1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Matthew 19:16-26
It is not hard for people who have it pretty easy in life to think that all is well. If they assume that they have met the expectations of society, then they can pat themselves on the back and rest content. But when a hard challenge comes along that they are not prepared to meet, their eyes will open a bit to the truth about their souls. That is precisely what happened to the rich man in today’s gospel lesson when Jesus Christ gave him a commandment that he lacked the strength to obey: “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.”
This fellow had thought that he had already satisfied God’s commandments. He said, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” He may have asked Christ what he needed to do in order to find eternal life 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 done everything he could in order to justify himself. The man was quite wealthy, and lived in a time when people believed that God blessed people with riches as a reward for their righteousness. That is why the disciples 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 come strong inclinations to love the fruit of that success. The Scriptures are certainly full of warnings against the temptations associated with wealth, power, and prestige.
The man’s inability to part with his possessions and to abandon his place in society at the Lord’s command revealed a truth about him that he had not previously considered: He loved serving himself more than serving God and neighbor. His obedience of the commandments had not brought healing to his soul. Due to his pride, which had likely grown from how he had responded to his comfortable life and the admiration of others, he had fallen into the delusion that he had achieved righteousness by obeying God’s law. When told to obey a command that was beyond him, however, the man’s illusion of perfection shattered. And since he relied on nothing more than his own sense of accomplishment, he then fell into despair and walked away from the Lord in sadness.
St. Paul helped the early Christians see that sharing in the eternal life of Christ is not a reward for following the Old Testament law. A former Pharisee and persecutor of the Church, he became an apostle after the Risen Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Instead of corrupting such a tremendous blessing to fuel religious pride, he used it for his humility. As St. Paul wrote, “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God, which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” St. Paul acquired the spiritual clarity to see that his ministry was not about him. His life was not a monument to himself. His work was not a desperate attempt to justify himself before God or in his own mind. Instead, everything was about participating in the gracious mercy of the Lord as he fulfilled his particular calling to build up the Body of Christ.
In contrast, the man in our gospel lesson was concerned only about himself and blithely assumed that he had already fulfilled God’s law. Then he could not handle it when the Savior revealed his spiritual weakness by giving him a command that he lacked the strength to obey. St. Paul, however, never shied away from highlighting his own unworthiness, even calling himself the chief of sinners. The apostle had the humility to see and accept the truth about his soul, stating that “by the grace of God I am what I am.” He was not paralyzed by guilt or enslaved by the proud desire to make himself look righteous in the eyes of others. Despite his many trials and tribulations, and his keen awareness of his own imperfection, St. Paul did not abandon his ministry or somehow corrupt it into a way of serving himself. Instead, he used his sense of dependence on the mercy of the Lord to fuel his ongoing pursuit of the Christian life to the point of death as a martyr. As he wrote, God’s “grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God, which is with me.”
There is no way to gain the spiritual strength to follow St. Paul’s example other than to become humbly dependent upon the mercy of the Savior. If we think that the Christian life is a way to justify our existence in our own minds, in the eyes of our neighbors, or before God, then we will fall into despair and walk away in sorrow like the rich man in our gospel reading when we catch even a small glimpse of the holiness to which Christ calls us. The God-Man shares His healing of the human person with us so that we may become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. That requires not only abstaining from murder and adultery, but acquiring the purity of heart to become free of anger and lust. He makes us “partakers of the divine nature” so that we will become like Him in loving not only our friends, but even our enemies. Who may claim to have fulfilled these commandments? If we think that Christ calls us to do so merely by our own spiritual or moral ability, we will quickly be so overcome by a sense of failure that we will simply walk away in sadness.
We must also be on guard against the subtle temptation of religious pride. 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. We will then corrupt prayer, fasting, generosity to the poor, and all the other spiritual disciplines into vain efforts to impress God, ourselves, and other people. This is a path that leads only to self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and spiritual blindness. Those who persist on it will ultimately turn away from the Lord even as they assume that they have accomplished everything necessary to find eternal life.
There is a much better way, of course, to view the blessed practices to which our Lord call us. They are not ways of justifying ourselves before God, our neighbors, or ourselves, 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 find the healing of our souls. The more we unite ourselves to Him, the more we will be aware of the depths of our spiritual weakness and dependence on His mercy. Then we will find liberation from our vain obsessions with grounding the meaning and purpose of our lives in our own accomplishments and characteristics. Instead, we will simply say with St. Paul, “by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.”
In response to Christ’s statement about how hard it is for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God, the disciples were amazed and asked, “Who then can be saved?” The Lord responded, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” That is true not only for the wealthy, but for us all. No matter how religious or moral we try to become, we cannot heal our own souls or raise ourselves up from the grave. Saint Paul needed the gracious divine energies of the Lord to transform him into the apostle to the Gentiles. He knew who he was as a former persecutor of Christians, but that was not the point. Because of the outrageous mercy of the Savior, he stands as a shining example to us all of the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus. All that we must abandon is our proud insistence on self-justification in any form as we embrace the healing that we could never give ourselves. The Savior who died, descended into Hades, and rose in triumph on the third day shares His life with us, making us members of His own Body, the Church. The point of our saving union with Him is not what we have achieved or what we deserve, but the unfathomable mercy of the Lord. Like Saint Paul, then, let us get over our pride and humbly entrust ourselves to Christ so that we may say with the apostle, “by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.” The only other option is to walk away from Him in sadness and despair.