Ephesians 2:14-22; Luke 18:18-27
As we prepare to welcome Christ at His Nativity, we must be on guard against the subtle temptation to make the season all about ourselves and our place in the world. That may seem like a strange temptation, but it is very easy to get so caught up in buying presents, planning parties and trips, and indulging in sentimental feelings that we somehow overlook the obvious reason for the season: the incarnation of the God-Man for our salvation. Whether this time of year or any other, we so quickly fall prey to the temptation to fit Christ into our preconceived notions about the good life, which we usually define in ways that serve our distorted self-centered desires for pleasure, power, and pride in one form or another.
The rich man in today’s gospel lesson expected to find a teacher who would praise him for his accomplishments. He had no idea 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 his question about how to find eternal life, the Lord challenged the man to confront his spiritual weakness. This fellow 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. He thought that he needed no repentance or mercy, as he assumed he had achieved perfection. That is when the Lord said, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” This was a command that he lacked the spiritual strength to obey, for he was enslaved to the love of money, comfort, and position.
The Savior then said, “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 easily assumed that his possessions were a reward for good behavior. As a result, he had made them into a false 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 remains hope for those who come to see the truth about where they stand before the Lord and humbly offer themselves to Him for healing.
Like the rich man in today’s gospel lesson, many are inclined today to test Christ and then to walk away in sadness when they learn that He is not merely an impressive religious personality whose teachings they can interpret however suits them. Like the rich man, many are most comfortable with a religion that will never call into question how they have made the blessings of this life their false gods. Like the rich man, many want a spiritual pat on the pack for continuing down whatever passion-driven path they have followed so far. Unfortunately, much of the celebration of Christ’s birth in our culture reflects such sensibilities to the point that it has very little to do with entering into the joy brought to the world by the Nativity in the Flesh of the God-Man.
One sign of this problem is the prevalence of self-centered, individualistic spirituality that blinds us to the profound gravity of how our actions impact other people. The rich man thought he had fulfilled God’s law, but then was crushed when Christ told him to deny himself for the sake of his poor neighbors. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the Lord as “our peace” Who has united Jew and Gentile “reconcil[ing] us both to God in one body through the Cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.” Because of the reconciliation worked in Christ, we Gentiles “are no longer strangers and sojourners, but…fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in Whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
We often assume that peace means that we get our way and others stop getting in our way. In both interpersonal and political relations, what passes for peace may be little more than the stronger side beating down the other until they can no longer oppose them. The rich man in our gospel lesson surely thought that he had to keep his possessions and high status in order to be at peace. The peace that Christ brings to the world is completely different, for it has nothing to do with dominating or punishing anyone; neither is it the result of gratifying self-centered desire. For Christ is our peace as the Savior Who reconciles us to God and one another through His Cross and empty tomb. As St. Paul taught, He has abolished “in His flesh the law of commandments and ordinances,” and thus removed the basis of self-righteous legalism that people so often use to justify condemning, fearing, and hating others. He has removed the basis of the rich man’s superficial illusions of holiness, which could never heal his soul.
Though often overlooked and sometimes derided as a form of weakness, reconciliation between enemies is a necessary practice for those who are sharing in the life of Christ. He is the Jewish Messiah in Whom the promises to the descendants of Abraham are fulfilled and extended to the entire world. The more we unite ourselves to the Savior in holiness, the more we will display the peace of His Kingdom, especially in relation to those we consider enemies for whatever reason. If hatred, anger, resentment, and refusal to forgive remain characteristic of us, we will find it very hard to enter into the kingdom of God. Like the rich man, we must allow our eyes to be opened by a command that we presently lack the spiritual strength to obey. That is when we will begin to see ourselves and our neighbors more clearly before God as we wake up from the delusions that have blinded us to the truth. That is when we will begin to know the peace that Christ was born to bring to the world.
In order to prepare to receive Him at Christmas as our peace, we must focus on finding healing from the passions that put us at enmity with anyone who bears the divine image and likeness. We must focus on resisting the temptation to make these weeks about our contentment in the world or getting what we think we deserve from God or anyone else. We must focus on getting ready to receive what is impossible for us left to our own devices, but which is possible in the God-Man, Who is Himself our peace in all the true senses of the word. We must pray, fast, give generously to our neighbors, confess and repent of our sins, and mindfully stay on guard against thoughts, words, and deeds that tempt us to corrupt the birth of the Savior into an excuse for glorifying ourselves and our culture. We are not preparing to celebrate our piety and virtue, but the Lord Who is Himself our entrance into the eternal joy of a kingdom not of this world. So instead of walking away in sadness, let us run toward Bethlehem and “lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of all” as we get ready to welcome the Son of God born for our salvation. He alone is our peace.