God First – Br. David Vryhof
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Isaiah 58:6-12 / Luke 18:18-30
I have no doubt that the rich ruler in today’s gospel approached Jesus with the best of intentions. I see no reason to assume he is using flattery or being sarcastic when he addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” or that his question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” – is meant to entrap Jesus or to test his theology. Nor do I see any reason to assume that his claim – “I have kept all these [commandments] since my youth” – is a sign of undue pride. I think he is a genuine seeker, who actually wants to deepen his relationship with God.
Nor do I believe that Jesus is putting him off by making such a radical demand of him. Mark’s version of the story says that Jesus looked at him with love (Mk 10:21). I think Jesus sees him as he is, sincere and well-meaning in his desire for God, but possessed and entrapped by his great wealth. Jesus spots the flaws in what he says: He sees, first of all, the contradiction in his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” One who inherits something does not do something to obtain it. An inheritance is not earned; it comes as a gift. The eternal life God promises us is likewise not something that we earn or achieve by our own efforts; it is the gift of God’s grace, freely given to those who believe. Second, although there is no reason to doubt that the ruler has tried to keep the commandments since his youth, he makes it clear that there is one that he has not kept, namely the first: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). He does, in fact, have another ‘god’ in his life: namely, his wealth and the privileges it offers him. This becomes clear as the conversation proceeds.
Jesus offers him a way to satisfy his hunger for God and relieve the emptiness he feels – by trusting God completely and by ridding himself of the burden of wealth. But he cannot, or will not, take this radical step. He has grown to love money and the benefits it brings. He has become accustomed to fine clothing and sumptuous meals. He enjoys the benefits of his social status, the way people envy him and defer to him, the way they are quick to do whatever he asks. He relishes his financial security. He depends upon his money and can buy anything he needs or wants. He is far removed from the cries of the poor.
How did he come to this state? Did he decide one day, I will choose wealth over God? Probably not. It is more likely that Jesus’ challenge has awakened him to his condition after years of the creeping spread of materialism. Earlier he might have extricated himself, but now he is “very rich,” the gospel writer tells us, and the thought of being deprived of the many privileges he enjoys frightens him.
This is such a challenging passage for us today who live at a standard far above the majority of the world’s population. We know it is impossible that the rest of the world be lifted to our standard of living – our environment simply could not sustain it – and yet we find it so very difficult to imagine voluntarily reducing our consumption of the world’s resources by embracing a simpler lifestyle and giving our surplus to the poor. The idea of living well below our means, of letting go of our possessions, our comfort, our privilege and our status in the world, is just as threatening to us as it was to this wealthy ruler.
It is because of this that we are in need of the witness of St Martin of Tours, whom we remember today, and others who have similarly given everything they had and were for God.
Martin was born in the area which is now Hungary early in the 4th century. He was the son of a military tribune, and was compelled by Roman law to enter military service himself at the age of fifteen. He resisted and had to be inducted in chains. After a few years he discovered the Christian faith and became a catechumen (i.e. one who is preparing to be baptized). On a cold winter day Martin encountered a shivering beggar, dressed in rags, who was asking for alms from passersby. Having no money to offer, he removed his own cloak and with his sword, cut it in half, giving one piece to the beggar and wrapping himself in the other. That night he dreamed he saw Jesus wearing the part of the cloak he had given away. In his dream, Jesus said, “Martin, a simple catechumen, covered me with this garment.”
Martin resisted his military duties and was finally discharged. He began to live as a monk, devoting himself to prayer and good works. Over time he attracted followers and was able to establish the first monastery in France. In 372, he was elected, much to his dismay, to be Bishop of Tours. He agreed to accept the call, provided he could continue to live in a bare cell without personal property. As a bishop, he became known for his dedication to the poor, his commitment to spreading the gospel, and his dedication to strengthening the faithful. But he was not popular.
There were several reasons for his unpopularity, especially among other bishops. First, there was his manner of life. In the late 4th century, bishops were becoming part of the ruling class and prided themselves on being cultured. Most were married, and were responsible members of society, taking part in civic activities. Martin insisted on remaining as a monk, something which was as yet quite unknown in the Latin-speaking West. His ascetical life seemed outlandish and even socially irresponsible to his peers. He had also been a soldier, and soldiers were generally despised by the cultured and excluded from the Church. Had it not been for Sulpicius, a wealthy landowner who was impressed by Martin’s ascetical life and his service to others, we might never have known of him. Sulpicius himself adopted a quasi-monastic lifestyle and wrote a biography of Martin in 396, just a year before Martin’s death.
Martin was also unpopular because of the stances he took. The Church was gradually becoming the Empire at prayer, and challenges to the Church were viewed as challenges to the whole of society. Martin often opposed other bishops and resisted the drift of the Church towards power and prestige. In 386, the bishops approved the Emperor’s use of troops to suppress heresy in Spain – the ultimate wedding of the power of Church and State. Martin stood alone in opposition to this use of force and was nearly excommunicated for it.
So we have before us today a man who refused to seek after the things most prized by the world: wealth and status, privilege and power. Martin was a person whose heart was set on God and whose treasure was stored in heavenly places, not on earth. In fact, the strongest proof of his utter dedication to God may lie in his acceptance of the call to the episcopate. He had no interest in gaining privilege and status by assuming the office of bishop and was elected entirely against his will. But once he had submitted to the call, he gave himself whole-heartedly in service of the Church and its mission, and of the poor, always preferring ways of nonviolence and peace. In a variety of ways he challenged the Church he served, and refused to compromise his convictions, even when it cost him his popularity. His obedience is a lesson for us, who are often content offering a few hours in a soup kitchen rather than using our gifts to challenge the structures that oppress the poor. It is likely that God is calling more of us to go beyond mere charity, to engage ourselves in the struggle for justice. Martin was not afraid to challenge those in authority who were committed to maintaining their places of privilege and power.
It is this singleness of mind and devotion of the heart that Jesus longed to see in the life of the rich young ruler. But he did not find it. Rather than holding his possessions in an open hand for God to take and use as God willed, he had his fingers wrapped tightly around them. Because of this, he is sad, and in spite of his laudable religious practices, he finds himself longing for something more.
Which of these two men do you most resemble? The one with an open heart, who longs only to serve God, or the one possessed by his possessions, who is more concerned about his own well-being and security than about God’s demands.
We might ask ourselves, “What would Jesus see in me if he were to look into my heart? Is there anything that I have allowed – perhaps unconsciously – to take the place of God in my life? To what have I given my allegiance? Is there anything (or anyone) that I would be reluctant to hand over to God, if God asked it of me? How free am I in relation to the things of this world? How firmly is my heart set on God?
When making choices like this, let Martin be your guide.
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