We just heard a Gospel text telling us to do what seems to be impossible: carry nothing for the journey, no food, no money, no spare clothing. So, I want to say a few words about how the Church has interpreted this text.
This Saturday was the feast of St Benedict, and this week I've been on a pilgrimage to one of the great Benedictine monasteries in France, Fontgombault. It’s an abbey where the monks live poverty, chastity, and obedience, VERY strictly. They have no personal possessions, and they have no range of spare clothing to choose from, just the black habit or the black habit! There is something very inspiring about seeing people who, even in the midst of a very modern materialistic Western lifestyle, can put all that aside to live simply with Christ and for Christ. And I mention this to indicate that there are people today who do live the Gospel poverty, the Evangelical poverty, in a literal sense, even today.
But, back to our gospel text, how has the Church interpreted this text down the centuries? Basically, there is a threefold interpretation. First, this text had a meaning and relevance that was applicable directly to the people it was addressing, and thus it was of a temporary meaning: a literal interpretation that held for the 12 apostles to whom was addressed.
Second, this text refers to a way of life that is not temporary in the church but permanent in the Church, in every era of its existence, but a way of life, a vocation, that is specific to some of us and not to others. A way of life that is addressed to those who live out the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, in a literal fashion: those we call Religious brothers and sisters, and those Benedictine monks I visited one of many examples. The Gospel texts make a number of references to these three Counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In what we just heard, Jesus said, carry no bread, no coins, no spare tunic, and they live holy poverty possessing nothing of themselves, holding everything in a common possession of the community. Jesus "summoned" the 12, and those monks live this out in holy obedience, surrendering their will at all times to the superior of the community. And Jesus sent the 12 “out in pairs", leaving family and friends behind, and those monks live holy chastity, with no spouse or family, loving God with what Scripture calls "an undivided heart”(1 Cor 7:32ff).
In each of these three vows, vows of what are called the three Gospel or Evangelical Counsels, a Religious "consecrates" a different aspect of his self directly to God, so that with the three together his whole self ease "consecrated" to God. Consecrated "directly" and not through the medium of something else. Each of these 3 Counsels is a remedy to one of the three “causes” of sin, what Scripture calls “the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life"(1 Jn 2:16). And in choosing to love the Lord with an undivided heart, embracing these vows, they love God DIRECTLY, and they do so living the Gospel Counsels “in fact”, literally. [c.f.Basil Cole OP & Paul Conner O.P., Christian Totality: Theology of the Consecrated Life (New York, Alba House, 1997), p.27.] And they do so in what the Church thus calls the "higher state of life".
Now, I speak of the beauty and superiority of the Consecrated life as someone who does not himself live it, as you yourselves gathered here to also not live it. None of us here have taken the three vows. However, this way of life DOES have a relevant to us, and that brings me to the third and final interpretation of this gospel text, and other similar texts that speak of poverty so directly: ALL Christians are called to live the three Evangelical Counsels "in spirit", even though we are not all called to live them "in fact" in a consecrated manner. “Christ proposes the evangelical counsels, in their great variety, to every disciple” (Catechism, 915) What this means is that each of us must manifest in our own lives with the different "Counsels” that we see a monk or nun, it's a monk or nun is living well! As the nun lives chastity by having no spouse but Christ, cleaving to Him with "an undivided heart", ALL Christians are called to love of Christ more we love anything or anyone in this world -and those we love in this world, in Christ tells us that we MUST love, if our love for them is to be pure and selfless, then that love must have its source in the Christ whom we love first. Similarly, obedience, we are all called to obey the Lord with a ready spirit in all His commands and decrees. And finally, poverty: this is the one that perhaps seems most impossible to us in our materialistic age. However, the literal poverty of a monk or nun is a sign to us of how ALL of us are called to value God and the things of God more than the possessions of this world. We are called to live in this world as people who belong to another world, as people who are "citizens of heaven"(Phil 3:20). Those of us who live IN the world MUST have possessions, but we must live as if our possessions do not possess us.
In summary, this apparently impossible gospel text, would be impossible if all Christians were called to live it literally at all times. However, it is a practical text in that it had, first, a literal interpretation for the 12 people to whom it was first addressed. Second, it has a literal interpretation of those specific people in every age of the Church who are called to live it “in fact”. And third, ALL Christians are called to live this poverty, chastity, and obedience, “in spirit”.