Ephesians 2:4-10; Luke 18:18-27
As we prepare to welcome Christ at His Nativity, we must open our hearts and minds in order to confront the astounding truth that the eternal Son of God has become one of us. His incarnation reveals that we need more than a teacher, a prophet, or a political or cultural leader to find the healing of our humanity in God. Only One who is both fully divine and fully human could make us “partakers of the divine nature” by grace. During the weeks of the Nativity Fast, we must prepare to enter into the deep mystery of our salvation in a way that calls us all into question.
The rich man in today’s gospel lesson was not prepared for that kind of Savior, but only for a teacher of the law who would praise him for his accomplishments. He did not know Who he was speaking to, which is why Christ corrected him for saying “Good Teacher,” for “No one is good but God alone.” In response to the question about how to find eternal life, the Lord prodded the man to confront his spiritual weakness, for he claimed to have kept all of God’s commandments from his youth. In other words, he thought that he had already mastered everything that God required, which is another way of saying that he had achieved perfection. That is when the Lord gave him a commandment that he lacked the spiritual strength to obey in order to open his eyes to his true spiritual state: “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 and did not want to part from it. He had surely fallen prey to the temptation of using money to satisfy his self-centered desires to the point that he had become addicted to them. 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. As one of very few rich people in that time and place, he had allowed his high social standing to color his perception of where he stood before God. The Lord did not condemn the man, however, but concluded with the statement: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” In other words, there is hope for those whose eyes are opened to their inability to save themselves merely by their moral virtue or religious observance.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul refers to God as “being rich in mercy” and relating to us according to “the exceeding riches of His grace, in kindness toward us, in Christ Jesus.” The point is not that we make ourselves rich in any sense, but that the richness of God’s grace may bring us into eternal life, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that is not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” As a former Pharisee, Paul knew the inability of the law to make “us alive together with Christ” by healing the soul from slavery to disordered desires. Only the One Who took upon Himself the full consequences of the ravages of sin and death through the Cross and defeated them through His glorious resurrection can make us like God in holiness.
The rich man in our gospel reading was not wrong to want to obey the Old Testament law, but he had an impoverished understanding of what it meant to do so. 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) He came to fulfill the law and the prophets, not to abolish them. (Matt. 5:17) He taught that the commandment against murder goes to the heart by forbidding anger and insult. (Matt. 5:21-22) He said that the commandment against adultery does the same in forbidding 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) These are obviously not matters of merely checking off boxes for good behavior. As God said through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Jer. 31: 33-44)
Jeremiah’s vision is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, Who graciously shares His healing of the human person with us such that we may acquire the purity of heart necessary to see God. (Matt. 5:8) By the power of the Holy Spirit, He dwells in our hearts and makes it possible for us to find healing from our passions such that we obey God not merely by refraining from committing obvious outward sins, but by being united to Him in holiness from the depths of our hearts. As Paul notes, we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Those who know their dependence upon the mercy of the Lord must live accordingly, not in a vain effort to justify themselves, but out of thanks for healing and strength they could never have acquired merely by their own virtue.
Unlike the rich man, we must not walk away in sadness when our weakness before our passions becomes apparent, especially when we realize how far short we have fallen of the holiness to which Christ calls us. That is when we must entrust ourselves to the mercy of the Lord as we struggle to reorient the desires of our hearts toward God and away from serving ourselves. In fasting, we gain strength in refusing to satisfy our self-centered desires for pleasure, which enables 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 serve are in some sense our enemies or those we are inclined to disregard or even condemn.
When we come to know our weakness before our besetting sins, 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 ever achieve by its own power. We must never think that spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving earn anything at all. They remain, however, essential practices for opening our souls in humility 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 the weakness of our souls before our distorted desires, let us run toward Bethlehem to welcome the Son of God born for our salvation. He shows that what is impossible by our own virtue is possible with 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.”