Saint Anthony of Egypt – Readings


Saint Anthony of Egypt – Commentary on the day’s Scripture readings

Readings: Ephesians 6:10-13, 18; Ps 15; Matt 19:16-26

Both the chosen readings reflect experiences in Anthony’s life.  The First Reading from the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of equipping ourselves with the armour we need to protect ourselves against the insidious urgings to indulge our lower appetites.  In spite of a life devoted to austerity and prayer, Anthony was faced with many urgings to an easier and more pleasure-filled way of life.  But, following the teaching of the reading, he put on “God’s armour” and eventually came out victorious.  Temptations are almost necessary if we are to develop a vigorous faith.  St Paul elsewhere speaks of training like an athlete to develop his spiritual life.  A life without resistance, challenges and discipline will not have real strength.

The Gospel is the story of the rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to earn eternal life.  All he needed to do, Jesus said, was to keep the commandments of the Law.  But the man pushed further: “Which commandments?”   Jesus listed the fourth (respecting parents), the sixth (no adultery), the seventh (no stealing), the eighth (no false accusations against people) and lastly, loving the neighbour as oneself.  Interestingly, the fifth commandment is not cited.  This man was unlikely to be guilty of such a thing.  What is interesting is that all the commandments Jesus mentions are directed to the wellbeing of others.  Commandments directly related to God are not mentioned.  In reply, the man claimed that he had observed all of the commandments cited by Jesus.  What else could be required of him?  “If you wish to be perfect,” Jesus told him, “then go and sell all your property and give the money to the poor and needy.  After that, come and be one of my followers.”

On hearing this, the man became very downcast.  “He went away sad, because he was very rich.”  Jesus had called his bluff.  All those commandments he claimed to be keeping, he only observed as the fulfilment of laws which put him on the right side with God.  He was not really concerned about the well-being of brothers and sisters in real need.

As he went away, Jesus told his disciples: “It will be very difficult for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God.  It would be easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to be part of God’s Kingdom.”  The disciples were utterly shocked at Jesus’ words.  If the rich cannot get into God’s Kingdom, then who can be saved?  Their thinking reflected the conviction of most people of their time.  Wealth was a sign of God’s blessings; poverty was punishment for sin.   The rich man would have thought the same.

In order to make sense of Jesus’ teaching we have to clarify two points.  First, what is meant here by ‘rich’.  To be rich in the Gospel (and indeed in the eyes of many people today) is to have lots of wealth, lots more than ‘ordinary’ people.  It means having surplus wealth when people around you are in dire need.  Second, the ‘Kingdom’ or ‘Reign’ of God is not referring to ‘heaven’ (although in Matthew’s text he speaks about the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’).  The Kingdom of God exists in this world wherever people are living their lives in the way God wants them to live them and that means ‘loving one another as Jesus has loved each one’.  And that can only happen when all reach out to each other and ensure that all have what they need for a full life.  That is what we mean when we pray: “Your Kingdom come… that is, Your will be done on earth.”

Later, Jesus’ disciples will understand this and will live and preach it.  And Anthony, whose feast we are celebrating today, took Jesus’ words literally and spent the rest of his life living with the absolute minimum and spending himself on both the spiritual and material welfare of those in all kinds of need.  Perhaps we are not in a position to follow literally in his footsteps but his life is a serious challenge to each one of us to evaluate the ownership and use of material goods in our own lives and to what extent we live our lives with an eye on those in need.

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