Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We know this man’s story. His encounter with our Lord is found in all three of the synoptic Gospels of Matthew (Mt. 19:1630), Mark (Mk. 10:17-31), and Luke (Lk. 18:18-30). Unlike the Gospel of John, they are “synoptic” because they share common materials, often arranged in nearly similar ways, frequently using virtually the same words. We have come to know him as “the rich young ruler,” an identity bestowed by pulling together what each of the synoptic Gospels have to say about him. He is relatively young; he is apparently very well-to-do, and in one Gospel he is referred to as a “ruler” of some sort. In each case, he comes to Jesus driven by a religious zeal that remains unfulfilled in him which this young man is quite aware of. Unlike the Pharisees with whom our Lord is constantly butting heads, this man is apparently different and his quest is not to test Jesus or to tempt Him or to somehow discredit Him. His is an honest, pious, and heart-felt inquiry. St. John Chrysostom says we know this because he does not become angry or indignant with Jesus like the Pharisees and Sadducees and scribes so often become when Jesus shows them up.
The man comes to Jesus which suggests that he has been following Jesus, to whatever degree he could have done that without benefit of newspapers, social media, or 24 hour cable news. He is very much a seeker of the Master, an inquirer wanting to discuss his interior or spiritual well-being. In St. Mark’s account, he comes running to Jesus and falls down before Him – an act implying his soul’s hunger and his deference for the Master – something this inquirer can well teach all of us who so often become overly familiar with God and who run the real risk of becoming lackadaisical about our salvation. He approaches Jesus with one request, “’Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have Eternal Life?’” I’m not sure how many of us are driven by such a request, but we should be. Our salvation should always be in our upper minds and in our hearts whether or not we do that by praying the Jesus Prayer regularly or fingering our prayer rope tucked away in our pockets or frequently making the sign of the Cross or some other way that causes us to not “neglect so great a salvation” that is ours in Jesus Christ (Hb. 2:3). Our job, so to speak, according to our Fathers, is to remember God at all times. And, in doing so, we contemplate His salvation.
The opening exchange between the questing man and our Lord is shared by all three of the Gospels. Hearing the man’s greeting, Jesus asks him, “’Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.’” Jesus isn’t denying His goodness, as some suppose, but is rather sounding out the man’s understanding of Who he thinks Jesus is: a deeply spiritual rabbi or God-in-the-flesh. All goodness is from God Who is the very source of all goodness. Does this man come approaching Jesus and calling Him good because he believes Jesus to be a Teacher of goodness or does he believe Him to be the good God Who loves mankind? For that matter, how do we approach Jesus? What do we believe Him to be? Who do we believe Him to be? How we approach Jesus matters. Do we come seeking answers as from a mere man, another philosopher or teacher? Or, do we approach Him as our good God Who loves mankind? If we believe Him to be our good God and the Lover of mankind, then that changes things for us – how we dare to approach Him, the weight we place upon His words to us, and so on.
Now, we notice here that Jesus takes this young man seriously. There’s no indication that he’s there before our Lord for any other reason than the salvation of his soul. He wasn’t sent there by our Lord’s enemies to trip Him up. He goes because there’s something gnawing at him and Jesus receives him graciously. To this man’s question, “’[W]hat good thing shall I do that I may have Eternal Life?,’” Jesus tells him, “’But if thou wilt enter into Life, keep the commandments.’” I’ve always found this interesting in my Protestant days because Jesus doesn’t give the standard expected Protestant response. He doesn’t say to the young man kneeling before Him, “Have faith, son. Believe in Me. Faith – and not what you do – will save you. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast’” (Ep. 2:8-9).
Instead, Jesus gives the standard Jewish answer – the standard answer – an answer that is as well Christian: “’keep the commandments.’” The commandments of God are good and holy (Rm. 7:12). They are divine words to us in every time and in every place. They have not been abolished by the coming of our Lord with His New Covenant (Mt. 5:17). He has fulfilled the very commandments He Himself has given. And, they still lead us to God. They instill God in us as we learn to obey them. The commands show us God Who “leads us in the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake” (Ps. 22 :3). The Fathers have long taught us that if we are to know God we must heed His Word and obey His commandments. There is no other way to know God than by keeping His Word. “Thy hands have made and fashioned me. Give me understanding that I may learn Thy commandments” (Ps. 118 :73). This is the prayer of the priest and deacon as they don the cuff for their left hands.
To our Lord’s answer, the man replies, “’All these [commandments] have I kept from my youth up. What lack I yet?’” Despite all of his religiosity, all of his piety, all of his spiritual zeal, the man senses a void in himself, in his soul. Something seems missing . . . . . something is lacking. Notice, beloved, how our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ does not dispute the man’s claim to have been obedient to the commands of God. The man, no doubt, has striven to be obedient to the Faith. But, our Lord does concur with the man’s self-examination. “’One thing thou lackest,’” says our Lord. “’If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven; and come and follow Me.’” All the obedience of faith has brought the man to this new point in his life: to dive deeper than he has ever gone before spiritually. Jesus bids him to the deeper depths of discipleship. He bids him to a deeper commitment. In effect, He bids him to an even greater faith and obedience than before! We can hear our Lord say to him, “In keeping the commandments you have done well, My son, and you are on the right road. But, you still lack one thing. Divest yourself of that which still weighs you down. Lay aside all earthly cares, My dear one, and come and follow Me” (Hb. 12:1-2).
Jesus’ words hit home. And, in a verse that is truly tragic, the Evangelists all say that the man who was so pious and God-fearing “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Our Lord had bid the man to “perfect” his obedience of faith, and he found he could not oblige our Lord! This is not the first time our Lord has spoken of perfection. He does so in His Sermon on the Mount. He tells us all, “’Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father Who is in Heaven is perfect’” (Mt. 5:48). Said another way, “be all you are created in God’s image to be.” The perfection to which you and I – and this young sorrowful man – are called to is to be made whole and complete and filled full just as God is the fullness of all things with nothing lacking in Him. “The Lord is my Shepherd, and nothing shall I lack” (Ps. 22 :1). Christian perfection is not about getting it right all the time, being without fault or sin all the time, never making mistakes or errors. It’s about fullness, wholeness, completeness in God. It’s about being like God – God-like, godly – which sounds very much like theosis or sanctification, doesn’t it?
No matter how spiritual we are (or imagine ourselves to be), Jesus calls us beyond ourselves to follow Him, to go deeper in our obedience of faith. Perhaps like this young man, we’ve been living our faith on cruise-control as we navigate this old world. And, then, Jesus gets our attention so that we take our spiritual life off of cruise-control, and we come to sense within ourselves something just isn’t quite right. Something feels lacking. God’s commands certainly lack nothing. They are divine, but it’s something in us, in our souls. We’ve been fasting, praying, giving alms, tithing, communing – all of which is good and full of God. We discover, however, that maybe we’ve been going through the religious motions without truly ever knowing God more personally or deeply. I wonder if that may not be what the man was implying when he said, “I’ve done all these things from my youth! What more can there be?” It’s not that he was on the wrong track or that we’ve been on the wrong track. It’s that we’ve disconnected from God Who now calls us to “’come and follow Me.’” For the man, it was his stuff, his possessions. Not merely his possessions, but rather his “great possessions”! He had become pre-occupied with his stuff and distracted by it. He had become captivated and made captive. Like a hoarder he feared the Lord’s call to downsizing despite Jesus’ promise that divesting himself actually assured his treasure would be kept in Heaven, laid up for him, by all the good that it would do when he gave it all away to the poor.
The Lord’s call to perfection for us could very well involve our possessions as well because our culture is inebriated on the amassing of stuff. The call of our Lord may not involve giving all of our stuff away, but it may certainly involve downsizing so that we are not distracted, pre-occupied, or fragmented souls. It may involve learning how to tithe, if we haven’t been doing so. In short, the Lord’s call will involve whatever so captivates our heart that we are not wholly God’s. And that, my beloved, will involve a rigorous and honest examination of your soul which leads you to repentance and confession and amendment of life. Whether or not we leave the Lord sorrowful, then, is up to us. With us, it truly seems impossible, but with our good God Who loves mankind, all things are possible, if we but trust Him and do whatever He says (Jn. 2:5). For the same Jesus Who bid this young man to a deeper and fuller walk with God also has said,
‘Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I AM meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light’ (Mt. 11:28-30).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
1 Cr. 15:1-11