Saturday, November 23, 2013

Holiness Instead of Legalism: Homily on the Rich Young Ruler in the Orthodox Church

            Though we may not have appreciated it at the time, many of us are surely thankful to have had people in our lives who set us straight, told it like it was, and challenged us to not to accept mediocrity.  At times, we can all fall into a fool’s paradise of thinking that all is well and we are fine just as we are.  It is so easy to rest on our laurels and sell ourselves short.   
            The rich young ruler who asked Jesus Christ what he had to do in order to find eternal life must have thought that he had already met all God’s requirements.  So when the Lord told him to keep the commandments of the Old Testament, the man said that he had checked them all off, that he had kept them his entire life. This is where the story gets really interesting, for the Lord then gives him a commandment that he could not imagine following:  Sell all that you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.  This fellow was rich and powerful and loved his comfortable lifestyle, so he became very sad and apparently walked away.  The Lord knew how hard it was for people who have it all in this life to enter the kingdom of heaven, for they are tempted strongly to love their possessions and status more than God and neighbor.  Still, as the Lord said His stunned disciples, “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”
            What did Christ mean by speaking in this way?  He certainly was not simply adding another law that the Jews had to obey.  Instead, he challenged this man to stop thinking about his relationship with God as a set of requirements which he could master.  Someone who responds to the Old Testament laws by saying, “Oh, I’ve always followed them since I was a child” has a very shallow understanding of what God requires of us.  That would be like someone saying, “I’ve always been a perfectly faithful Christian since childhood.”  Oh, please.  Get real.  We know that is not true of any one of us.
            The spiritual life is never that simple.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ showed us the true meaning of God’s requirements.  He said that we are guilty of murder if we are angry with others, if we hate and insult them.  He taught that we are guilty of adultery if we lust in our hearts.  And if we do not love God with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves, we have broken the greatest of the commandments.  By these standards, none of us has anything to brag about before God, for we are all the chief of sinners and need God’s mercy and healing in our lives.  
            Christ jolted this man out of his delusion, of his false self-confidence, by giving him a commandment that He knew he could not keep:  giving away all his beloved money, possessions, and power.  Perhaps for the first time, this fellow was challenged to see that eternal life is not something that we can accomplish by our own ability.  If we cannot offer to God that which we love most in this life, then we obviously have not fulfilled all that the Lord expects of us.
            And since Christ came to unite our fallen humanity with divinity and to conquer sin and death, it is pretty clear that even the most law-abiding person still needs the mercy, grace, and love of our Lord in order to inherit eternal life.  By our own power, it is not possible to share in the life of heaven.  That is why St. Paul wrote that he boasted in nothing “except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  With Him, all things are possible.   
            As we continue to prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas, we do well to remember that this great feast is not about the birth of a mere teacher, law-giver, or example.  Were our Lord simply another prophet with a strict teaching, we would not rejoice at His coming.  Instead, we would—like the rich young ruler—become sad and dejected, for the last thing we need is another law to fail to obey and make us feel guilty.
The eternal Son of God was not born at Christmas to add to the burden of the law or to give us the impression that all will be well if we obey a new set of teachings.  To the contrary, He became a human being to do what a mere law never could, to bring us into His holiness, to make us partakers of the divine nature, to heal and fulfill our fallen, corrupt humanity, to make it possible for us mortals to put on immortality.
            The Lord’s shocking statement about giving everything away challenged the rich young ruler to stop thinking of his life before God in legalistic terms.  Likewise, we should use prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other spiritual disciplines of   the Nativity Fast, of Advent, to be shocked out of our conventional and shallow assumptions about what it means to share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  For Christ was not born to bring us what the world calls success. Neither did He come to make us strict legalists who think that holiness can be reduced to a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.”  And He certainly did not put on flesh in order to make His followers the self-righteous judges of others. 
            The eternal Son of God became one of us for completely different reasons.  Out of unfathomable love, He wanted to make possible for us to do what is impossible by our own power.   We may take pride in what we accomplish, but which of us can claim credit for the Incarnation?  There is no earthly prestige in a Virgin Mother giving birth in a cave to a baby who whose cradle was a manger, a feeding trough for animals.  The rich young rulers of the world cannot understand a Messiah whose human life begins in such lowly circumstances and ended on a cross.  Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension are not simple human accomplishments or rewards, but truly miraculous manifestations of God’s eternal life in our world of sin, death, and corruption.  As St. Paul said, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails for anything, but a new creation.”  
             A religion that simply provides more laws to obey could never make us a new creation:  a new, holy people who love and serve God and neighbor with every ounce of our being.   Laws simply make things worse by giving us more opportunities to judge ourselves and others.  It is often when we are ashamed of not measuring up that we are most likely to shift our attention to putting down other people in order to make ourselves feel better.  Whenever we do that, we become like the Pharisees who rejected our Lord.
            The God-Man Jesus Christ operates in a completely different way, of course, making it possible for everyone, no matter their struggles or failures or social standing, to find true peace through faith, humility, and growth in holiness--In other words, through our ongoing acceptance of His mercy and healing in our lives.    
            We prepare to receive Christ at Christmas by opening our hearts and souls to His salvation—not by mastering laws—but by true repentance.  Both in our private prayers and in the sacrament of Confession which we should all take during Advent, we repent by honestly confessing our sins and asking for the Lord’s mercy, even as we resolve to make a new beginning in the Christian life.  Yes, we must cooperate with our Lord’s mercy and grace by doing what we can to live faithfully.  But even the best life does not somehow deserve heaven.  In fact, the more we grow in holiness, the more we will begin to see clearly the gravity of our sins and how far we are from the full stature of Christ.  The closer we grow to Him, the less we will think of salvation as a reward for good behavior according to a legal standard.      
            So let this Advent be marked for each of us by humility, repentance, and spiritual disciplines, not as punishment because we have broken a law, but because we all have room to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ.  Our hearts and souls are not worthy of Him.  We do not serve Him in every poor and suffering person.  We do not seek first His kingdom and righteousness.   We are not perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect.  But unlike the rich young ruler, we must not give up and walk away in despair. Instead, we should say, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” as we press forward in the Christian life as best we can. For what is impossible with men is possible with the Incarnation of the God-Man Jesus Christ.  He is not a law, but our Savior.    

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