Friday, September 6, 2013

Must a man "renounce all his possessions" to be a Christian? On counsels and precepts

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 14:25-33
Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.
After telling the crowds that a man must hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, in order to be his disciple, the good Savior then seems to enjoin radical poverty upon all Christians.
To understand properly this passage, which is closely related to the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we must keep in mind the difference between a counsel and a precept. Likewise, it will be well to consider certain styles of Hebrew speech which are not easily translated into modern western languages.
Only in this way will we succeed in giving the proper interpretation of our Lord’s words.

Two rules from Cornelius a’ Lapide
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide, the great Jesuit biblical scholar of the Golden Age of Catholic Biblical Scholarship (the first half of the 17th Century – for an short Catholic history of Biblical Scholarship, see our earlier article [here]), prefaces his Great Commentary on the Gospels (available for purchase [here] or online [here]) with the “Canons for Interpretation of Scripture”.
These “Canons” can be read in their entirety over at “The Sacred Page” blog [here]. For our purposes, we will focus only on Canon 21, and on the final canon.
Canon 21: Christ frequently employs a Hebraism whereby the comparison of two things is expressed by the affirmation of the greater and the negation of the lesser. This should not be taken as a literal negation of the lesser.
Canon 39: Last of all, we should carefully weigh and discern whether what Christ says is a counsel, precept, promise, or only a permission … or a parable, and adage, a motto, etc.
This Sunday’s Gospel affords good examples of these two principles of interpretation.
“Hate” father and mother?
It is well recognized that the Lord Jesus does not command us truly and literally to hate our father and mother, for the same Lord had once commanded that we honor them. Therefore, we must consider what is meant by “hate” in this context.
The Lord intends to stress the perfect and total love of God, whom we love wholly and entirely for himself and above all others, in contra-position to the love we may have for anyone or anything else (parents, life, and possessions not excluded).
What is meant is this: “In comparison to the total and absolute love which you must have for God if you would be my disciple, the love which you have for your parents and even your own life is as nothing or more akin to hate.”
Better still: “As you must love God above all else if you would be my disciple, I state that you must hate your father and mother and your own life insofar as you must love in them and in yourself only that which is of God (those good things) and you must hate in them and in yourself that which is not of God (namely, evil and sin).”
And best of all: “If you would be my disciple you must realize that you will only truly love your parents and yourself when you first hate whatever in them and in yourself is not of God whom you must love above all and in all.”
Thus, we see clearly the 21st Canon of Cornelius – for, when the love of God is compared to the love of our parents and ourselves, the lesser is made to be as nothing (hate them and yourself) but this is meant only to affirm more strongly the total and complete love which we must have for God.
Hence, the term “hate” is not to be interpreted in the strictly literal sense, but in something of a parabolic fashion – and it is rightly noted that our Savior is, in this portion of Luke, speaking entirely in parables.
Counsel and precept
The Angelic Thomas discuses the difference between a precept and a counsel.
“Since a precept of law is binding, it is about something which must be done: and, that a thing must be done, arises from the necessity of some end. Hence it is evident that a precept implies, in its very idea, relation to an end, insofar as a thing is commanded as being necessary or expedient to an end.” (ST I-II, q.99, a.1 [here])
Thus, we state that the precepts of the New Law are binding as necessary or highly expedient to salvation. Some precepts, however, are given only to the Apostles while others apply to all. Furthermore, it is good to note that there were certain precepts which held only for a time (as the prohibition upon the early disciples from carrying a money-sack), while others are perpetual.
Regarding counsels, St. Thomas explains:
“The difference between a counsel and a commandment is that a commandment implies obligation, whereas a counsel is left to the option of the one to whom it is given. We must therefore understand the commandments of the New Law to have been given about matters that are necessary to gain the end of eternal bliss, to which end the New Law brings us forthwith: but that the counsels are about matters that render the gaining of this end more assured and expeditious.” (ST I-II, q.108, a.4 [here])
Thus, while precepts are necessary, counsels are only expedient. They are helps to salvation, but are not obligatory for all. Why are the counsels not obligatory for all? Aquinas responds:
“Now man is placed between the things of this world, and spiritual goods wherein eternal happiness consists: so that the more he cleaves to the one, the more he withdraws from the other, and conversely. Wherefore he that cleaves wholly to the things of this world, so as to make them his end, and to look upon them as the reason and rule of all he does, falls away altogether from spiritual goods. Hence this disorder is removed by the commandments.
“Nevertheless, for man to gain the end aforesaid, he does not need to renounce the things of the world altogether: since he can, while using the things of this world, attain to eternal happiness, provided he does not place his end in them: but he will attain more speedily thereto by giving up the goods of this world entirely: wherefore the evangelical counsels are given for this purpose.” (In the same place as above)
Thus, while it is good and even more perfect for a man to bind himself by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, such is not necessary to all.
“Renounce” all my possessions?
Interpreting this verse, we must consider the final canon of Fr. Cornelius – is this a matter of precept or only of counsel?
Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.
Cornelius a’ Lapide speaks well:
“All these things are of evangelical counsel, and not of precept although they may be said in a measure to extend to all Christians, inasmuch as they are bound to hate their parents, i.e. to give up the love of their friends and relations—even the love of life, if such love oppose itself to the law of Christ.”
It is well to note that our Savior did not require all his disciples to renounce all their possessions, neither was this demanded of all in the early Church. Consider that Lazarus kept his house (at least through Holy Week, since our Lord willed to remain there at that time), and that the Apostles did not demand the total renunciation of property and possessions from those whom they received into the Church on Pentecost or at any other time.
No, it is better and more consistent to interpret this saying as a counsel (the evangelical counsel of poverty) rather than as a precept binding upon all.
Still, if only the religious monk or nun need keep evangelical poverty in the most direct and literal sense, it is still necessary to all (as a matter of precept) that they renounce all things rather than deny the true Faith.


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