Recall the three texts that Saint Francis read when he went to the Church of Saint Nicholas with Brother Bernard, and opened the Bible three times. The order in which the texts appeared is Matthew 19:21, then Luke 9:3, and then Matthew 16:24.
If you look at them in that order, you see that the first text says to get rid of everything. The second one says not to take anything along for the journey. And the third one says simply, “Follow me.” It’s a rather nice progression as given in Bonaventure’s account of Francis’ life. Let’s go back to the first text they found: “If you will be perfect, go, sell all that you have and give to the poor”; that’s what is quoted in Bonaventure, just those words.
That doesn’t mean they ignored the other words in the passage from Matthew, but those are the words that are singled out. If we try to approach this in a literal and realistic way, we see that Jesus is talking about the possibility of being perfect: this is the way we can be perfect. But now let’s take it a step further to see what more Jesus might mean by that. Maybe the best insight into these words is a phrase from the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus tells his disciples, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
This means that, as God sends his gifts on both the good and bad, so we are called to do the same. We don’t hold back anything from someone in need. We don’t question first whether they are worthy or not, but rather, accept that they are human beings who are our brothers and sisters under God. Therefore, just as God is perfect in giving what is needed to his children, so we are called to be perfect in that same way. Of course, that is an awfully tall order!
It’s easy to be generous when a nice person comes along. Look at Blessed Mother Teresa. People were exceedingly generous to her; people did many things for her because she was easily lovable. But look at the people she took care of. She picked them up out of the gutter every day, dirty and smelling and diseased and practically dead, and she loved them and took care of them without question. For most of us, it’s a lot easier to love Mother Teresa but not as easy to love the people whom she cared for.
But we’re not called to go to India and do that kind of thing; maybe we’re not even called to do that kind of work in our own corner of the world. Maybe we are called to be perfect simply by helping the people around us. Maybe we are called to forgive, to let bygones be bygones.
Do we care only about people who are nice to us, or do we care about the people who are not nice to us at all?
Being perfect doesn’t necessarily mean we have to treat everybody well, be nice to everybody. That’s not what God is. God isn’t just nice to everybody; God gives himself to everybody.
In this same way, every person who comes into my life is saying to me, “Get out of yourself; don’t hang on to your own selfish concerns. Don’t put your own concerns so far above everybody else’s that you don’t care about anybody else.” Let people into your life; that’s one way you can start trying to be perfect.
But in Matthew 19:21, Jesus does indicate further ramifications of being perfect. If you really want to be like your heavenly Father, if you really want to go all out for him and be like him, go sell your possessions and give to the poor.
Now here’s where Francis gives us a good insight in this text. He and Bernard and the brothers and sisters who will eventually follow Francis do indeed take this text literally and realistically.
Franciscans go back home, get all their possessions together, sell them, give the money to the poor, and then come to follow him.
How does this help Secular Franciscans, or those who don’t specifically follow a Franciscan lifestyle? Francis was faced with that problem as well. People came to him and said, “We want to follow you; we want to be like you.”
Some of them wanted to leave their wives and their families; there were even wives who wanted to leave their husbands and their families. Francis was realistic enough to know that leaving everything behind was not the right way for everybody.
Here we might recall the story about Franz Jägerstätter [the German pacifist and martyr, who in faith, against the wishes of his family, gave up his life rather than serve as a Nazi soldier]. He could not put the love of his wife and his children ahead of his love for God; that’s the way it came to him. This is a good way of understanding Matthew’s text for people who don’t enter a religious community.
People who are living with their families or as a single person or in some other situation can still leave everything behind in the sense that they will never put material possessions—even one’s family or relationships with others—above their fidelity to God. If that is the way they live, they are exemplifying the kingdom of God. They are, as the rest of the text says, storing up treasure in heaven. Remember, heaven stands for God. A person who puts God first has treasure with God, is with God. Possess God and you will be possessed by God.
Surely, then, they are following Christ. So to apply this text in a very practical and realistic way is to say, “Put possessions in their right place. Don’t hang on to anything; get rid of stuff as much as you can.”
Material possessions are unimportant as far as the kingdom of God is concerned. Of course, there are things that we need to live, to do our work, to help us relax, and to be better people. But when possessions get in the way of our relationship with God, that’s when we need to consider what needs to go.
Another question is, “What does poverty mean for a layperson? What is the practical implication of this kind of vow in someone’s life?” It means they become detached from things. They come to use material goods for their own needs, for the needs of their family, and for other legitimate purposes. There are differences of opinion about how you really carry this out.
Essentially, however, to take a vow of poverty—or to ascribe to that way of life without actually taking a vow—means we cannot cling to anything. When we cling to our possessions, for all practical purposes we renounce Christ. If we must make a choice between renouncing Christ or renouncing goods, we have to renounce goods. Christ must be first, foremost, and everything in our lives.
Sometimes the choice between possessions and Christ can be a dramatic thing; more often it occurs in the daily choices of our lives. For example, how do we deal with consumerism? How much do we need to hang on to? How important is it for us to keep getting new things, getting the best things, getting ahead of everybody else? Surely we are called to use our possessions well and become good stewards of whatever we have. That especially includes taking care of the poor.
Each situation in life challenges us to consider the words of Scripture in a practical, realistic, and personal way; that’s why we never want to stop reading Scripture and hearing its words proclaimed to us at Mass. Each time we encounter Scripture, it offers an opportunity to consider the choices we have before us as followers of Christ.
Each Scripture text is a call to try to understand that text as it stands, consider what it is saying to you, and then remain open to the possibilities suggested by the text.
Luke 9:3 says, “Take nothing for the journey.” Take neither walking staff nor traveling bag, no bread, no money; no one is to have two coats. This again is a good illustration of the virtue of poverty.
The third text in Bonaventure’s account, Matthew 16:24, tells us, “If you have a mind to come my way, renounce yourself, and take up your cross and follow me.” In this text, the really important words are the last ones: “Follow me.”
If we understand that and can make it real in our lives, the rest of these things may follow. But how are we to follow in the footsteps of Christ? What does this mean practically and realistically? What does it mean personally? How literally do we take those words? And if we don’t take them literally, what do those words mean to say?
Following in the footsteps of Christ doesn’t mean that we should all go over to the Holy Land, try to find the footsteps of Jesus, and walk in them. It means, rather, that our lives must become identified with the life of Christ.
We should approach life the way he approached life. If it means carrying the cross—whatever that implies in our modern age and in our own personal circumstances—that is what we must do. We might well ask ourselves, why was Jesus put to death? He was put to death because he was faithful to his Father. He did what was asked of him by God the Father; nobody wanted to hear about that, especially the people in power, both civil and religious. None of them wanted to hear what Jesus had to say.
Today we’re tempted to do the same; we don’t want to hear about what my Father wants us to do because we’re afraid of the consequences. What might it do to us? How would we have to change?
But Jesus decided, “I will do what God wants, no matter what.” In challenging the people of his day, the civil and the religious authorities, he gradually came to realize he would even lose his life because of fidelity to his Father.
Look at your life. Where are you really being faithful? How can you be more faithful? It’s easy to be faithful in some things. For most of us, it’s just some rather small things that demand fidelity; still, we give up on it.
For example, look at the times when we’ll get in a little bit of trouble unless we tell a lie. This lie probably isn’t serious, and we should have a few faults anyway, so we tell a lie and that solves a lot of problems for us. Yet, maybe that’s exactly when we’re called to be faithful.
We won’t end up being put on a cross or sent to the guillotine or something drastic like that, but telling the truth will cause us some trouble—and we’d rather avoid trouble. Christ says, “If you want to come after me, really follow in my footsteps, be faithful as I was faithful to the Father.” That means all those little compromises that are so easy for us to make must go: a lie here, a little cheating there, a little bit of backbiting over there.
All these things can make life easier for us, but Christ is calling us to be faithful in all of these things, to really follow in his footsteps and be faithful to his Father.
Whether it’s big things or small things, Jesus makes a very strong statement here: if anyone wishes to follow after him, that person needs to deny his very self. Does that mean we shouldn’t be selfish; is that what it literally means?
Surely, it means at least that: to get over that selfishness that wants to keep protecting the self, to stop making compromises, to stop allowing ourselves to be indifferent. But it means even more than that, because Jesus doesn’t say, “Deny your selfishness”; he says to deny yourself. Now, we know that God made us and that we are a treasured part of creation; God doesn’t want us to destroy ourselves.
But what is it that’s being asked of us when we are told to deny ourselves? Does this mean we should see that God has to be most important in our lives, that we must be secondary to God? Maybe that’s a bad way of putting it, too. God is all important; God is everything. And whenever we compromise, even in the smallest way, by putting ourselves before God and before others, those are the times when we do not deny ourselves.
And so, while we must give up our attachment to possessions and give to the poor, we must also give up our very selves and realize that God is first; Jesus is first. We are called to deny ourselves, to take up whatever cross there is in our lives, whatever kind of pain comes into our lives, and really begin to follow in Christ’s footsteps. Francis sums this up well in his simple little prayer: “My God and my all.”