Sunday’s Gospel sounds extreme. That’s because it is extreme. It’s a gut punch to our modern, more moderate sensibilities — which is why we should pay special attention.
A man kneels before Jesus and asks (with apparent sincerity) what he has to do to be saved. “You are lacking in one thing,” Jesus tells him. “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mk 10.21). It’s a classic application of the maxim, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” In this case, the man got the one answer — perhaps the only answer — that he couldn’t accept. “His face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
Then Jesus turns to his disciples with a zinger: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” — impossible if we take seriously the Lord’s camel/needle’s eye imagery. It’s a pastoral body slam! “Then who can be saved?” the disciples object, for they know that everybody tends to jealously guard his hard-won worldly fief. Peter even blurts out in self defense, “We have given up everything and followed you,” and we can picture the other disciples nodding their heads in agreement.
Yet total divestment of that which keeps us from Jesus can take many forms. You’ll recall that a few Sundays back, Jesus had to rebuke these same disciples for “discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest” (Mk 9.34). Can’t you just see Jesus shaking his head; can’t you hear him sigh? “If anyone wishes to be first,” he patiently told them, “he shall be the last of all.”
Again, total divestment is the point — of money, of power, of prestige, of all the world holds dear. Jesus makes discipleship sound extreme. It is extreme.
Just how extreme can be glimpsed in the life of St. Dominic Loricatus, OSB Cam., whose feast is normally observed on Oct. 14. Born in 995, he received holy orders as a child after his family bribed a bishop – the sin of simony. Later, as a young man, Dominic repented of this sin, refused to exercise his priestly office, and fled to the Camaldolese monastery of Fonte Avellana in central Italy to do lifelong penance.
Ironically, Dominic’s repentant retreat to obscurity led to his fame. At the time, Fonte Avellana was home to St. Peter Damian, who advocated self-mortification as a spiritual discipline. Dominic followed this counsel and embraced the practice. For example, he took up a chain-mail vest, or lorica – the source of his nickname – and wore it next to his skin until his death in 1060.
By a fantastic arithmetic, a year of penance was taxed at three thousand lashes; and such was the skill and patience of a famous hermit, St. Dominic of the iron Cuirass, that in six days he could discharge an entire century, by a whipping of three hundred thousand stripes.
So…extreme? Perhaps — especially since Dominic couldn’t have been held responsible for his illicit youthful ordination. But this pious monk, with his sights firmly fixed on heaven, resolved to keep his distance from serious sin, despite his remote culpability – and who can argue with his choice? He might’ve foregone the inestimable gift of his priesthood and employed the harshest methods, but he won a crown in heaven.
How about us? Can we go to extremes for sanctity? “All things are possible for God,” Jesus tells us today. Let’s take him at his word.
Editor’s note: A version of this meditation appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Mishawaka, Indiana.
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