’s right there in John. We don’t need to read into the text the care of the centurion for his sick servant, because it’s right there in Matthew. And today we don’t need to wonder about the rich young man because it is right there in Mark:
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. [Mark 10: 27]
All of us know something of shock, so we have some hint as to how the young man felt being told to “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” [Mark 10:21] All of us know something about attachment to things that when something is lost, or broken or goes missing, we know the grief that it causes. It doesn’t take much for me to dredge up the sadness and loss and frustration I still feel over one broken Christmas present from 45 years ago to know in part the grief the rich young man felt as he turned away from Jesus in order to return to his precious possessions. It doesn’t take much to imagine this young man.
But it doesn’t take much to imagine another young man just a couple hundred years later and his reaction when he heard this same story read aloud in church. His name was Anthony and he came from a Christian family in Alexandria, Egypt and lived from about AD 250 to AD 356. He was about 20 when his parents died leaving him to care for a young sister and the family estate. His Vita tells us that:
Going according to custom into the Lord’s House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Saviour; and how they in Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles feet for distribution to the need, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering these things he entered the church, and it happened that the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, ‘If thou wouldst be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor; and come and follow Me and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.’ Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villages – they were about three hundred acres, productive and very fair – that they should be no more a clog upon himself and his sister. And all the rest that was moveable he sold,…. [Vita S. Antoni #2]
For Anthony this encounter we read today was not an encounter between Jesus and a nameless young man, but it was one between the Lord and Anthony himself. Anthony was in no doubt that HE was the rich young man and unlike the young man in scripture, Anthony responded to the call of God then and there.
I often wonder though about this other young man, the one in the gospels. What happened to him? Did he spend the rest of his life wondering what might have happened had he responded to the invitation from the Lord? Did he wonder about the riches in heaven that Jesus spoke about? Did he, days, or months, or even years later do exactly what Jesus told him and discover for himself that treasure in heaven?
Father Benson reminds us that “our coming to Christ changes everything, and therefore even to the old scenes we return with changed hearts and new powers.” [Benson, Spiritual Readings: Christmas, p. 260] Anthony’s encounter with Christ certainly changed him and in changing him, the history of the Church was changed because Anthony went on to become what his is often referred to as, the “Father of Christian Monasticism”. Had Anthony responded to the gospel in the same way that the rich young man did, you and I might not be here today. As I often remind you, we are here today in this monastery chapel, because Anthony was there nearly two thousand years ago. Who will be here in a week or a month or a century, because you and I were here today?
Like the rich young man and Anthony, the gospel demands a response from us. We can either choose to turn away, and many did, and many do. Or we can choose to follow. In either case we will be changed just as I believe the rich young man was changed, and as Anthony certainly was. The question is not “will we be changed by the Gospel”, but “how will we be changed by it?” We may not, like Anthony, do mighty things for God, but God will certainly do mighty things for us and in so doing shall change us.
How have you been changed by the Gospel and your encounters with the Lord? Have you become a different person, or are you the same person doing things differently? Have you followed a new path or have you returned to the old, but by way of a new and heavenly life? Again as Father Benson teaches us: “It is indeed a greater thing to return to the old world by way of a new way of heavenly life, and to live, therefore, in the world as those who have been with Jesus, than it is to enter upon new spheres of life but with the old heart. That would be to set about new things in the old way. The necessary thing for us rather is to set about old things in a new way.” [Benson, Spiritual Readings: Christmas, p. 260 – 261]
Today we have the opportunity to encounter Christ once again in the gathered community of Church, in the word of Scripture proclaimed and in the Bread of Heaven broken and offered. Once again we have the opportunity to respond to the invitation of God to follow him and to discover the riches of heaven as Anthony did, or we can turn away sad and grieving as did the rich young man, believing that God is asking too much, or that the cost is too great. In either case, the choice is ours, but the result is the similar: we will be changed.
As you come forward for the Eucharist today open your hands and your heart as Anthony did stretching them out to God and the treasures of heaven which will be placed there. Allow God to change you from what you are now, to all that you can be in response to Christ’s love. Look upon you life and your path not with an old heart of selfishness but with a new heart of love and generosity and discover for yourself what it might mean for you to follow Christ and thereby find treasure in heaven.
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