A Tale of Two Rich Young Men

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost / Twelfth Sunday of Matthew, August 27, 2017
I Corinthians 15:1-11; Matthew 19:16-26
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today let’s hear the stories of two rich young men—one whose name we do not know, who encounters Jesus directly during His earthly ministry, and one who also encounters Him, though more than 200 years after the resurrection.

The first rich man’s story is in the Gospel. A rich young man approaches Jesus and asks Him this question: “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” Other versions of this same question get asked elsewhere in Scripture. The Philippian jailer, after the earthquake that sets Paul and Silas free, asks them, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).

What must I do to have eternal life? What must I do to be saved? These questions haunt us all, because we know that someday, this life that we are now living will end.

When the rich young man asks Jesus this question, the Lord responds this way: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He asks which ones, and Jesus replies: “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He says he’s done all these things.

Most of us have probably not killed anyone or done some of those other things, but we’ve probably all given false witness or dishonored our parents. I haven’t lived up to all these commandments. Most of us probably have not. But this young man says he’s done these things, and Jesus takes him at his word. The young man still asks, “What do I still lack?”

So Jesus says to him, “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.” The young man asked about eternal life, but Jesus tells him about how to be perfect. But I thought he was asking about eternal life. Why does Jesus tell him how to be perfect?

It’s because the quest for immortality is actually the quest to be perfect. Some people think eternal life about living forever in Heaven when you die, but it’s not. It’s about the pursuit of perfection. Well, what does that mean?

To become perfect is to be more and more like Jesus Christ, more like He designed us and destined us to be. It’s about change. It’s about becoming more than we are now.

Jesus reveals the very secret to perfection and immortality, and yet we read: “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Jesus then turns and says to His disciples standing at hand: “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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.”

So let’s hear the story of another rich young man. His story begins with his birth in Egypt in roughly the year 250, more than two centuries after Christ’s conversation with the rich young man in today’s Gospel. When this later young man was about eighteen years old, his parents died, leaving him a considerable inheritance and also the care of his unmarried sister.

One day, while participating in the Divine Liturgy at church, he heard today’s Gospel and began meditating on the words, “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.” And when he heard how the rich young man went away sad, he thought about how he was also was a rich young man.

After he went home, he decided not to imitate that other rich young man. He decided literally to sell all that he had to go follow Christ. He was careful to set enough aside for the care of his sister and then gave the rest to the poor. He left everything behind and walked out into the Egyptian desert, staying there for more than eighty years until his death, living on what little vegetation would grow in the blistering heat.

While there, he prayed. He didn’t just say prayers when he woke and went to sleep or before meals or at service times. He entered into deep, powerful, struggling prayer, the prayer to become perfect.

And because he prayed so intensely and so deeply, people eventually started to seek him out in the desert, and a small city grew up around him out there in the wilderness. We now know this man as St. Anthony the Great, the Father of Monasticism, one of the greatest saints the world has ever seen.

So what is the difference between these two rich young men? They were both wealthy. They both lived good lives before their encounter with the challenge to become perfect, the challenge of eternal life. But one hears the challenge and walks away sad to follow his wealth, while the other hears the same challenge, and he walks into the desert to follow Christ.

Christ says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a memorable image, but we might believe it really has little to do with us. We might get hung up on the riches of the rich young man. And even if we’re told that we’re all really rich compared to most of the world, that argument probably won’t hold much water, because we don’t feel very rich most of the time.

But the point here isn’t about riches or even about possessions at all. The point is what we worship. Throughout the history of humanity, the question has always been this: Will I worship the Creator or the creation?

Worshiping means joining myself in a deep way that defines who I am. Am I joined in a deep way to created things—even to other people, even to ideas or ideology—to define who I am? Or am I joined to the Creator?

You become more like whatever you worship. And if you worship the creation rather than the Creator, then you become like it. You become corruptible, temporary and subject to imperfection. If you worship the Creator, however, and join yourself to Him, then you become more like Him—incorruptible, eternal and perfecting.

This is why, when asked about eternal life, Jesus talked about perfection.

As Christians, we have all set out on a quest, the great quest for perfection, the quest for eternal life. They’re really the same thing. You don’t get eternal life without pursuing perfection, because that’s what eternal life actually is, becoming perfect, becoming people who really know God deeply, intensely, personally and powerfully.

I do not know whether, when you hear Christ’s challenge, you are being called to do it all literally, just like St. Anthony. Some of us even now are indeed called to do that, to become monks or nuns, to become clergy, to become missionaries, to become people willing to leave absolutely everything behind to serve Christ.

If we’re not called to that, we’re still called to perfection, to worshiping the Creator rather than the creation. How do most of us do that? By sacrificing for our spouses and our children. By sacrificing entertainment and hobbies and other pursuits to engage in worship. By sacrificing our possessions for the sake of the mission of the Kingdom of God. These things all lead us to perfection. These things are all ways that we worship the Creator rather than the creation.

Whom shall we imitate today—the unnamed rich young man, who walks away sad from Jesus standing in front of him, because he has joined himself to his possessions? Or St. Anthony the Great, who hears the words of Jesus, joins himself to the Creator, and then walks into the desert to do battle for his soul?

To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.