Kevin Madigan: Morning Prayers

Text: Matt. 19:16-22

This text, and especially the injunction to "sell your possessions," is like a parabolic Sermon on the Mount—a sermon on Mount Everest at that—all by itself. Your banker, not to mention your priest or minister, is unlikely to think less of you if you think Jesus here not just visionary but quixotic. If you believe, that Jesus commands an act not just of recklessness but of lunacy in this text, your parents may not only approve; they'll breathe a sigh of relief. No one is likely to chide you if, reading this text, you decline to sell all you have and content yourself simply not to murder, steal, or habitually give false testimony. Life, we all understand, is more than possessions. But then, it's terribly hard to get on without some, isn't it?

So hard, one might be tempted to argue, that, for the dominical command text to become real or alive to us at all, we've got to treat it with a hardheaded, if unromantic, hermeneutic of domestication. To be sure, to domesticate is to doctor and thus to distort, and there is always something embarrassingly false about that. Nonetheless, interpretive gerrymandering has a long, even proud history in the Christian tradition. Without it, or without something like it, we'd simply have to shake our heads at such a text and walk away in despair.

Applying this kind of hermeneutic, we could, without real loss of self-respect or even risk to salvation, conclude the following. The text does not really require us to sell our possessions or renounce our secular ambitions; we're simply enjoined not to be owned by them. Or perhaps we might resort to the time-honored distinction between dominical precepts and counsels. This text here is not intended for spiritual mediocrities like me, we might be brought to believe, but for religious virtuosi, for those who aspire to religious perfection. But religious perfection is a hard thing to attempt and even rarer to achieve. Assuming we don't want simply to ignore this lofty command, how are the religiously average like me to understand and appropriate it?

I think, to put it all too briefly, that the text may call us to occupy, or attempt to inhabit, that murky grey zone between the minimalist and maximalist possibilities it suggests. Most of us in fact already live, conscientiously enough, according to the minimalist creed. We manage to get through each day easily enough without committing homicide. But for anybody with any religious feeling at all, that's not really satisfying. It's a command fulfilled, so to speak, entirely passively. We can do it, so to speak, without even trying. For us, then, the maximalist command—sell all your possessions—stands as a vision of the imaginable, a lofty religious diagnostic by which to measure ourselves and find ourselves always wanting, an ideal toward which we might aspire with the full knowledge that we'll inevitably fall short. 

But even as I say these words, I can't help but find them unequal to the power of the text, even a bit dull—though don't let me interrupt you if you're having a different intellectual or religious, reaction. To be quite frank, I fear I've trivialized the meaning and blunted the impact of the text. How then, do we encounter this text without so comfortable an interpretive cushion? Sell your possessions . . . then come, follow me. Perhaps one way is to see the possessions as standing in for our crude secular attachments and profane aspirations. Viewed in this way, the text insists that we order them—our everyday aims and affections—in accordance with the ultimate ends of creation and the desires, however darkly perceived, of its transcendent source. That's not an easy thing to do. You can't accomplish this without some effort. But, happily, you don't have to be perfect, or even hope to be perfect, to try.