The Focus is on “Follow Me”

[Homily.  Based on Mark 10:17-27. Live-streamed Mass.  Sunday. Oct. 10, 2021]

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This was the question of a young man who was living a good life.  But he had heard of Jesus, and was now finally encountering him.  He knew Jesus had a message that moved people.  It had to do not only with life, but with “life to the full.”  His question, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” was raised, however, not without a sense of self-satisfaction that sought confirmation and praise from the Teacher.

“You know the commandments,”  Jesus replied.  “…You shall not kill.  You shall not commit adultery.  You shall not bear false witness.  You shall not defraud.  Honor your father and your mother.”  These were commandments from the decalogue that have to do with love of neighbor.  Indeed, randomly listed, they are challenging enough for any good person.  Don’t harm your fellow man.  No matter your anger, don’t kill him.  Don’t beat her.  Remain faithful to your wife.  Don’t cheat on her.  Don’t lie.  Don’t destroy the reputation even of one you do not like.  Honor your father and mother.  Be grateful to them for the life they gave you and nurtured in you.  Honor them even when you think you know more than they, or have grown stronger than they.  Take care of them.”

The young man replies, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”  It was a declaration that elicited praise.  Yet, he was still asking:  having done all these things, what must I do to gain eternal life?  Having lived my life obeying these commands, what must I do to gain achieve the fullness of life?

Jesus looks at him, knowing he was not misrepresenting his life.  Mark then mentions, as he alone among the evangelists mentions in narrating this incident, Jesus loved him.  To the young man seeking affirmation for his uprightness with his neighbor, Jesus responds not with praise of his virtue, but with love.  Out of this love he says, “You are lacking in one thing.  Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.”

“At this statement,” Mark narrates, “his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

We might ponder the response we have to this man walking away sad, “for he had many possessions.”  Are we saddened by the rich man walking away from Jesus?  Or do we not rather sympathize with him?  The many possessions he had in life, he had worked hard for and honestly.  He had never killed to gain money or influence.  Despite many temptations, he had never lied to gain advantage over a weak person.  He had never defrauded another, nor tricked another for advantage.  He was highly regarded among his fellow merchants and customers.  He was an honest person. He was faithful to his wife, caring of his children.  And he was taking good care of his parents.  In other words, he had kept the commandments that the Teacher had listed.  Was not the love that Jesus showed him well deserved?

But Jesus did not let him stay with his self-satisfaction and contentment.  The question what he could do in his life for the fuller life, eternal life, had come from him.  And Jesus’ response in love for him was, if you seek a fuller life, if you desire a life to the full, follow me.  Follow me, as I love you –  and love all those to whom I am sent to speak of the joy of the Kingdom of my Father.  To follow me, free yourself of the possessions that hinder you from following me.  Sell them, give to the poor.  Follow me.

The stress in Jesus’ response is not in telling the rich young man to dispossess himself of all he had and give to the poor.  Period.  The stress is rather in Jesus loving him and inviting him to follow him, to trust him, to give himself with him to his mission of proclaiming the joy of his Father’s kingdom, and so, trusting in the providence of the Father missioning him, to free himself from his many possessions to follow him.   But in hearing Jesus’ answer, the young man, thinking of his many possessions, heard only “go sell what you have,”  “detach yourself from all the goods and security you have built up”.   He failed to experience Jesus’ liberating love; he failed to hear, “Follow me.”

And so, distracted by his possessions that he earnestly believed he’d legitimately acquired in having observed all the Lord’s commandments from his youth, he seems to have forgotten the greatest commandment, not only, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind” (Mt. 22:36-40).  He could not respond to Jesus’ love; he could not “follow him.”  Because his heart and soul and mind and strength were not in loving God above all things, but focused on his possessions. 

Perhaps, if he had not walked away sad, he could have heard Jesus say:  “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” (Lk 12:15)   Or:  “No one can serve two masters.  He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot  serve God and mammon.  …  Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you are to eat, or about your body, what you are to wear.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing.  Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are not you more important than they?   Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life span?  Why are you anxious about clothes.  Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.  They do not work or spin.  But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.  If God so clothes the grass of today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? … Your heavenly Father knows what you need.  But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt. 6:22-33). 

Once again, in pondering this Gospel I suggest the focus is not on, “Go, sell what you have…” It is not just on becoming economically poor.   The focus is on “Follow me.”  Follow me, loving you as my Father loves you.  Follow me, spreading the joy of the Father’s Kingdom.  Follow me because you do not work out your salvation on your own.  Humanity does not save itself through its reason, science and technology. That is impossible.  Follow me, because when it comes to your salvation, “all things are possible for God” (Mk 10:27). 

Paul said that “it was the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake  he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).  You become rich not in being part of a company that puts profits over the welfare of people [as reported recently of Facebook] or being a national leader who amasses great wealth in an underground economy at the cost of your people [ad exposed recently in the Pandora’s Box expose of the International Consortium of International Journalists].  You become rich in following Jesus “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness, and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.  Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:6-11). 

The Focus is on “Follow Me”:  Fr. General Sosa on Evangelical Poverty

[Homily for the Jesuit Community.  Sunday. Oct. 10, 2021]

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This was the question of a young man who was living a good life.   “You know the commandments…”  Jesus replied, listing commandments from the Decalogue that had to do with love of neighbor.  The young man replies, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”  Jesus looked at him and, as Mark alone mentions, “loved him.”  Out of love he says, “You are lacking in one thing.  Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.”

“At this statement,” Mark narrates, “his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

We might ponder the response we have to this man walking away sad, “for he had many possessions.”  For me it was opportunity to finally open the letter of Fr. General Sosa on “Our Vow of Poverty in the Following of Jesus Poor and Humble” (2021/15).  With all the concerns we have at this time, the letter was a disturbance I did not want to deal with.  Indeed, Fr. Sosa, sensitive to this, said, “I am aware that an Ignatian examination of this dimeson of our life always unsettles and shakes us internally,”  and so explicitly invites us to consider our living of our vow “calmly.”  It should be considered, Vic would say, only after having found your “still center,” free of noise, where we are with our true selves, aware of our deep desires, and where by God’s grace our deep desires somehow merge with God’s deep desire for us.  Calling us companions, companions of Jesus, Fr. Sosa says, “The love of the person of the poor an humble Jesus that leads to following him is expressed in a very special way in the vow of poverty, a constitutive dimension of the charism of the Society of Jesus that grounds our life mission.  To show the way to God [UAP 1] requires us to adopt Jesus’ way of proceeding.  A poor and humble human being, Jesus of Nazareth [and not the rich young man], is the one who makes known the unconditional love of God-with-us and invites us to live out the evangelical poverty that prompts us to walk with the poor and place ourselves at their service [UAP 2].”

Our Good News for today is Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me.”

Fr. Sosa says, “It is not in the lack of many material goods that we recognize Jesus as poor and humble.  He became poor in order to enrich us with his poverty.  Jesus’ poverty is the fruit of his generosity, of his total gift of himself, so that in fellowship, we may all live in dignity as daughters and sons of the same Father.  This evangelical poverty [and not merely economic poverty] is what we desire when we pronounce the vow of poverty, aware that living it is only possible if we receive the grace of the Lord himself who invites us to follow him.  Our way of proceeding includes ‘becoming poor’ as a dimension of Jesus’ way of life, which we too wish to live as a radical expression of love capable of voluntary self-emptying, of the humiliation required to obey the Spirit and of self-gift even unto death on the cross. We have heard the call, and we have chosen the path which we manifest through our vow.”

Fr. Sosa’s invitation is grounded both in our encounter with Jesus through scripture as well as through the Spiritual Exercises.   “Ignatius decides to be poor out of love for the poor and humble Jesus, under whose banner he wants to serve [Two Standards].  The second week of the Spiritual Exercises clearly traces the path for following Jesus.  For those who hear the call [Kingdom of Christ] and knows how Jesus became incarnate in human history [The Incarnation], it begins with poverty (spiritual and material) and continues with the acceptance of reproaches and scorn leading to the humility that opens to all other virtues.  Ignatius does not intend a reflection on poverty as such, but chooses to become poor because Christ chose it. [Third of Three Degrees of Humility] …  For this reason, ‘becoming poor’ as a dimension of following Jesus Christ means freeing oneself from that which prevents one from making oneself available to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  ‘Becoming poor’ is a step toward placing one’s trust in God and in Him alone.  It is poverty as a stripping away and detachment that frees one from the tendency to possess wealth as the basis of one’s security.  Whoever ‘becomes rich’ convinces himself that he can the control his life and secure it against all kinds of risks [including not only the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in today’s VUCA world, but also the “risks” in the rules of common life and directives of directors of work, and not being able to privately satisfy one’s needs on one’s own].  The way of evangelical poverty, on the other hand, leads us to live in the open, puts us into the hands of others, into the uncertainty in which we place our hope in the Lord.”

“Follow me,” Jesus says to the rich young man. 

“The poverty of the humble Jesus of Nazareth,” Fr. Sosa continues, “is associated with his redemptive mission for which the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Therefore the poverty of the followers of Jesus is apostolic, aimed at helping souls, at making present in history the Good News of the reconciliation of all things in Christ.  To be incarnated poor was God’s chosen way of revealing himself.  Accepting the invitation to participate in the Lord’s mission requires acquiring the perspective of the poor as the “place” from which reality is perceived…   Poverty then as a dimension of the way of proceeding of the followers of Jesus is not an end in itself but a step towards liberation from the ‘vain honor of the world’ and acceptance of the possibility of humiliation (‘reproaches and contempt’) leading to the humility characteristic of the Master’s way of life, as well as a door to all the virtues, as opposed to wealth that leads to all vices [Two Standards].  The vow of poverty disposes us to ask for and receive the grace of the third degree of humility.  The vow of poverty is, therefore, associated with the choice [or being chosen] to follow Jesus poor and humble, growing in the love of poverty as his way of life.”

In the homily that I gave at noon, I suggested that the stress in Jesus’ challenge to the rich young man was not in “Go sell what you have and give to the poor,” but in inviting him in love to “follow me.”

So is the stress in Fr. Sosa’s letter on poverty is not on our reaching an external level of economic poverty, but in following Jesus loving us and calling us as his companions to engage the world to establish his Father’s Kingdom.

Fr. Sosa is aware that this is not easy.  It has never been.  “The tension between the life of poverty in the houses of the professed and the need for resources to ‘help souls’, care for the sick and support scholastics has always been present in the life of Jesuits.  We also find tension between personal poverty and the tenor of community life in which we live with others. There are also tensions arising from the cultural and social environment in which our life-mission unfolds.  It is therefore proper to the society to link the vow of poverty to the magis rather than to compliance with some standards, however sensible they may be.  For this reason, discernment based on the circumstances of persons times and places is always necessary.”  The magis here refers to our greater following of Jesus as his preaching of the Kingdom as the Father wills leads him to suffering, humiliation, death and resurrection.

I’d like to end this with Fr. Sosa’s citation of Pope Francis addressing GC 36: “The view of St. Ignatius [as regards poverty] is not just an ascetic attitude, as if to pinch me so that it pains me more, but it is a love of poverty as a way of life, as a way of salvation, an ecclesial way.  Because for St. Ignatius … poverty is both mother and bulwark.  Poverty nurtures, mothers, generates spiritual life, a life of holiness, apostolic life.  And it is a wall, it defends.  How many ecclesial disasters began because of lack of poverty…  I believe St. Ignatius has a very great intuition.  In the Ignatian vision of poverty we have a source of inspiration to help us.”

May the consideration of our life of poverty from our “still center” leave us not walking away from Jesus in sadness because of our many possessions, but freed of being possessed by possessions in discernment following him with our hearts burning within us.  Our poverty is apostolic.  It is also a matter of love, not fear, and of the perfection of love, not of ourselves.  “There is no fear in love,” John says. “But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love.  We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 18-19).

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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