The With-God Life: “If you wish to be perfect…”

Every once in a while, the readings from the daily lectionary just line up perfectly. See if you can spot the theme:

• Today starts with the author of the longest psalm — whose “hope is in [God’s] ordinances” — pledging to keep God’s “law continually, for ever and ever” (Ps 119:43-44).

• In case the people of Israel forget that God expects them to “observe [his statues and ordinances] diligently with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut 26:16), Moses instructs them to set up plaster-covered stones in the Promised Land and “write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over” (27:3).

• Which brings us, centuries later, to a descendant of those Israelites, a wealthy young man who asks Jesus what he must “do to have eternal life.” Jesus answers as Moses and the psalmist would: “keep the commandments” (Matt 19:16-17).

But while the young man claims to have honored every specific commandment that Jesus names — even one so great as to “love your neighbor as yourself” (v 19) — he learns that he cannot be “perfect” without selling all that he has, giving the money to the poor, and then following Jesus.

Instead of finding “delight” in doing what the Lord requires (Ps 119:47), the young man finds only grief at the prospect of doing what his Lord requires.

So what does Jesus require of us, people who are wealthy by comparison to almost every human alive for almost all of history? Are we destined for grief, or for life?

Heinrich Hofmann, Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1889) – Wikimedia

You may have heard before that the Father of Christian Monasticism, St. Anthony of the Desert, had a powerful encounter with today’s gospel text. A rich young Egyptian in the mid-3rd century, Anthony walked into church one day as Matthew 19 was being read and,

as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers…

But even in his account, Athanasius adds that Anthony sold the acreage he had inherited from his parents so that “they should be no more a clog upon” him and his sister. Or, as another translator put it, Anthony “did not want to encumber” himself any longer. For even before he heard the story of the rich young man, we’re told that Anthony had been contemplating an earlier story from the same gospel: Simon Peter and Andrew leaving what little property they had in order to answer Jesus’ call to “Follow me” (Matt 4:19-20).

Just as the psalmist “shall walk at liberty” when he fulfills God’s law (Ps 119:45), we are freed to truly live when we are free to follow God’s Son.

16th c. painting of the calling of St. Anthony (bottom-right, then giving away his possessions to the poor in the background) — Wikimedia

Even more famous than the story of Anthony’s conversion is the role that it played in a later epiphany with even greater implications for church history. While weeping with frustration in an Italian garden, the sound of children singing “take and read” made St. Augustine think back to the story of the Desert Father. But rather than turning Matthew 19, he looked to Romans…

Not to be reminded that human perfection is beyond the will and power of everyone born into original sin… not even to read Paul echo Jesus’ attempt to sum up the commandments for the rich young man (“in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” — Rom 13:9)… but to be assured, a few verses later, that God required nothing of him but to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (v 14).

God of Anthony and Augustine, help us to clear away everything that clogs the Way of Jesus; take from us every encumbrance that keeps us from putting on our Christ.

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