Ephesians 2:4-10; Luke 18:18-27
We have all had experiences in which we have learned uncomfortable truths about ourselves. When that happens, we have a choice about what to do next. It is possible to recognize a weakness or failing and then to do what we can to overcome it. Too often, however, we give up hope and fall into despair due to our hurt pride. That is precisely what the man in today’s gospel lesson did when Jesus Christ gave him a commandment that he lacked the strength to obey: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
This fellow had thought that he had already satisfied God’s commandments. He said, “All these I have observed from my youth.” He had asked Christ what he needed to do in order to find eternal life probably because he wanted the Lord to confirm that he had already fulfilled what God required. Or perhaps he was genuinely checking to see if he had overlooked anything he should do. The man was quite wealthy, and lived in a time when people typically believed that God blessed people with riches as a reward for their righteousness. That is why people were shocked to hear Christ say how hard it is for the rich to enter the heavenly kingdom. Along with success in the world usually comes a strong temptation to love the fruit of that success, especially wealth, power, and prestige. The man’s inability to part with his wealth at the Lord’s command revealed a truth about him that he had not previously considered: He loved himself more than God and neighbor. His obedience of the commandments had not healed his soul. Out of pride, he had fallen into the delusion that he had made himself righteous by his own works. When it became clear that that was not the case, he fell into despair and walked away from the Lord in sadness.
As a former Pharisee and expert in the Jewish law, Saint Paul helped the early Christians see that we do not share in the life of Christ merely by doing good deeds. As he wrote to the Ephesians, “by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.” The man in our gospel lesson certainly did boast of how righteous he thought he was. Then he could not handle it when the Savior made clear that he had nothing to brag about before God. In contrast, St. Paul never shied away from highlighting his own unworthiness, even calling himself the chief of sinners. The apostle had the humility to see the truth about his soul. He knew that his only hope was in the mercy of Christ, for “by grace you have been saved.” Despite his many trials and tribulations, and his keen awareness of his own imperfection, St. Paul did not abandon his ministry or give up on serving Christ faithfully. Instead, he used his sense of dependence on God’s grace to fuel his ongoing pursuit of the Christian life: “For, we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Unless we cultivate a deep sense of humble dependence upon the mercy of the Savior, we will lack the spiritual strength to follow St. Paul’s example. If we think that Christ presents us with exacting commandments that we must master by our own ability in order to earn our way into His Kingdom, we will do precisely what the rich man did. We will walk away in failure. For Christ tells us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. He instructs us to abstain not only from murder, but from anger. He requires us not only to refrain from adultery, but from lust. He insists that we love not only our friends, but even our enemies. It takes only a bit of spiritual insight to see that none of us may claim to have fulfilled these commandments. If we think that our only hope of sharing in the life of Christ is somehow to justify ourselves by our own spiritual or moral ability, we will quickly be so overcome by a sense of failure that we will simply give up. Like the rich man, we will walk away from Christ in sadness.
People do not have to be rich in the things of the world in order to do that. Regardless of the outward circumstances of our lives, we can easily distort the Orthodox Christian faith into a legalistic effort of self-justification that leads only to delusion. Prayer, fasting, generosity to the poor, and all the spiritual disciplines for the healing of our souls will then become works that we do in vain as we try to impress God, ourselves, and other people. To do so is to distort them to the point that they will be anything but paths for growth in holiness. To do so is to set ourselves up for spiritual failure and to guarantee that, like the rich man, we will turn away from Christ in despair.
There is a much better way, of course, to view the practices to which our Lord call us. They are not ways of justifying ourselves before God, but humble means of opening ourselves to receive the healing mercy of His grace. As St. James taught, “Faith without works is dead,” for we must actively offer ourselves to Him in obedience. (Jas. 2:17) That is how we grow in faith as we entrust ourselves ever more fully to the Lord. If we truly believe in Him, we will become more like Him as we pursue the healing of our souls. Because God is infinitely holy, we may never say that we have fulfilled our calling to become like Him in holiness. The more we unite ourselves to Him, that more we will be aware of the depths of our need for His grace. We will never be able to conquer death and the corrupting influence of sin merely by our own ability. Whenever we are tempted to despair, we must remember what Christ said at the end of the today’s gospel reading: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
We should not be discouraged or even surprised when we realize that we are far from perfect in pursuing the Christian life. Our salvation is a process of healing and fulfillment that requires persistence over time. Even as we did not develop our spiritual maladies in an instant, we will not regain our spiritual health in the blink of an eye. Instead of viewing our struggles in faithfulness as reasons to despair or give up because of what they reveal about us, we should use them as opportunities to grow in our openness to the Lord’s mercy. We should use them for our humility in dying to prideful efforts to save ourselves and for our growth in faith. The more we acknowledge our brokenness and inadequacy, the more receptive we will become to Christ’s healing of our souls.
As we continue to celebrate the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, let us prepare to welcome the Savior into our lives at Christmas by refusing to distort the disciplines of the Nativity Fast into legalistic works of self-justification. We will avoid that error by recognizing that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving will never earn us anything. We must not do them in an effort to prove to God, ourselves, or anyone else that we are righteous. Instead, they are ways of opening the eyes of our souls to see that we need a salvation that we cannot give ourselves. When we recognize that, we must not become terribly sad and walk away out of hurt pride, regardless of how poorly we perform these spiritual disciplines. Instead, we must use that recognition to inspire us to unite ourselves to Christ more fully in faith as we stumble forward in faithfulness as best we can. By doing so, we will open ourselves to a healing that “is impossible with men [but] is possible with God.” This is the only true path to eternal life.
Note: The iconography used in this posting is from the hand of Katherine Sanders: https://katherinesandersicons.com.