St. Matthew 19:16-26
Many of us probably make a list of things we have to do from time to time so that we will not forget something on an especially busy day. If you are like me, sometimes you go down a list like that and check off doing an errand, paying a bill, or calling the plumber. When we have a lot to do, we likely feel pretty good about ourselves on those rare occasions when we accomplish everything on our list. There is nothing wrong, of course, with checking everyday chores, but it is a mistake to approach the Christian life in that way. For to participate personally in the salvation that Jesus Christ has brought to the world is a calling of any entirely different sort that must not be reduced to a simple list of tasks.
Unfortunately, the rich young ruler who asked Jesus Christ what he had to do in order to find eternal life did apparently think of his relationship with God in terms of a list of accomplishments. 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 completed God’s requirements. But just to be sure, this fellow asked what he lacked, what else he could do. And that is when the Lord told him what he did not want to hear, for he challenged him to do something well beyond his list: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
This fellow was rich and loved his possessions, so he became very sad and apparently walked away in despair. The Lord knew how hard it is 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. But in response to the disciples’ question “Who then can be saved?”, Christ said “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In other words, even people like this fellow may find salvation by God’s grace.
The Lord challenged the rich young man by giving him a commandment that went to the core of his being, to what he loved the most, his money. By telling him to do what he did not have the spiritual strength to do, Christ challenged him to stop thinking about his relationship with God as a set of simple laws or behaviors that he could master. The truth is that anyone who responds to the Old Testament commandments by saying that he has always obeyed them since childhood has a very shallow understanding of what God requires of us.
Recall that Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount that we are guilty of murder if we hate and insult others. 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. Unless we are spiritually blind, we should see immediately that none of us has mastered God’s requirements, none of us may stand before the Lord bragging that we have done all that was expected of us.
Christ jolted this man out of his delusion, out of his false self-confidence, by giving him a commandment that He knew he did not have the spiritual strength to 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 a matter of checking off a list, not something that we can accomplish simply by a bit of will power. 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 the Lord in order to inherit eternal life. By our own power, it is simply not possible to share in the holiness of God, but with Jesus Christ, all things are possible.
The Christian life is an ongoing struggle against our own spiritual corruption and that of the world in which we live. We must cooperate with our Lord’s mercy by resisting temptations and following His commandments as best we can. But even our ability to do so is not simply our work, for we are enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives to grow in holiness and find healing for our souls beyond what we can accomplish by ourselves. Likewise, no matter how much progress we make in the Christian life, the journey to “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” is an eternal one, an infinite undertaking that will not be completed in this life. The more we participate personally in Christ, the more aware we will be of our need for mercy; the more aware we will be that we have only just begun to find healing for our souls.
Regardless of what some say, Christianity may not be boiled down simply to leading a morally decent life and having warm feelings about God. If that were the case, I suppose that some could claim that they have checked off that box and now need only wait to receive their reward. But that would be a very watered-down form of the faith that would call us neither to holiness nor to a realistic understanding of our spiritual brokenness and weakness. Christians who fall into the self-righteous mindset of those who think they are so holy that they may judge and condemn others do so in part because they have such a shallow and impoverished view of their own spiritual state, of what God requires of us, and of how we all stand before Him in need of mercy and healing.
Too many Christians in our society are just like the rich young ruler. We think that we have done all that God requires and accept illusions about our own holiness, when in reality we love ourselves and our possessions more than God and neighbor. One of the great blessings of the Orthodox Church is that we have so many resources to shake us out of such complacency. Before I became Orthodox, I always thought that I had to supplement what the churches I attended expected of me because they seemed to expect so little. But Orthodoxy really does call us to be “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”: to love and forgive our enemies; to reject all unholy and tempting thoughts; to pray constantly from the heart; to fast and deny ourselves on a regular basis; to confess our sins honestly and turn away from them; and to shine with the light of the Divine Glory in every dimension of our lives. This is the fullness of the Christian faith that should lead us to fall in our faces before God as we call for His mercy, not to brag about how righteous we are or to judge our neighbors.
Of course, we always stand in need of the Lord’s mercy, as the Jesus Prayer so clearly demonstrates. But we cannot rest content with any type of spiritual disease or disobedience in our lives. We must always pursue healing, strength, and wholeness. Orthodoxy teaches the fullness of the Christian faith, emphasizing both our need for God’s forgiveness and our calling to become more like God, to become participants in the Divine Nature by grace. We do not earn God’s favor by checking off a list of laws, but neither should we become lax by presuming His forgiveness if we are not sincerely repenting, which means reorienting our lives according to His will for us. We must not be like someone who realizes he is going the wrong way on a journey, feels bad about it, but keeps going in the wrong direction. We have to actually stop, turn around, and go the right way. If we do not, we have not really repented or reoriented our lives.
Not everyone, of course, is tempted to self-righteous thoughts of perfection. Some people know quite well that they have not served God faithfully. That recognition is a blessing because it clues us in to the truth about ourselves. But even those with that level of spiritual vision may be tempted to walk away in despair when they hear what the Lord requires of us. “How could I possibly live the life to which Christ calls us?,” we may ask. If that is your question today, focus on the final words of the passage: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” The good news of the gospel is that there is hope for us all in Jesus Christ, especially when we have come to see how far we are from Him, how we have not served Him faithfully, and how much room for healing there is in our souls.
None of us will enter the Kingdom of Heaven because we have checked off a list or somehow become perfect by our own moral power. All of us should tremble before a calling that seems so far beyond our abilities. And all of us should take heart that, if salvation is possible by God’s grace even for the rich young rulers of the world, there is hope for us too in Jesus Christ.