1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Matthew 19:16-26
The Scriptures are full of warnings about the temptations faced by those who receive the praise of others. The Lord Himself said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” (Lk. 6:26) Those false prophets of the Old Testament told corrupt kings or others in positions of power precisely what they wanted to hear in order to gain the earthly benefits of being on the good side of the rulers of this age. As we read in John’s gospel, “even among the rulers many believed in Him [i.e. Christ], but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (Jn. 12: 42-43) Due to pride, we often crave words and actions from others that distract us from seeing ourselves clearly and instead fuel illusions of self-importance and self- righteousness. When doing so becomes a settled habit, we can easily find ourselves attempting to use religion to serve our egos instead of being focused on offering ourselves to the Lord. We will then sacrifice everything to gratify “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” without even being aware of what we are doing. (1 Jn. 2:16)
When the rich young man in today’s gospel lesson addressed Christ, he attempted to flatter Him with the words “Good Teacher.” He did not know that the Lord is truly the God-Man and thought of Him as merely another rabbi. That is why the Savior responded, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God,” for He knew that this man thought of goodness as a merely human quality that he imagined he had already attained. He thought that he had already mastered all that God had required in the Old Testament law and wanted to be assured that he had not overlooked anything.
Before going any further, we should remember that this young man was very rich in a time when most people were poor. He must have been part of a wealthy and well-connected family, likely on good terms with the house of Herod and the Roman authorities. He was surely used to people telling him what they thought he wanted to hear in order to stay in his good graces. Especially since people believed then that wealth was a reward for God’s favor, he surely did not expect a rabbi to do anything other than congratulate him on his holiness, much less to say, “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.”
Perhaps for the first time in his life, someone challenged his assumptions about where he stood before God. Christ spoke to him not as a holy man to be flattered for his great piety, but as someone who needed healing for his soul beyond what outward obedience to legalistic requirements could bring. His inability to part with his possessions and privileged life opened his eyes just enough to see that he loved serving himself more than serving God and neighbor. His pride, which was fueled by wealth and the fawning praise of others, had led to the delusion that he had achieved perfect righteousness by obeying God’s law his entire life. When told to obey a command that revealed how weak he was before his passions, the man’s illusions of perfection shattered. And since his faith was in little more than his own sense of personal accomplishment, he then fell into despair and walked away from the Lord in sadness.
We live in a time when people who are rich and famous are often cultural icons regardless of their character. In part, that is because advertising, entertainment, social media, and others with various agendas do their best to convince us daily that the good life is synonymous with all the comfort, convenience, and style that money can buy at any given time. Many still assume that wealth invariably reflects wisdom and that riches are a reward for righteousness. We do not have to be billionaires to fall into such delusions, as unhealthy attachments to possessions and status threaten to bring spiritual destruction to all who persist in embracing them. Those who fall prey to the temptation to worship “The Almighty Dollar” and what it can buy will find themselves overwhelmed with anxiety and fear, for money will never heal the soul. It, like the praise of others, easily becomes a false god and can be gone in an instant, leaving us as disillusioned as the man in our gospel reading.
St. Paul had an unsettling encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, but the former Pharisee and persecutor of the Church responded by following Him instead of walking away. Far from being filled with pride, he used it for his humility. As he 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 gained the humility to know that His life in Christ was not his own accomplishment or possession. His ministry was not an effort to hide his personal inadequacies behind a veneer of piety. Instead, he offered himself up even to the point of death as a martyr out of gratitude for the great mercy the Lord had shown him. He placed building up the Body of Christ, no matter the cost, above seeking the praise of others or the comfort and status of this world.
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 the hurt pride called shame; neither was he enslaved by the 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 glorifying 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.”
If we want to gain the spiritual strength to follow St. Paul’s example, then we must make use of the opportunities to become more humbly dependent upon the mercy of the Savior that we encounter every day. Our goal is not to become respectable socially or otherwise in the eyes of our neighbors, but to become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect as “partakers of the divine nature,” which requires gaining the purity of heart necessary to see God. We must never assume that we have mastered His requirements, but instead must persist in the infinite journey of becoming more beautiful living icons of Christ. And that will require confronting the severe tension between our disordered attachments and the healing of our souls. When we experience that tension, we must not walk away in sorrow or change the subject, but instead must embrace all the more the difficult struggle to purify and reorient our deepest desires so that they lead us to our true fulfillment in God. We certainly cannot do that simply by our own willpower, but must become fully receptive to our Lord’s grace such that we can say with St. Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me…” (Gal. 2:2) As the Savior said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” He was not speaking of the salvation of only the elites of this world, but of all of us who are far more enslaved to pride, the praise of others, and the love of material comforts than we know or would like to admit. Christ calls us all to turn away from whatever holds us back from taking up our crosses and following Him.