As we continue to prepare to welcome Christ at His Nativity on Christmas, we must keep squarely in mind Who He is and why He was born in the flesh. Contrary to popular opinion, we are not getting ready to celebrate the birth of merely a religious teacher or a figure of cultural significance. No, we celebrate the eternal Son of God, Who spoke the universe into existence, becoming fully one of us while remaining fully divine. He did so in order to restore and fulfill us in the image and likeness of God. The God-Man had to be truly human in order to make us participants in His divinity by grace. He was not born to teach or embody a few rules about piety and morality, but to make us radiant with the divine energies as “partakers of the divine nature.”
The rich young ruler in today’s gospel lesson, however, did not view the Lord in this way. He thought that he was merely another teacher of the Jewish law. That is why Christ corrected him for saying “Good Teacher,” for “No one is good but God alone.” This fellow was testing the Savior with the question of what he had to do in order to gain eternal life, but from the beginning of their conversation Christ was actually testing him in a way that would help him see his spiritual brokenness.
In response to the question about eternal life, the Savior told him to obey the commandments from the Old Testament. The man then said that he had followed them throughout his life. That response indicated that he had a shallow understanding of what God requires. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ said that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20) Christ came to fulfill the law and the prophets, not to abolish them. (Matt. 5:17) He taught that the commandment against murder forbids anger and insult. (Matt. 5:21-22) He said that the commandment against adultery forbids lust. (Matt. 5: 27-28) He called His followers to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect, especially by loving even their enemies. (Matt. 5:43-48) None of this is about mere outward compliance that anyone may claim to have mastered, but about acquiring the purity of heart necessary to see God.
In order to open the eyes of the rich young ruler to the true state of his soul, 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 made the man sad because he loved his great wealth. The Savior responded, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.” Everyone was shocked at those words, for the common assumption then was that wealth was God’s blessing for those who were righteous. The Lord concluded with the statement “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
The man’s sadness at hearing the Lord’s command indicated that whatever level of legal observance he had accomplished had not healed his soul. Rich people in that time and place were few and far between. His wealth presumably gave him status, power, and an abundance of food, clothing, and shelter. He was likely used to getting his own way and being told what he wanted to hear. Understandably, that way of life had shaped him. Even for the sake of acquiring eternal life, the man could not turn away from his addiction to the self-centered pleasures of this world. Following conventional religious rules was one thing, but entrusting His life to Christ to the point of poverty was an entirely different matter that manifested his spiritual brokenness.
It is not accidental that the Lord told him to sell his possessions and give to the poor. The Savior identified Himself with suffering persons in the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 to the point that what we do to “the least of these” we do to Him. Luke’s gospel also records Christ proclaiming: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh.” (Lk 6:20-21) With his command to give to the poor, Christ was inviting the fellow to offer his possessions to bless them as a sign of the coming reign of God. Such an offering would indicate that he sought God’s Kingdom first and trusted in the Lord to provide his needs. The rich young ruler did not make that offering because he had a surface-level faith that had not healed his soul. He thought that he could serve both God and the wealth that fueled his passions, but Christ made clear to him that that was simply impossible.
Nonetheless, the Savior held out hope for this man, as “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” The superficial religious legalism that he had pursued cannot make us like God in holiness, for the sickness for which we need healing is far too grave for that. Not a “Good Teacher,” but the Son of God Who became one of us is alone able to make us participants in the divine life by grace. Through His death and glorious resurrection, He has liberated us from slavery to the fear of death, which is at the root of the obsessive need to justify ourselves as being righteous even as we remain blind to how deeply corrupted we are by addiction to our self-centered desires. Only the God-Man could deliver us from that wretched state. When, like the rich man, we catch a glimpse of our need for restoration well beyond what we can give ourselves, it becomes possible to unite ourselves to Christ in faith such that we find the healing of our souls by His grace.
Unlike that fellow, we must not walk away in sadness when our weakness becomes apparent. To the contrary, we must entrust ourselves to the mercy of Christ as we struggle to reorient the desires of hearts toward God and away from serving ourselves. We fast in order to gain strength in refusing to satisfy our self-centered desires for physical pleasure, which should enable us to serve Christ in our neighbors by giving generously to the needy of our time, energy, and resources. Nothing reflects the true state of our souls more than how we put meeting the needs of others before our own. All the more is that the case when those we help are in some sense our enemies.
When we seem to fail in fasting and serving our neighbors this Advent, let us not walk away in sadness, but instead use our struggle as a reminder that only the God-Man can save us. He was born to restore the holy glory of the human person in God’s image and likeness, which is something that not even the strictest religious observance could achieve by its own power. We must never think that spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving somehow earn eternal life. They are, however, essential practices for opening our souls to receive God’s merciful and healing grace, which we never deserve. The same is true of our preparation to receive the Eucharist through prayer, fasting, and confession. We are never worthy in our own right of the Lord’s Body and Blood, but must receive Him with the humility of those who know that they are the chief of sinners.
Instead of walking away in sadness when we confront the truth about our souls, we must run toward Bethlehem to welcome the Son of God born as a baby for our salvation. His coming shows that what is impossible for us by our own power is possible for Him. Let us use the remaining weeks of the Nativity Fast to prepare to embrace our Savior and to share as fully in His life as possible as we “lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of all.”