Ephesians 4:1-7; Luke 18:18-27
In one way or another, many of us are tempted at times to reduce the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ to a list of rules to be obeyed simply by our own willpower. When we think that we live up to them, we pat ourselves on the back for being good people who have supposedly earned God’s favor. When we think that others do not live up to them, we feel justified in looking down upon them for apparently not being as righteous as we are. Of course, no matter how appealing such an approach to religion may be, it has nothing to do with the Savior born at Christmas. Indeed, it is a complete rejection of why the Word became flesh.
The rich young ruler in today’s gospel lesson approached the Savior simply as a rabbi, a teacher of the Jewish law. He thought that he had always obeyed God’s commandments and wanted to know if there was anything else he should do in order to be sure of eternal life. That is when Christ gave the young man a commandment which He knew he lacked the spiritual strength to obey: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” Because the man was enslaved to loving his wealth, he was very sad to hear these words. When the disciples were astonished at the Lord’s teaching that it is so hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God, He assured them that “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Through this conversation, the Lord challenged the rich man’s assumption that he had met God’s requirements as though they were a simple checklist of right and wrong behaviors. That is how He helped the fellow confront the superficiality of thinking that he could become worthy of eternal life by simply following the rules. The man surely had not mastered Christ’s interpretation of the Old Testament law in the Sermon on the Mount, in which He taught that those who are guilty of anger and insult are guilty of murder and that those guilty of lust are guilty of adultery. Christ called His disciples to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect. By that standard, this young man obviously needed his eyes opened to the truth of where he stood before God, Who calls us to a holiness that transcends what humans may achieve by seeking to obey laws to the best of their ability. The Savior did that by giving him a commandment that he lacked the strength to obey due to his love of money.
Like the rest of us, the rich young ruler was not able to conquer the corrupting power of sin in his life by simply trying to follow a set of instructions through his own willpower. Through His Incarnation as the God-Man, Christ makes it possible for us to share in His fulfillment of our calling to become like God in holiness. The Savior has done what no mere teacher of the law could ever do by uniting humanity with God for our salvation. He became fully one of us in order to triumph over death, the wages of sin, and make us partakers of the divine nature by grace.
Those who distort the faith into a simple moralism of obeying laws inevitably have a very superficial understanding of what it means for human beings to share personally in the holiness of God. They are at great risk of falling into the spiritual blindness of hypocritical self-righteousness in which they interpret religious or moral laws in a way that makes it easy on themselves and very hard on others in a way similar to the Pharisees who rejected Christ. Slavery to pride, anger, and other passions are the inevitable results of such perversions of the gospel. In contrast, St. Paul called the Christians of Ephesus “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Because “grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” we must each embrace the humility of those who know that they are recipients of great mercy. We obviously must cooperate with God’s grace as we struggle to live faithfully, but we never earn or merit salvation simply on the basis of our accomplishments.
It would be tragic if we limited the relevance of Christ’s conversation with the rich young ruler only to the world’s billionaires, as that would let the rest of us off the hook. So leaving the question of great wealth aside, we should ask ourselves when we are most tempted to despair of salvation. What commandment of Christ opens our eyes to our spiritual weakness, to our attachment to our self-centered desires? What in our lives makes it clear that, without God’s gracious help, we will shut ourselves out of His Kingdom? How are we falling short of leading a life worthy of our high calling?
A great deal is at stake in how seriously we consider these questions. For if we think that we are already righteous because we assume we obey the commandments or live moral lives, we would probably be better off not celebrating the Nativity at all. For in such a state of mind, we would have no idea Who the Child in the manger really is or why He was born. Contrary to the implicit assumptions of self-righteous legalists, He does not come to reward or congratulate us for earning eternal life by our own willpower, but instead to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, raise the dead, and call sinners to repentance. Only if we gain the spiritual clarity necessary to see ourselves as those most profoundly weakened and corrupted by the ravages of sin will we be able to enter into the great joy of Christmas. Only if we know in our hearts that we will never earn admission to the Kingdom of God by our own merits will we be prepared to receive Him more fully into our lives at the feast of His Incarnation. For if we are blind to our own need for a Savior to bring us into His eternal life by grace, we will not have the eyes to behold the glory of the Word become flesh.
Thanks be to God, the blessed weeks of the Nativity Fast provide an opportunity to open our souls to the truth of why we need the One born at Christmas, the God-Man Who unites divinity and humanity in Himself. The spiritual disciplines of these weeks help us greatly in this regard. When we devote more time and energy to prayer, we learn that our minds wander and everything else often seems more important than opening our hearts to the Lord. When we set out to fast, we easily become obsessed with food, thinking more about excuses, exceptions, and loopholes than about humbly reorienting our hearts toward the Lord as we restrain our self-indulgence. When we give even small amounts of our resources and attention to the needy, we usually learn how selfish we are with our love of our possessions and our time. No, we are not anywhere near as holy as we may like to think. When we prepare conscientiously to confess and repent of our sins during Advent, it will become clear to us why we need the God-Man for our healing, not simply a teacher to give us more laws that we inevitably fall well short of obeying.
Our great hope, of course, is not in our ability to do anything by our own power, but instead in the mercy of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, Who lowered Himself beyond our comprehension to become not only a human being, but One born in profoundly scandalous, humble, and dangerous circumstances. His infinite humility calls us to receive Him with lowliness and meekness, knowing that the measure of our lives is not in what we call our accomplishments, but in our openness to the healing of our merciful Lord Who stops at nothing in order to bring us into eternal life. What is impossible with human beings really is possible with the One Who was born, Who died, and Who rose again in glory for our salvation. He brings hope for healing to us all, which is why He was born at Christmas.