Monday, March 26, 2012

For Me or For My Neighbor? For Both of Us?

When other early preachers encountered Matthew 19:16-22 they heard Jesus telling that young man to leave his possessions because those things hindered him from pursuing a more perfect life of discipleship. You see, the emphasis here is on the young man, his relationship with God and his election to salvation. The problem, in fact, doesn't really concern the young man's possessions but rather his attachment to them. That attachment to worldly things is denounced as a competing love to the love of God, and the young man's obsession with his possessions is compared to a form of slavery binding him from engaging more spiritual thoughts and practices.

We've already seen this with Antony's story. The thrust here isn't "give so that you might help others" but "unload yourself so you can go." Clement of Alexandria was likewise convinced that the passage is about the act of loosing oneself from the attachment to goods rather than the work of giving those goods to others. Clement doesn't even think that it is necessary for the young man to abandon his possessions if he is able to renounce his attachment to them:

[The teaching] is not what some hastily take it to be, a command to fling away the substance that belongs to him and to part with his riches, but to banish from the soul its opinions about riches, its attachment to them, its anxious cares, the thorns of our earthly existence, which choke the seed of true life.1
Stop polishing your yacht and start praising the Lord!
That's not bad. Clement points to a basic problem with having stuff. Thinking about stuff, accumulating stuff, maintaining stuff, and protecting stuff all take up the time one could be using to pray to God, read the Scriptures or go to Mass. True, I'd probably feel like I was in a better relationship with the Divine if I had spent the morning singing the Psalms instead of getting the oil changed in the car. That's fair, but Basil pops on the scene to remind me that my stuff isn't just creating some issue between me and Jesus but that the real burn is the trouble my possessions are causing between me and my neighbor.

Basil's understanding of the text here hinges on the final commandment that Jesus lists for the young man, "Also, you shall love your neighbor as yourself." When the young man then claims that he has done all of these things, Jesus responds with the instruction to "sell your possessions, and give to the poor" as the means by which the young man would become perfect in obedience to this great commandment. It's a "slow your roll" moment: Really? You've been good to your neighbor? Are you sure? Then why do you have while they have not? Basil doesn't pull any punches with this address to his congregation:
It is thus evident that you are far from fulfilling the commandment, and that you bear false witness within your own soul that you have loved your neighbor as yourself. Look, the Lord's offer shows how distant you are from true love! For if what you say is true, that you have kept from your youth the commandment of love and have given to everyone the same as to yourself, then how did you come by this abundance of wealth? Care for the needy requires the expenditure of wealth: when all share alike, disbursing 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! How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of the many? For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.2
Aw, smack! What do you think? Is this a better angle? Are you more persuaded by arguments to abandon goods for your sake or for your neighbor's benefit? Do you think that certain audiences might be more responsive to one line of reasoning over the other? How? What do you make of all of this?

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     1Clement of Alexandria, "The Rich Man's Salvation," in Clement of Alexandria, trans. G.W. Butterworth, Loeb Classical Library 92 (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1919), 290-293.
     2St. Basil the Great, "To the Rich," in On Social Justice, trans. C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009) 43.

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