Just to be sure we are all “on the same page,” let me first tell you that our Lord was really not telling his listeners that they should dress themselves with no more than that worn by the lilies of the field. This very beautiful parable is an example of how the Jewish people of our Lord’s time used hyperbole to stress the importance of what they were saying. “Hyperbole” is a form of exaggeration, made with the assumption that those listening will realize that it is exaggeration, and not to be taken at face value as literal truth. Probably the best illustration of this is in another parable, that you have probably heard, in which our Lord tells His listeners that if their hand or their eye is a cause of sin for them, they should cut off the hand or pluck out the eye —certainly, our Lord is not calling on people to mutilate themselves, he is using hyperbole to emphasize just how serious sin can be—do not cut off your hand or pluck out your eye.
Likewise, in the readings today, our Lord is not calling on us to live in nakedness or starvation—He is simply trying to emphasize the importance of having our priorities straight in this life in order to prepare for the next—He is trying to remind us that eternal life must begin in the here and now, and not be thought of as something that will begin only with death. He is saying that if we concern ourselves primarily with the spiritual life, we will find that the necessities of this life will not be denied to us. Indeed, if we follow Saint Paul’s logic in today’s epistle, the following of the spiritual life will enable us to live our natural lives with a great deal more satisfaction than that obtained by the godless.
Later on, in the same Gospel, our Lord suggests to the Apostles that the reward for their sacrifices will be to sit on thrones beside Him at Judgment Day, judging the twelve tribes of Israël. But He also suggests an earthly reward. Saint Matthew quotes Him, saying: “And every one that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting.” Saint Luke, narrating the same event, is a little more subdued, saying that he shall “receive much more,” for the “hundredfold” of Matthew is hyperbole—“much more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.”
But Saint Mark’s account seems most in keeping with the Scriptures we read today: those who deny themselves for the kingdom of heaven will receive “an hundred times as much, now in this time: houses and brethren and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions: and in the world to come, life everlasting.
Saint Mark has our Lord saying that material prosperity can be a mixed blessing. Accompanying the material rewards of life, there may very well be difficulties, and even “persecutions.” If we go back to saint Paul’s epistle, we can see that these difficulties and persecutions arise in two ways.
First of all, there is the problem of our own inordinate appetites. If we have the material goods of the world—and particularly if we have them beyond our needs—there is the danger of misusing them. Remember that material things were all created by God, and, as such, they are good. But the problems begin when we use them to excess, or for purposes for which they were not intended: the “drunkenness and carousings and immoralities and licentiousness, and such like.” It is very much like the idea that if one jelly doughnut is good, five or six jelly doughnuts will be that much better.
The other way in which difficulties arise from material possessions is that they often inspire the envy of others; what Saint Paul refers to as “contentions, jealousies, anger, quarrels, factions, envies, [and even] murders.” Even when we have more material things than we need, there is always the problem of wanting what the other person has; the need to “keep up with the Joneses,” and the phenomenon that the “grass always looks greener on the other side of the street.”
Again, neither our Lord nor Saint Paul is condemning the earning of material things, nor their ownership, nor their prudent use. But both are telling us that the spiritual life—which begins right here on earth—must not be neglected or squeezed out of our lives by the quest for luxuries and possessions.
Some of this is achieved by self discipline. Paul tells us (again with a degree of hyperbole) that “those who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with its passions and its desires.” That means self control, and a certain amount of giving up even the legitimate pleasures of life in order to be strong enough to refuse the illegitimate ones when they come along. That’s precisely why we have things like Friday abstinence, and Lenten fasting, and so forth.
But the Catholic who thinks he can do what Paul asks under his own power is very likely to be fooling himself. Our powers of self control have been damaged by original sin. We all think of taking that extra doughnut or two! The collect of today’s Mass addresses God the Father, acknowledging that “without [Him] human frailty goes astray; may we ever be withheld by [His] grace from what is hurtful, and ever directed toward that which is profitable....” And by “profitable,” of course the prayer means what is “profitable” for the soul—for “it profits a man nothing if he gains the whole world, and suffers the loss of his own soul.”
“You cannot serve God and mammon.”
 Gospel: Matthew vi: 24-33.
 Matthew v: 29-30.
 Epistle: Galatians v: 16-24.
 Matthew xix: 28.
 Matthew xix: 29.
 Luke xviii: 30.
 Mark x: 30.
 Galatians, ibid.
 Matthew xvi: 26.