If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me. When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. —– Matthew 19:21, 22
Although you say you have never murdered, or committed adultery, or stolen, or borne false witness against another, you make all of this diligence of no account by not adding what follows, which is the only way you will be able to enter the kingdom of God. —– Basil the Great, To the Rich, section 1
The problem is not failure. The problem is low aim. —– Dr. Benjamin Mays
Educator Benjamin Mays understood the source of many social ills was a desire to just get by in life rather than to seek to be the best in academics and whatever else we seek to pursue. Ever since the days of Thomas Jefferson, society has tried to use some sort of mental deficiency inherent in African Americans as the reason for our being worthy of being downtrodden and oppressed. First by slavery, then Jim Crow, and now by criminalization. Sadly enough, too many of us began to believe (and still believe) this about ourselves. Mays knew that the kids were mentally capable of achieving good grades and success in life. They just didn’t believe in themselves or care enough to try. Even though racism was (and still is) a real and destructive barrier to black students, low aim in life was just as problematic and a source of crime, unwed pregnancies, unemployment, and other plagues in our community.
The rich young man in the scripture was told by our Lord what he needed to do to achieve the eternal life he was looking for. He had, at least according to his own testimony, all of the raw materials necessary to do as Jesus told Him to. He kept the commandments since childhood. Unlike the Pharisees and scribes, he was sincere about recognizing Jesus as being the righteous teacher. But, according to Basil, strict obedience to such morality does not substitute nor override the commandment Christ gave him. Rather than to make the effort to comply with the path to perfection, the rich young man walked away from the Holy One in grief, preferring his worldly possessions (1).
I believe that too many of us Christians aim low in the way of life prescribed by Jesus and our society suffers the consequences. We are very sincere about our love for Jesus and desire to go to heaven. We are careful to live morally and encourage others to do likewise. As for the poor, we give to make charitable contributions, especially during Christmas. We may even visit a hospital or nursing home every now and then since such things make us feel good inside. But, we completely miss the mark of achieving perfection by not aiming for the bull’s eye that Jesus set for us, “go sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” Not only do we fail to seek treasures in heaven, we spend our lives seeking more earthly treasures as if wealth in this world is a sign of salvation.
In fact, our lack of aim to give up our wealth and give to the poor shows our hypocrisy. Basil makes this quite clear in his indictment to the rich: “For if what you say is true, that you have kept from your youth the commandment of love and you have given to others the same as yourself, Then how did you come by this abundance of wealth? Care for the needy requires an expenditure of wealth; when all share alike dispersing their possessions among themselves, they each receive a small portion for their individual needs. Thus, those who love their neighbor as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbor; yet, surely, you seem to have great possessions! … For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.”(2) Note also that the scripture show the young man walking away grieving. Christ exposed him, despite his sincerity, to be no different than the Pharisees which confronted Him. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Sincerity in seeking Christ means nothing unless it is followed by obedience. Living morally is useless unless it is coupled with perfection. Non-believers are not fooled by our Christian versions of popular media. Nor are they impressed with our demonstrations and marches. They see that we are aiming just as low as they are and would rather be atheist or spiritual but not religious rather than join in our hypocrisy. They see that our Christianity is merely a shield for corrupt politicians and preachers to hide behind and our faith serves only to stroke our egos for disobeying the one we claim to serve. We must do better than this.
As he devoted his life to Christ, Basil, a gifted teacher and born into a prestigious family, gave a great deal of his wealth to the poor. What was left of it, he donated to flood victims of Cappadocia. As bishop, his salary went to building hospitals, feeding the poor, and reforming criminals. Rather than having a fine palace, Basil lived among the people he served (3). A more recent non-Orthodox saint was George Washington Carver. He walked away from a prestigious teaching position to work among his impoverished kinsmen. Rather than accept vastly higher earnings in other places, he chose to remain where he was. This highly renowned university professor dressed in simple clothes, slept in a simple apartment, and spent only the money he needed for his simple life (4).
Will all of us become a Basil or Carver? What if we all tried to be like them? What if we all tried to be like John the Baptist and dressed in rough clothes and ate whatever we found or to follow what he taught(5)? What if we all tried to be like Andrew, James, John, and Peter who left steady work after Jesus told them, “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men (6)?” What if we all tried to be like Matthew who left a lucrative career to become a disciple (7)? What if we all tried to be like the woman who poured the expensive ointment on Jesus at Bethany (8)? What if we all tried to be like Paul who rejected his office as a Pharisee to be thrown in prison for the sake of the Gospel (9)? What if we all tried to be like the first church in Jerusalem where we all sold our possessions and everything was evenly given according to need (10)? No, we all may not reach such lofty examples of self-sacrifice. But, we are all called to aim for perfection. And if we ask, seek, and knock at this door, He is able to make a way for us to live according to His calling on our lives (11).
- St. Basil the Great, On Social Justice, SVS Press, pgs. 41-43
- Basil, pg. 43
- Basil, pgs. 24-35
- Fr. Paisius Altschul, Wade in the River, Cross Bearers, pgs. 172-176
- Mark 1:6, Luke 3:9-14
- Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11
- Matthew 9:9, Mark 2:14, Luke 5:27
- Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:1-8
- Philippians 1:12-26, 3:1-11
- Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-35
- Matthew 7:7-12