1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Matthew 19:16-26
In our culture today, we admire people who seem to have all the money, power, and physical beauty to get whatever they want. We easily accept the lie that the good life is one in which other people praise us and we have as large a share of material resources as possible. Such a perspective, however, stands in stark contradiction to the path that our Lord calls us to follow. It is easy to forget that 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 precisely what they wanted to hear in order to gain their favor. John’s gospel reports that “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 the affirmation of others in ways that lead us to serve ourselves, instead of God and neighbor, even as we think we are being very religious. When that happens, we 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.
This young man was very rich in a time when almost everyone else was 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. And 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.”
St. Basil the Great, who gave away his great wealth to found philanthropic ministries for the sick and needy, taught that the Lord’s strict words to this man revealed his lack of love for his neighbors. Basil wrote that “Those who love their neighbors as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbor; yet surely, you seem to have great possessions! How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of the many…For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.” The young ruler had laid up treasures for himself on earth and had given his heart to them. (Matt. 6: 19-21)
Then perhaps for the first time in his life, someone challenged his assumptions about the state of his soul. Christ spoke to him not as a holy man to be flattered for his status and piety, but as someone who loved wealth more than God and neighbor, and had therefore violated the greatest of the commandments. His inability to part with his possessions and privileged life opened his eyes just enough to catch a glimpse of the sickness of his soul. 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.
St. Paul had an unsettling conversation on the road to Damascus with the risen Lord, Who said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul was blinded by the light of the divine glory, but the former Pharisee and persecutor of the Church responded by believing, being baptized, and following Christ instead of walking away. Far from being filled with pride, he used this experience 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. 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.
Instead of trying to hide his failings, St. Paul highlighted 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.”
It is very important to remember, however, that reliance on God’s grace demands our cooperation, our free response to embrace the healing of our souls. As St. James taught, “Faith without works is dead.” (Jas. 2:17) The point is not to sit around passively waiting to see what the Lord will do in our lives, but to take up our crosses and follow Him each day. As living icons of God, we all have the wherewithal to respond to His calling. If we refuse, He will not force us. And if we cooperate, we will learn that the credit is not to us, but to Him. St. Paul wrote, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God, which is with me.” When the Theotokos praised God for her miraculous conception, she certainly did not glorify herself, but proclaimed, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Had the rich young ruler struggled to obey the Lord’s command to give away all his wealth, he would have opened himself to receive salvation. That would not have been as a reward for good behavior, but because struggling to take even the smallest of steps in humble obedience toward Christ is the only way to open the dark and diseased corners of our souls to receive His healing light. And there is no surer way to do that than to turn away from our pride and self-centeredness to bless the living icons of God in whom we encounter and serve our Lord every day, namely our suffering neighbors. As the Savior said of the wealthy finding salvation, “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 would like to admit. Christ calls us all to turn away from whatever holds us back from taking up our crosses and following Him. That is precisely how we can all open our hearts to receive the healing mercy of the Lord for our salvation, for by His grace “with God all things are possible.”
 Basil the Great, “To the Rich,” as quoted in Andrew Geleris, Money and Salvation (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2022), 54.