One Turn of Pitch and Toss
"Sell all that you have and give to the poor �
and come, follow me" says Jesus in Mark's Gospel (10.17-31). Some have
heard those words as a direct challenge and command to themselves to
give away every worldly possession and follow Christ in poverty.
Among them was Saint Antony, a third-century Egyptian who became a
leading figure among Christian hermits. Another was Saint Francis, who
nearly a thousand years later renounced the lifestyle of rich Italian
playboy and embraced poverty with an altogether new thoroughness.
Saint Benedict, the founder of European monasticism, placed his monks
in small communities as a way of quelling the competitive asceticism
that too often characterized the solitaries of Egypt. Benedict gave a
domestic flavour to the movement. He envisaged a family of twelve monks
under their elected father, or abbot. Like the early church in the Acts
of the Apostles, they were to share everything and live a simple
balanced life of prayer, study, and manual work.
By the time of Francis, although technically without possessions as
individuals, the monks were members of an international monastic order
that had huge corporate wealth and was not afraid to flaunt it in
prestigious building projects at sumptuous abbeys.
Appalled by this, Francis insisted that his community of brothers, or
friars, were to own nothing at all, either as individuals or as a
community. Like Jesus himself, they were to have no home of their own,
but be wandering preachers dependent on the alms of others.
But as the Franciscan order itself became a popular and international
movement, there was fierce rivalry between the beggars (the friars) and
the "possessioners" as they were scathingly called.
But whatever their disagreements, the religious orders together
provided the wider church with two great assets. At the individual
level, they provided an outlet for the enthusiasm of young hot-heads who
"got religion" in a big way and were dissatisfied with the humdrum
routine of parish life. And at the institutional level they saved the
church as a whole from having to face up to Jesus� challenge to "sell
all" in order to follow him. The religious orders became a
representative minority, vicariously embracing poverty on behalf of all
Basing their ideas on the story from Mark's Gospel, but using the
slightly different language of Jesus in Matthew�s account, theologians
drew a distinction between those who (like the man in the story) wished
merely "to inherit eternal life", and those who wanted to go further and
The Christian church officially became a university of life, in which
one could choose to read for a pass degree as a layman, or for first
class honours as a member of a religious order. It is easy to mock, but
at the practical level this worked well, making it possible for everyone
to be Christian at their own level of commitment.
With sixteenth-century Reformation, and the abolition of the
religious orders in Protestant countries, the challenge to "sell all"
again became directed at every Christian. One solution was to extend the
Apostolic and Benedictine principle of common ownership to all
Christians. In England this was openly advocated by the "Levellers" at
the time of the Civil War. But it was never going to be a political
reality - or even a religious one - with both Cromwell and the King
opposed to its revolutionary sentiments.
The answer lay elsewhere, in a shift of emphasis from the material to
the psychological level.
There is in the First Letter to Timothy a text which says, "money is
the root of all evil". But read the whole verse and you find that this
quote is only half the sentence, and is misleading. What the writer
actually says is that "the love of money is the root of all
That is a very different matter. Wealth itself is not wicked, but
only the love of it. In a similar way, as the pragmatic worldly-wise
interpreters of Mark's Gospel tell us, it is not your possessions
themselves that Jesus is telling you to abandon, but only an undue
attachment to them. Your psychological and spiritual attitude is the
crucial thing, not your bank balance.
The British writer and poet Rudyard Kipling summed up this attitude:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch and toss,
And lose, and start again at the beginning
And never breathe a word about your loss �
And in practice I suppose it is the line I take myself. I seriously
considered becoming a monk when I was younger, but I became a priest
instead, and married, and have led my life in the world - never wealthy
but never very poor either (at least not so far).
Yet I confess to a niggling doubt, that this spiritualizing way out
of the challenge might be just a bit too convenient for middle-class
Christians who belong to a church that is still very much into
My consolation is that neither the challenge of poverty, nor the
spiritualizing tendency to soften it, are new.
Go back to the Gospels themselves. In Luke�s Sermon on the Plain,
Jesus tells the people: "Blessed are the poor". Full stop. No messing
about. This is real poverty, and real blessing. In Matthew�s Sermon on
the Mount the parallel verse reads: "Blessed are the poor
Perhaps Jesus himself was uncertain. Perhaps he said both things. All
the same, he is nowhere reported as having blessed the wealthy.