Riches and other Idols

12th Sunday after Pent. Sept. 12, 2021     Matt.19: 16-26

Last week we heard a gospel lesson about the great danger of not practicing forgiveness, today we deal with another great danger, that of avarice/greed/love of money. In today’s gospel reading we are presented with a model citizen. Young, rich, and when it comes to living a moral life by keeping the law he tells Christ, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” What mother wouldn’t love such a son-in-law? Christ does not challenge him on this statement regarding his keeping of the commandments from his youth. In Mark’s version we hear (Mark 10:21) “…Then Jesus, looking at him loved him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack:’…” This “one thing” was not some moral failing, or even that he was failing in his lawful requirement to give 10% of everything that he had to the synagogue and to give alms to the poor. No, Christ went straight to the “Idol” that was destroying his soul – his riches. The man had asked what “one good thing” he needed to do? Christ, looking deep into his soul, saw the terrible snake of avarice twisted around his heart and gave him a quick remedy to strike a death blow to the snake.

There is an instructive story in the desert fathers about this illness, “A Vision of St. Andrew – the Fool for Christ (d 911)

“A monk in Constantinople was distinguished as an ascetic and spiritual father, and many people came to him for prayers. But this monk had the secret vice of avarice. He collected money and gave it to no-one. St. Andrew met him on the street one day and saw a terrible snake coiled around his neck. St. Andrew took pity on him, approached him, and began to council him. “Brother why have you lost your soul? Why have you bound yourself with the demon of avarice? Why have you given him a resting place within yourself? Why are you amassing gold as if it will go to the grave with you, and not into the hands of others? Why are you strangling yourself with stinginess? While others hunger and thirst and perish from cold, you rejoice looking at your heap of gold! Is this the path of repentance? Is this the monastic rank? Do you see your demon? At that, the spiritual eyes of the monk were opened, and he saw the dark demon and was greatly horrified. The demon dropped away from the monk and fled, driven by Andrew’s power. Then a most radiant angel of God appeared to the monk for his heart was changed for the good. Immediately he went about distributing his hoarded gold to the poor and needy. From then on, he pleased God in everything and was more greatly glorified than before.”

Christ clearly answers the rich young ruler’s question of “what “good thing” must I do that I may have eternal life?” He is literally offered the opportunity of his (eternal) life and told, “…sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come take up the cross and follow Me.” But he turned and “went away sorrowfully.” He turned his back on true eternal riches, on following Christ to his true life in eternity – even though his very question revealed that he realized all his earthy success left him empty. Yet that desire of his heart, the reality behind his questioning, is the question of questions. “What do I lack, how can I be joined to God, the source of all life?” All humans agonize over this question at some level of awareness. It drives us to seek God and live. We hear Moses say in Deuteronomy (30:19) “I set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore, choose life, that both you and your seed may live and love the Lord your God, and obey His voice and cling to Him.” We too stand before Christ and must continue to choose Him over anything else. God has been calling us to union with Him from the very beginning. He continues to call us today. He has done everything possible to bring us into His embrace, but we must choose life.

The most important thing this young man had to deal with, was to flee from that which had become more important to him than even God, and had thereby become an idol. He kept the commandments that Jesus gave to him, but by not loving the Lord your God before anything else, he was breaking the 1st commandment and had as much chance of entering the kingdom of God as would a camel have of going through the eye of a needle. This is a troubling statement which should alarm all of us, especially if we are trusting in our riches rather than in God for anything in life.  

We are disturbed when we hear this story for a couple of reasons. It hits us in an area of our lives that most of us struggle with, especially in this very affluent society. Avarice/Greed/ Selfishness. We identify with the young man in today’s gospel. We are trying to be decent people. We don’t murder, we don’t steal, we don’t commit adultery. We try to honour our parents and love our neighbors. Like the rich young man, we also have what most of the world, both historically and by present day standards, would be considered great riches. But how generous are we? How does love of God and love of neighbor really factor into our everyday lives? How much of what God has given us to use for our salvation, actually get used for helping the needy, for proclaiming the gospel, for beautifying His churches – building on the eternal foundation of Jesus Christ with gold, silver and precious stones; rather than building our worldly, comfortable lifestyle of wood, hay and straw?

An old folk proverb tells us “In the end we can only take with us that which we have given away.”

Wealth can be a great blessing when it is used for good works, to help the poor and to build up the Church. Our wealth is not our own but only on loan from God, and before God we will give an account of how we used it. But wealth is often a great problem as we become greedy and see it only as ours, to use in satisfying our desires; basing our security on the size of our bank account. Wealth can be a great blessing or a great curse, it all depends on our attitude and our actions. 

The disease of avarice is very common in our society, but this is nothing new. It has always been a problem for every society. St. Maximus the Confessor writing in the 7th century explains the roots of the illness of the love of wealth “There are three things that produce love of material wealth: self-indulgence, self-esteem, and lack of faith. Lack of faith is more dangerous than the other two. The self-indulgent person loves wealth because it allows him to live comfortably; the person of self-esteem loves it because through it he can gain the esteem of others; the person who lacks faith loves it because fearful of starvation, old age, disease, or exile, he can save it and hoard it. He puts his trust in wealth rather than in God, the creator who provides for all creation, down to the least of the living things” Has this 7th century observation not become even more relevant in the 21st century?

The best remedy against this illness of avarice is to intentionally cultivate a spirit of generosity. The Old Testament requirement to tithe, to give the first 10% of your income to God was given to us not to enrich God and the Church, but to protect us from avarice, for our salvation. God has enough, He has created all that exists; both material and immaterial. But He wishes to involve us in our role as His children to help us grow into His likeness. Everything is Gods and we are simply stewarding whatever we are given by Him. God instituted the minimum law of tithing to aid us in developing a spirit of generosity and avoid being captured by the spirit of avarice. Kind of like starting with a 5-minute prayer rule just to get us in the habit and allow us to start on the path to Theosis and transformation into becoming a true human being. The fathers would even say forget tithing and look at your situation; quoting Matt.5:20 “…unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees (who were very careful tithers) you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” We just celebrated the Nativity of the Theotokos on Sept. 8, and if you follow the story of the Virgin Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna you hear that as God blessed them with “more than they needed of everything,”  their life practice was to give 1/3 of their income to support the temple; 1/3 of their income to support the poor, and the last 1/3 of their income to live on. Kingdom thinking is very counterculture. Once we learn to give with a trusting and open heart, we will find that God’s blessing provides for us abundantly in every area of our lives. The more we give love, the more we experience love, as we choose to give forgiveness, we are forgiven. The more we give of anything, spiritual or material the more we receive. We can’t out-give God. This is very practical stuff and we learn the truth of it as we do it. The young man tells Jesus, what do I still lack?” 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? What are our idols? What has become too important to us? Let us learn from the young rich man. Let us not sorrowfully drift away, deciding the cost of following Christ is just too great. May we choose daily to follow Christ and let nothing be more important.  With the Feast!