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Seventh and Tenth Commandments and Detachment

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


What someone has belongs to that person. Injustice is enriching myself at the cost of impoverishing somebody else; but, someone has much more than I do. Pardon me, so what! Behind that “so what” stands the history of the human race in constant conflict between people who have and people who either do not have or more likely have less. As we know, in the Old Testament there was a high regard for material possessions. That needs to be underlined. More than once we read how God blessed with material prosperity and even material property those who served the Lord faithfully. Even the Book of Job, he was rewarded for his loyalty and, unlike what his friends told him to do or even his wife told him to do, he never complained. God rewarded him. He became wealthier than he was before. This is not unimportant to understand what we call the moral psychology of Old Testament morality.

As we approach the New Testament we enter a different world. Christ assured those who love Him of the means they need (let’s use the strongest word) to survive. Don’t worry, God will provide. Christ also assumed that there would always be people who are materially prosperous and others who would be materially either less prosperous or even poor, indeed very poor. For years now, I never tire telling people most of the five billion people in the world today go to bed hungry every night. No social scientist who understands the conditions of the world questions that statement. Moreover, Christ never openly condemned material possessions. What Christ did, however, was to teach the focus of our present meditation: detachment from material goods.

The teaching of Christ, therefore, will come on three levels. There were three passages of the Gospels, and all three occur in the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Not coincidentally. As we have been saying, the Gospel of Matthew, the first written, was written for the converts from Judaism for whom, quite understandably, the evidence of God being pleased with His people, well, was with His providing for their more than material needs. Again, not coincidentally. From almost the beginning of the Jewish people, they engaged in business. They spread to the farthest reaches of the then known world on business. They were then, as they remained for centuries and, I have to say it, as they are now, the business race of the human race. Matthew, therefore, always under Divine Inspiration made sure, better the Holy Spirit made sure, that Matthew would say it to tell his own people what Christ was doing and what He didn’t do to highlight the need for detachment from worldly possessions. Each of these passages is a gold mine of revealed wisdom; the right figure of speech on how Christ fulfilled in His own language the old law by elevating, for our present purpose, the seventh and tenth commandments of the Decalogue. We may give each of these three classic passages a title. They are in sequence as found in Matthew: Poverty of Spirit, True Riches, and the Dangers of Material Wealth.

First then, Poverty of Spirit

It is, and I cannot exaggerate, profoundly providential that Christ began His Sermon on the Mount in which, reflecting on the morality of the Old Testament, He elevated that morality to previously unknown heights. Christ began His Sermon on the Mount with the eight Beatitudes. More still, Christ began the eight Beatitudes with His teaching on poverty of spirit. Talk about giving Divine Emphasis! He began the Beatitudes, which are the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, in order to selectively teach His disciples, those who were in turn to teach others. Why? Because they, the disciples, were first to learn and practice the Beatitudes. Why a second time? Because, for all future generations, the leaders in Christ’s Kingdom especially His bishops and priests were to do the same. They were to know the Beatitudes, practice them themselves in order that they might effectively preach the Beatitudes to the faithful. The main reason for the convulsions through which the Church has gone over the centuries, and the popes tell us this is the gravest convulsion in the history of the Church in our day, the main reason historically has been the failure of the leaders in the Church, the bishops and the priests themselves, living the Beatitudes so they in turn might inspire the faithful to do the same. We go on.

Christ began His first Beatitude by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Though I am sure you’ve heard it many times, let’s make sure we understand that the correct word is “blessed” and not merely happy. Blessed means happy indeed but supernaturally happy, made happy by God satisfying our desires. That is the essence of happiness - the satisfaction of desires - but, dear Lord, what a difference it makes what kind of desires we have satisfied. They ought to be the desires that God wants to have satisfied. What is Our Lord saying? He is saying that the first law of following Christ is detachment from all worldly possessions. I might add one more adjective to make it complete - total detachment from all worldly possessions. As we’ve said and we repeat, Christ assumed there would be believers in His name who would possess more of this world’s goods than others. He also knew, He also knew there would be naturally and, inescapably, poor followers of Christ. He might have given us some statistics prophetically. Over the centuries most of the faithful followers of Christ had been materially poor people. Ah, that is not a cheap numerical percentage. When Christ began His public ministry, remember in the synagogue of Nazareth, where the school and, quoted from Isaias, “He has sent Me to preach the good news to the poor.” That word, “poor,” has many meanings but one meaning it surely has - it means the materially poor.

What Christ wanted to make out is that everyone of His followers is only as devoted to His name and only as pleasing to His heart as his own heart is detached from everything of material or financial or temporal or this worldly value. There are not too many audiences I could say these words to. This detachment of heart must be sincere, genuine, profoundly interior, and professedly exterior. What do we mean? We mean, first of all, that to live the first Beatitude means to honestly, in the depths of our souls, not hold on to what the world treasures as precious. That, by the way, is Christ’s own definition of the world. The world is those people who treasure what is here on earth. What do we mean? We mean that to live the first Beatitude we must be able to face God and tell Him, “Yes Lord, I am truly indifferent to the possession or the lack or the loss of everything of any material value in this world.”

We said this detachment had four qualities. Quality number three: we mean that the first Beatitude is first, first in the believing mind and then in the believing will. My mind must be convinced on faith that everything in this world is only as meaningful as it is a means to enabling me to reach my eternal destiny. My mind must be convinced. My will, not necessarily notice my feelings or emotions, my will is free to keep or to leave, to retain or to give up whatever of material value I possess. Finally, what do we mean? We mean that this poverty of spirit is proved by the way we act, how we behave, what we do with what we do possess; thus, sharing with others, giving to others. In a word, the practice of Christlike charity is the witness, exterior proof to the world, through my own in the world among whom I live, that I’m really living the first Beatitude. The saints tell us people can be inordinately attached to a holy picture. “That’s mine!” That’s part one.

Part Two of Christ’s Teaching: True Riches

In the same Sermon on the Mount Christ tells us, in the plainest of words, what is true wealth. In other words, what is authentic affluence. He says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth where the rust and moth consume, where thieves break in and steal; but (all those adversatives in the Gospels), but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither rust nor moth consume, nor thieves break in and steal. Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” Again, we ask what is Our Lord telling us? He is saying many things, and in no previous time of Christian history have Christ’s words been more precious or their teaching more needed than today.

The only measure for what social scientists call a developed nation is, well, it’s collective wealth and it’s per capita earnings. My Jesuit confreres from India tell me, in casual conversation at table, one day’s wage in the United States will support our Indian people, a person, for up to six months, even a whole year. No words can describe, no verb I can use would adequately identify what I call the mesmerism of wealth or the hypnotism of riches which has overtaken whole nations. But let me be very clear, not many compared to the total population of the world, the vast majority is by any standards, very poor. Only God knows, only He knows, why two diocese in the United States in the last five years, one closed sixty parishes and the other forty. One diocese each. Only God knows why the number of priests in our country has dwindled from the lowest percentage in the Church’s history in our country. Only God knows why religious vocations are down to the lowest minimum again in our nation’s history. One reason I can give. Where there is material prosperity there is corresponding spiritual poverty. Sure, there are exceptions. You know and I know, but they are exceptions.

Back to Our Lord. What is Christ telling us when he talks about true riches? How this needs to be burnt into our minds. Christ distinguishes two kinds of wealth: material and spiritual, terrestrial and celestial, temporal and eternal. Ah, but the faith you must have even to use these terms not to say understand their difference and, least of all, not to appreciate that these two forms of wealth are antithetical. God wants us to be wealthy. He wants us to be rich. He wants us to be affluent, but (all these adversatives), but as the Incarnate God, the Infinite Lord of All Things, He wants us to be discriminating. How? To be able and willing to not just retain but actually gain in our true riches which are, to go back over our vocabulary, which are spiritual, celestial, and eternal. No wonder, how perfectly logical of God, no wonder when He came into the world He was born in a stable not even in a, in a home and then told His followers He did not even have ground to lay His head.

I know in what nation I am speaking. I know the atmosphere that we all breathe. It is not the atmosphere of the Gospels. Implied in this mysterious teaching is the fact that we are not made for this world. We are made for eternity, and this eternity depends on what we consider precious now in time. We are in business. We do want return for our labor. We are expecting high dividends, but we better be clear where those dividends will be given us and the price we’ve got to pay to earn. If we set our hearts on the things of this world; the passing things, the rustable things, the decayable things, the stealable treasures of time, we run the risk of losing the nondestructable wealth of heaven. That is why, as the commentators on the Scripture over the centuries have been telling us especially the great mystics and saints, that’s why Christ, during His public ministry of healing, restored sight to so many blind people because, as the saintly commentators tell us, we are all blind. We need supernatural surgery to see, to see, behind, beneath, below whatever this world treasures the real treasure which is the grace of God here on earth as a condition for entering the glory of God in the world to come.

Over the years, I have come up with about a dozen definitions of secularism. Here’s one: secularism is that philosophy of life for which money is it’s divine grace. Money, wealth, that’s grace in the dictionaries of this world. Of course, not only faith but also, with emphasis, our hope must be set on the endless treasures that our faith tells us we will infallibly attain. Do you know it is a sin to doubt consciously and deliberately whether we are going to reach heaven? It’s a sin. Banish the thought. Trust that having served Our Lord faithfully by being detached from the things of this world He will not abandon us. We are on the road to heaven. We are on the road to heaven. We are on the road to heaven. Of course, there are detours. Of course there are, well, potholes. Of course there is heavy traffic and, occasionally, we may even be fined for speeding, but we are on the road to heaven.

Part Three of Christ’s Teaching: The Dangers of Material Riches

Unexpectedly, Our Lord spoke of the dangers of riches after He had invited the rich young man to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow Him. As the young man walked away, Jesus said to His disciples (oh, Christ capitalized on every occasion), “Amen I say to you,” he told the disciples, “with difficulty will a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, I say to you it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The disciples needed Pentecost. They had not yet received the Holy Spirit as you can tell. On hearing this we are told they were exceedingly astonished. Jewish people follow the tradition of the business race of the world, and their question reduced it to it’s ultimates. “Lord who then can be saved?” Then Jesus looked upon them (Matthew doesn’t say that but) with pity. “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Over the years, part of my apostolic work has been, through no choice of my own, to deal with some very wealthy people. I never, especially when I give a retreat to millionaires. Perfect setup, they’re asking for it. If you want to get to heaven you’ve got to look to the money you’ve got, and don’t tell me your heart is detached and you drive around as my multimillionaire friend in Tarrytown, New York did in a long grey Cadillac leaning in the back seat holding the stirrup inside the car and a glass of cider in his right hand. He drove very slowly. The chauffeur was told to take it easy. Ten miles of lavish gardens, exotic flowers, trees he told me and bushes from the south Haitian seas. “All of this,” he told me, “all of this is for my pleasure.” Yet that same man, when we finished the tour and we sat down (I had my stole with me) had been a Catholic. His first question was, “Do you believe in hell?” “I sure do. That’s why I am here. To keep you out of hell.” So the conversation began. You may have heard part of this story. He did die with the sacraments, and for the first time in his life as far as anyone knew he was buried in the church which he never attended.

We are talking about the dangers of riches, and we are saying that I doubt if there is a more sobering statement recorded in the Gospels spoken by Jesus than the one we have just quoted. Why? I have four becauses: Because we are living in an age that material prosperity is the standard of human progress. Why? Because we are living in a society where wealth is admired and where the wealthy, and I mean it, are idolized. Talk about the idols of Babylon and Egypt! We’ve had ours, the wealthy, because the laws of one, may God forgive them the word, because the laws of one “developed country after another are framed to increase the people’s wealthy possessions.” In the United States that’s the condition for being elected to office, and my friends, some very close friends, at the Pentagon tell me because we are living in that period of history when man’s genius has produced such access to material possessions, to bodily pleasure, and to earthly power that had never even been dreamed before. Quoting Our Lord, “If the modern, materially intoxicated world is to be saved, it can only be by the power of God’s grace.” The affluent world, especially in the West, the world is in danger of not being saved. That is supernatural realism. What’s our responsibility? To pray, pray on bended knees, pray for the conversion of these intoxicated people who are living in a worldly dream from which they will awaken the moment their souls leave their bodies. What’s our responsibility? To sacrifice everything in this world no matter how precious that may be in our lives to bring these millions of souls into the treasures of a blessed eternity with God.


Lord Jesus, You are our God who taught us from Bethlehem to the cross the dignity of poverty. Open our eyes to see as You see where our real treasure lies so that we may choose to give up everything in this world in order to gain You and Your riches in that heavenly destiny for which we were made. Amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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