A man once wrote of being stopped by a stranger in the large city in which he lived. The stranger handed the man a piece of paper and asked him how to get to the address written on it, so the man proceeded to tell the stranger to continue walking two blocks, turn right, and the address he was looking for was three buildings down from the corner. Wanting to make sure that the stranger understood the instructions, the man asked him to repeat them to him, which he did. Satisfied that the stranger understood, the man went on his way, but he noticed that the stranger proceeded to walk in the opposite direction. So he called out to the stranger, “Sir, you are going the wrong way, you want to go that way!” The stranger responded, “I know, I’m not ready yet.”
My brothers and sisters, might that not be what was going on in the mind of the rich, young man who went up to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading? He had already begun his journey to God, his journey of theosis, by keeping the commandments. Yet, in his heart, he knew there was more to becoming a living icon of Christ than avoiding sin. So he asked Jesus what he still lacked.
Jesus responded, “’If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.’ And when the [rich] young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.”
He simply wasn’t ready to move forward in his journey to God, and the Gospel gives us no indication that he ever got to the point of being willing to give up his possessions and become a perfect icon of Christ. His attachment to his possessions simply got in the way; and he has gone through history a nameless man who is remembered for saying “no” to Jesus’s call. He was unwilling to enter into the divine life; he refused to cooperate with the grace of God.
In 1901 Pier Giorgio Frassati was born into a well-to-do family in Turin, Italy. His father was the editor of the prominent Italian newspaper La Stampa which is published to this very day. His father also went on to become a senator and, later on, was made ambassador to Germany. Pier Georgio’s father was agnostic. His mother was an artist who was nominally Catholic. So he was not from a church-going family, but he heard God beckoning him nonetheless. On his own, as a young boy, then as a teenager and young man, he spent hours in churches praying and attending liturgy. He listened to God. He studied mining engineering so that he might work among miners. He was a mountain climber and hiker. He also had a great love for the poor and would spend his allowance to them. It’s been said that he would give his bus fare to the poor and walk instead. Pier Georgio was well known and much loved by Turin’s poor. To them he was a saintly man.
When he was only 24, while ministering in the poor neighborhoods of Turin, Pier Giorgio contracted a form of polio that killed him in a matter of six days. Throngs of people attended his funeral – most of them were the poor he had served so well.
Pier Georgio has been declared blessed by the Church – he is one step away from sainthood. When his grave was opened in the early 1980s, his body was found intact and incorrupt.
The rich, young man in today’s Gospel reading and Pier Georgio are a study in contrasts. Both were wealthy. Both were called by God to give to the poor. The similarities end there. The rich, young man walked away sad because he was too attached to his possessions. Pier Georgio gave away his possessions with a spirit of detachment. The rich, young man had hoped that it was enough not to physically kill his neighbor. Pier Georgio knew that, more than not killing his neighbor, the life in Christ demands that we build up the life of our neighbor. With the coming of Christ, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” became a call to “an attentive love which protects and promotes the life of one’s neighbor” (Veritatus Splendor). Jesus draws out the full meaning of the commandments. The commandments are the foundation of the life in Christ. Keeping the commandments frees us to choose to fully embrace the life in Christ, living the supreme commandment to love God and neighbor as we love ourselves. We are called to live a life of self-emptying love, just as the rich, young man and Pier Georgio were called. Jesus asks the same of us.
We need to fight our inclination to walk away from the fullness of the life in Christ. We are all burdened with some degree of attachment to our wealth, whether our wealth is modest or great.
Our beloved Saint Basil the Great was no exception. His family had great material wealth. When he was about 23 years old, he realized that he had spent “much time” in “vanity, and had wasted nearly all of my youth…Then once upon a time, like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the light of the truth of the Gospel, and I perceived the uselessness of ‘the wisdom of the princes of this world, who come to naught’…Then I read the Gospel, and I saw there that a great means of reaching perfection was the selling of one’s goods, sharing them with the poor, giving up all care for this life, and the refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy to things of earth.”
By the time he was 36, Saint Basil founded what became known as the Basiliad in response a famine that hit Casaerea. Through his influence, many wealthy people opened their storehouses to share with the poor.
Saint Basil often preached about Jesus’s teaching to sell all you possess and give it to the poor. He asked, “Do you say ‘teacher’ and not carry out the duties of a disciple…? You ask about eternal life, yet show yourself completely bound to the enjoyment of the present life”
Saint Basil was also very blunt: “Whoever has the ability to remedy the suffering of others, but chooses rather to withhold aid out of selfish motives, may properly be judged the equivalent of a murderer.”
My brothers and sisters, Jesus’s teaching in today’s Gospel should compel a positive response from each of us. Sit and read this passage from Matthew 19 after the Divine Liturgy, either here or at home. Ask yourself if you are ready to take that next step, whether large or small, in detaching from one or more of your possessions in order to serve the poor. Will your response be like that of the rich, young man? Or will it be like that of Blessed Pier Georgio or of Saint Basil? To be sure, it is difficult to detach ourselves from our materialistic culture and our material wealth, because, as Saint Basil said, we are “so completely bound to the enjoyment of this present life.’
We can all be like Saint Basil and Blessed Pier Georgio, but we must take the time to read Sacred Scripture, pray, and listen to how God is speaking to our hearts. From which earthly possessions is he asking you to detach yourself? Pray to Saint Basil and Blessed Pier Georgio for their intercession and assistance. Look to their example for inspiration. When you struggle to let go of something, do not be discouraged. Rather, be patient with yourself, knowing that God is merciful and loves you.
By Fr. Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck