Today we again hear the story of the rich young man who has everything going for him as far as worldly wisdom would indicate. Clean living, respecting his parents, fabulously rich and even a ruler. What mother wouldn’t love such a catch for her daughter! In Mark we hear that Jesus, looking upon this young man “loved him” and then told him to “sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come and follow Me.” What an opportunity! Yet all three Gospel writers conclude with the man going away sadly – the cost was just too much, and Christ saying “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And in reply to the astonished Apostle’s resulting question “who then can be saved” comes the answer “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” So, the first and most important lesson we need to get is that there is nothing whatsoever we can do, no perfect following of the rules, no “good thing” that will enable us to be saved through our own efforts. We all need to go through the eye of the needle for we all have sinned. It is completely by God’s power and grace and love for us that we are saved. There is also no falling into sin so deeply that we can’t repent, and it is always the case that God desires not the death of a sinner but that we may turn to Him and live. All things are possible for God!
In yesterday’s Gospel reading we heard Luke 12:32-34 “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms, provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches not moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This is the lesson that today’s gospel is teaching us.
We are given countless scriptural council regarding the dangers of the love of money. Why is this such a common theme? Because all through history this is such a common problem. It is easy to track where we stand on this issue. We just need to get out our check books and our Visa statements and compare how much we spent last month on ourselves and those pleasures we have come to see ourselves as deserving, and compare this to how much we spent on furthering the kingdom of God, or on the homeless and destitute that live all around us, those who would see a place to live and regular meals as a blessing beyond compare.
We are very good at thinking a little too highly of ourselves. If we regularly give a little money to a good cause, we can consider ourselves to be quite exceptional and generous people. If we practice tithing, we may even start to think of ourselves as great philanthropists. Perhaps this rich young leader was a regular tither. But in today’s Gospel, Christ sees that he is caught in the snare of loving his wealth more than loving God. This a serious life-threatening affliction. Jesus offers him a quick and thorough solution. “Sell all that you have and follow Me.”
We get quite uncomfortable when we hear such extreme requests, and this is why at Sunday Gospel readings, we are given this passage and others like:
- Lazarus and the rich man – where the rich man would trade anything to get another chance to return and help Lazarus at his gate,
- the rich farmer determining to build bigger storage barns rather than share his wealth who hears God say, “You fool; this day your soul is required of you,”
- the final judgement and the separation of the sheep and the goats where Christ tells us; “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did or did not feed, cloth, shelter or comfort the least of these, you did or did not do it to Me.”
It is exactly to make us uncomfortable that the Church gives us such passages to consider. To shake us out of our deadly comfort zone. To wake us up to grasp the reality that “Where your treasure is your heart will be also” and force us to consider where our hearts truly are.
Getting too comfortable with our life here on this very short journey, means we have probably lost sight of our real purpose – to prepare to meet face to face with our God and Creator – where our every act and thought will be revealed. If we were to roll out an entire ball of yarn and picture that this represented our life in eternity, and then put two knots an inch apart into this long string, that 1” length would represent our lifetime here on this earthly visit. Anything that becomes more important to us than Christ and the kingdom of God becomes an idol. Idols always separate us from truth and reality and take us out of communion with God and our brothers and sisters. The number one goal of the enemy is to separate us from God and humanity and to isolate us into communing with ourselves and seeking after our own individual pleasures and passions. He will do all he can to influence us to serve an idol. God created everything good, but selfish obsession with any of the holy and good things God has created for our benefit, separates us from God, and from the proper use and nurturing of His good creation.
Wealth is certainly not a problem in and of itself. It is a great blessing that enables us to live and to share in God’s work, when we use it for our needs and to help the poor and build Christ’s Church. It is the selfish hoarding and obsessing of money and of “things” that is the problem. We are to love people and use things, not love things and use people. All that God has created is good when used as God intends. Food is obviously good and needed for our very existence here on earth, but when it becomes the focus of self-satisfaction and becomes gluttony it becomes an idol which can destroy us. Sexual intimacy is a great gift from God bringing wonderful comfort and union with our marriage partners, and allowing us to share with God and each other in the miraculous creation of life, yet used selfishly for our own pleasure it becomes warped and twisted into horrible abuse and dehumanizing pornography and worse; separating rather than uniting us from God and each other. Drugs are a great gift for healing and comfort, used by thousands of unmercenary and even slightly mercenary saints throughout the history of the church. But wrongly used they become a dark vehicle of death and tragedy. All things are created good, but anything used selfishly can become an idol and take us from God and each other and ultimately lead to our destruction.
It is certainly not that money is evil, or that money is the only idol we place between loving God before all else, although it is obviously a very common one. St. Porphyrios whose feast day is today Dec. 2 had a spiritual child that got obsessed with a political party during one of the Greek elections. She passionately defended her chosen party and was horrified at the opposing party and their actions. While she was visiting Elder Porphyrios he asked her how she was going to vote, and when she told him he said, “I am asking you to vote for the other party.” She was horrified and told him she would do anything but that! He released her from his request and told her he felt this would be best for her, but she should do whatever God would enlighten her to do. She struggled hugely with this, but finally in obedience to her Elder, she voted for the opposing party. As her ballot fell into the box, an unbearable burden lifted off her and she felt completely freed from her obsession and wondrously filled with the Hoy Spirit.
So, we hear today what may seem like a very extreme request from our Lord, but was it? Perhaps we only react with dismay to this loving and generous offer that Jesus brings to this, rich young ruler, because we too suffer from the same problem. Love of money is undoubtedly the most common addiction in our prosperous culture. It is not usually considered a problem to be wealthy, but rather is often our chief pursuit, even the main mark of God’s blessing in some twisted versions of the prosperity gospel. As usual, Orthodoxy is Paradoxy. If the young man suffered from addiction to drugs, and Christ told him to completely give them up…or morbid obesity and Christ told him to just eat bread and water…or was addicted to pornography and prostitutes and Christ told him to become completely celibate… and come and follow Him, would we consider His request extreme? But somehow when we hear “sell ALL that you have, and you will have treasure in heaven and come and follow Me.” we react differently. May God give us clarity and illumination to recognize our own idols and to do whatever it takes to always seek first the kingdom of God.
There are many stories of those throughout history who heard this passage and responded to it, and went on and became great saints. This is the case with the father of monasticism, St. Anthony the Great in the 3rd. and 4th centuries and also of St. Iakovos Tsalikis who is a very recently glorified saint having reposed in 1991 and being glorified just last year; Nov. 22 is his new saints’ day. Saint Anthony, upon hearing today’s Gospel passage, gave away his large inheritance, leaving enough to look after his little sister, and giving the rest to the poor. He then moved to the countryside and began to live a solitary life of prayer and became a great saint.
Saint Iakovos was known for giving away everything he had, whenever he had anything to give away. He considered it a great waste if a day went by and he couldn’t give anything away. He kept a moneybag into which anything anyone gave him was put. When anyone gave him anything, he wouldn’t even look to see what it was but just put it into the moneybag which always hung on the end of his bed in his small cell. Since he had a reputation as a clear sited Elder, he had many visitors. Whenever anyone would ask, or when God would reveal to him that a visitor had a financial need, the Elder would reach into his moneybag and whatever his hand grabbed he would give to the visitor. The bag was never empty and the more he gave the more the bag was filled.
St. John of Kronstadt was talking with a large group and was handed a parcel of money as a gift. Another man in the crowd had his hand stretched out for alms. Without a pause, St. John gave the beggar the parcel of money. In shock the donor of the parcel of money said; “There are $1,000 rubles in that bag!” ($30,000 in today’s value). “Lucky man” said Saint John.
Today the rich young ruler asks Jesus “What do I still lack to inherit eternal life?” This is the primary question we all need to be asking ourselves. What is it that stands between us and truly following Christ with all our heart, soul and mind? Let us learn from the young rich man and not sorrowfully drift away from Christ, but choose to follow Christ and let nothing be more important. Glory to Jesus Christ!