1 Corinthians. 15:1-11; Matthew 19:16-26
We all need a good wake-up call from time to time. It is easy to shut our eyes to the truth and to become blind to what is actually going on in our lives. On the question of where we stand in relation to God, it sometimes takes a real shock to wake us up. And once our eyes are opened a bit to truths we do not particularly like, we have to be careful not to run away in shame and despair.
The rich young ruler in today’s gospel text had apparently fallen into the illusion that he had perfectly obeyed God’s requirements. He must have had a very superficial understanding of them, of course, to say that he had already mastered them. We know from Christ’s interpretation of the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount that they call us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. And who can claim to have achieved that? The Lord shocked this fellow out of his illusions of holiness by giving him a commandment that he would find impossibly hard to obey. “Sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The Savior gave him this test because the man loved his wealth so much. He went away in sorrow because his eyes had been opened to how he was devoted more to himself and his money than to God and his neighbors. The Lord did not condemn him, but told the surprised disciples that “with God all things are possible,” even the salvation of someone so strongly tempted to the idolatry of wealth.
St. Paul had something in common with the superficial righteousness of the rich young ruler, for he had been a Pharisee who had persecuted the Church. He had been an expert in the kind of self-righteous, hypocritical legalism that Christ so clearly rejected. The Lord opened his eyes to the truth by blinding him on the road to Damascus, and He then empowered Paul for a ministry no one could have anticipated for a former Pharisee as the apostle to the Gentiles. The Lord had made Paul an apostle by miraculously appearing to him, even though Paul knew that he in no way deserved such a high honor. Indeed, he referred to himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). But instead of being paralyzed by shame, Paul accepted that “by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.” He knew that whatever he accomplished was not somehow his own achievement, but the grace of God working through him.
St. Paul recognized that the grace he had received was not something he had earned or deserved in any way. Grace is a divine energy of our Lord; it is His healing mercy that we receive through faith, repentance, and love. To receive grace is to share in His life as much as is possible for human beings. When we think of our salvation in those terms, the focus moves from what we can accomplish by our own power and toward what our Lord is doing through us. Of course, we must cooperate with His gracious presence in our lives, but we must never fall into the fantasy of thinking that the healing of our souls is simply or even primarily about what we can accomplish by trying really hard according to our own designs.
St. Paul learned that decisively when the Lord appeared to him in blinding light on the road to Damascus. How could he have taken credit for such a miracle? And Paul must have wondered often how he had been blessed to move from being a persecutor of the Church to one of its greatest leaders. In today’s epistle lesson, he reminds us to have the humility to accept the reality of our lives as he did. “But by the grace of God I am what I am” writes Paul. He knew that his life in Christ was not a reward for perfect behavior, but a sign of the Lord’s great mercy even for the chief of sinners. Perhaps that is why, unlike the rich young ruler, Paul did not go away in sorrow when he recognized the weakness and brokenness of his soul. Instead, he used this awareness to open himself in humility to the Lord Who died and rose again in order to save people who could not save themselves.
If we pay attention at all to the prayers, services, teachings, and readings of the Orthodox Church, we will know that we are nowhere near mastering what God requires of us. Our vocation to holiness is infinite, for we are called to become radiant with the transforming energies of our Lord, shining like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory. And since the fullness of that transformation means being perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, this is obviously not a goal that we can ever say that we have met. Whenever we need a guard against self-righteousness, we do not have to look very hard in order to find it.
Many of us, however, do not struggle so much with self-righteousness as with despair. When we hear such high descriptions of a holy life or learn about the good example of the Saints, we may be overcome with shame at the brokenness of our lives and with a sense of hopelessness that we could ever become pleasing to God. We may become just like the rich young ruler who could not accept the severe tension between Christ’s command and his own desires and habits.
To do so reflects a subtle form of pride, for shame is essentially the hurt pride of not being able to get over ourselves. It is a form of distorted self-love that cannot humbly accept that we all stand in constant need of the Lord’s mercy as the chief of sinners. It is a refusal to forgive ourselves for not being perfect on our own terms. It is the obsession of judging ourselves by our own standards. And since the focus remains squarely upon us and not on Christ, it is not surprising that this kind of shame leads to despair. As long as we are paralyzed by self-love, we will never open ourselves to the healing mercies of our Lord. And there is no way that we can conquer the power of sin and death in our lives by our own ability.
St. Paul shows us a far better way to respond to our deep regret about our sins and personal brokenness. If anyone had reason to despair of finding healing in Christ, it would have been this former Pharisee and persecutor of the Church. But instead of judging himself by his own standards, Paul used the awareness of his grave sins to open himself to receive the unfathomable mercy of the Lord, which extended even to the likes of him. He gave up self-righteous illusions about making himself worthy and instead relied on the mercy of the One at work through him.
“With God, all things are possible,” even for someone like St. Paul to become radiant with holiness by grace. The same is true for the rich young rulers of the world, for those who have had their illusions of perfection shattered, and for those who cannot imagine how God’s mercy could ever extend to them. To become like Paul, we must crucify our shame and despair, confessing with that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). That is really the only way to get over ourselves and in humility to become participants in His great victory over sin and death. If we choose obsession with our own failures instead of humble faith in the Lord’s mercy, we turn away from the healing of our souls that the Savior extends to those who come to Him with faith, repentance, and love. How tragic it would be for us to reject Him out of the wounded pride that is our shame. How truly blessed it is to say with Paul that “by the grace of God I am what I am,” even as we trust in the divine mercy that we definitely do not deserve. That is the only way not to walk away in sorrow when we see the truth of where we stand before the Lord.