by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” …. Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
– Matthew 1:16-24
In the Gospel story of the young rich man, the Lord warns us of how difficult it is for a man who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God. Does this mean that the Kingdom of God is open only to the destitute, to those who are materially poor, who lack everything on earth? No. The Kingdom of God is open to all who are not enslaved by possessions.
When we read the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” we are given a key to this saying: the poor in spirit are those who have understood that they possess nothing which is their own. We have been created as an act of God. We have been loved into existence.
We are offered by God communion with Him to which we have no right. All we are, all we possess, is not our own in the sense that we have not made ourselves, we did not create what is seemingly ours – everything which we are and which we have is love, the love of God and the love of people, and we cannot possess anything because everything is a gift that escapes us the moment we want to have possession of it and say, “It is mine.”
On the other hand, the Kingdom of God is really the kingdom of those who are aware that they are infinitely rich because we can expect everything from love divine and from human love. We are rich because we possess nothing. We are rich because we are given all things. So it is difficult for one who imagines that he is rich in his own right to belong to that kingdom in which everything is a sign of love, and nothing can be possessed – in which nothing can be taken away from others – because the moment we say that we possess something which is not given us either by God or by human care, we subtract it from the mystery of love.
On the other hand, the moment we cling to anything we become slaves of it.
I recall when I was young, a man telling me: “Don’t you understand that the moment you have taken a copper coin in your hand and are not prepared to open your hand to let it go, you have lost the use of a hand, the use of an arm, the use of your body, because all your attention is concentrated on not losing this coin?”
Whether we keep a copper coin in our hand, or whether we feel rich in so many other ways – intellectually, emotionally, materially – is irrelevant. We are prisoners. We have lost the use of a limb, the use of our mind, the use of our heart. We can no longer be free – and the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of freedom.
On the other hand also, how difficult it is to one who has never lacked anything, who has always possessed more than he needs, to be aware of the poverty or the need of another: poverty – material, emotional, intellectual, or any other lack. It requires a great deal of understanding and sympathy. It requires from us that we should learn to be attentive to the movements of other people’s hearts and to their material needs in order to respond to them.
There is a saying in Russian: “A satisfied person no longer understands a hungry one.”
Which of us can say that we are hungry in any respect? And this is why we do not understand the needs of people? Of those standing around us or of people beyond the confines of our congregation?
Poverty does not mean destitution; it means freedom from enslavement to an illusion that we are self-sufficient, self-contained, the creator of what we are and what we possess. It also means we are freed from enslavement to what is given us to make husbandmen of God.
Saint Paul said that whether he is rich or destitute, he is equally rich because his richness is in God and in human love. Let us reflect on this. Then we will be able, whether we possess material things or not, to be free of them, and to belong to God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom of mutual love, or mutual solidarity, of compassion for one another, of giving to one another what we were given freely.
From a sermon preached 18 August 1991. A collection of the writings and sermons of Metropolitan Anthony, Encounters, has been published by Darton Longman & Todd.