Do I need to sell all my possessions to get to heaven?
A Reflection for the Memorial of St. Anthony, Abbot
Find today’s readings here.
“The young man said to him,
‘All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?’
Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go,
sell what you have and give to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me.’” Mt 19:20-21
The young man has followed all the commandments, but he knows that isn’t enough. This carpenter from Nazareth is clearly offering something more than a rule book.
What else do I need to do?
Sell everything you have, and give it to the poor. Can you imagine? It’s easy to be so distracted by the boldness, the impossibility of the suggestion to even consider it.
He went away sad, for he had many possessions.
As someone who is quickly aging out of being called a young man, but who definitely has not sold all his possessions, this passage and these people occasionally haunt me.
Naturally, the church uses this Gospel for the memorial of a man who did take this command quite literally: St. Anthony, abbot. Anthony (note: not the one from Padua, who helps you find your keys) is considered the father of monasticism. What we know about his life comes from St. Athanasius’ fourth-century biography, which was translated into several languages and became something of a best-seller. After the death of his parents, Anthony was contemplating what to do with his life when he wandered into a church where today’s Gospel was being proclaimed. Athanasius describes his reaction upon hearing it:
Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers… And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister's sake.
He really did sell everything he had to follow Jesus, and he inspired generations of monks that came after him to do the same. To this day they, other men and women religious and lay communities, are a powerful argument against the idea that Jesus was just speaking metaphorically. And as someone who is quickly aging out of being called a young man, but who definitely has not sold all his possessions, this passage and these people occasionally haunt me.
But this Gospel is not a young man’s story or a monk’s story. It is our story.
The young man has done a lot over the years. He wants to know how to inherit eternal life. Jesus will only tell him what’s next. Selling everything he has won’t be enough—notice the command that comes after that: Then, come follow me. There will be more to come.
St. John Henry Newman famously wrote, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” In this lower world, there is no finish line for discipleship. God will invite us to change in ways unique to us for the rest of our life. And our next step might be selling everything we have—but it might also be slowing down, returning that phone call, making that meal.