Audio length: 10:57 minutes
The rich Pharisee in the gospel couldn’t make it. He couldn’t grow up. He couldn’t leave behind the letter of Jewish law to find the spirit of Jewish life. We can grow up. We can move from a focus on the letter of Orthodox law into the reality of living our lives to the full as Orthodox Christians.
The meeting in today’s gospel between Christ and the rich man is important. Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention the meeting in their gospels. Clearly, this meeting did happen; and the three evangelists all made sure they included it in their gospels. Furthermore, the apostles got very upset about the idea that rich people do not go to heaven, because at that time in 1st century Palestine having wealth was a sign of being blessed by the Father. At least, that was what a lot of people thought. So what is happening here? Why do both the rich man himself and all the apostles become so upset?
First, we need to understand this Jew’s story. Why has he approached Christ? What is his motivation? The Church fathers are not sure about the character of this man. The the century Patriarch of Alexandria, St Cyril of Alexandria, thought that this Jew was trying to “convict Christ of introducing laws of his own and of dishonouring the commandment[s] spoken by the most wise Moses.” The 7th century Greek theologian, St John of Damascus, thought that this rich man was simply incapable of parting with all his goods and exercising self-denial. Both church fathers are probably right. This Jew may well have been trying to trick Christ; and he had no intention of giving up his wealth. We cannot be sure, because the motivation remains private; and none of the three Gospels tell us why this man has approached Christ.
It is not easy to understand a culture that existed two thousand years ago. For example, consider the phrase with which Christ himself has characterised the rich man: “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.” St Cyril of Alexandria points out in his Commentary on Luke, Homily 123, that “by a camel [Christ] means not the animal of that name but rather a thick cable. It [was] the custom of those well-versed in navigation to call the thicker cables, ‘camels’.” That is a powerful explanation, because Christ was speaking here to his apostles, many of whom were familiar with the sea, fishing and navigation. A camel is simply a thick cable on board a boat; and it is going to be extremely difficult to pass such a thick cable through a needle. Furthermore, the fact that so many later Biblical commentators have misinterpreted the word “camel” is a warning to all of us to consider the Church Fathers when we seek to interpret the words of Christ.
What we do know about this rich man is that he had been a careful observer of the ten commandments and the associated myriad of Jewish laws since his youth. Every indication is that he is a Pharisee—a member of that Jewish group which interprets the Mosaic law very strictly, trying to cover every detail of everyday life. Christ sees immediately that he is confronted by someone who has a strict adherence to formal religion; and Christ wishes to draw this Pharisee beyond a formal adherence to the letter of the law into a deeper awareness of the communal spirit of Judaism. Giving away wealth to meet the needs of the Jewish community and the needs of the poor in 1st century Palestine would indeed be praiseworthy, but this Pharisee is not able to reach such a goal.
St Matthew in his Gospel adds a further dimension to the dialogue between Christ and this rich Pharisee, because St Matthew states that this Pharisee refers to how many laws he has kept and asks Christ, “What am I still lacking?” The reply given by Christ, as set out by St Matthew in chapter 19, verse 21 is: “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Thus for Christ, as interpreted by St Matthew, the selling of possessions, the giving to the poor, is not so much an end in itself but a means of following Christ, a means of becoming “complete.”
St Paul phrases this same idea of becoming complete in Colossians, chapter 2, verse 10: “In [Christ] you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority.” That was precisely the prayer of Epaphras, Paul’s helper, and probably the founder of the Church in Colossae, in Colossians, chapter 4, verse 12, that we might each “stand complete [and mature] and fully assured in all the will of God.” It is this completion that Christ is urging upon this rich Pharisee, this devout believer in God and Jewish law.
Christ urges the same completion and maturity on us as he urges upon the rich Pharisee. For the Pharisee, the proposed means to achieve maturity was to give up his wealth. That wealth was an obstacle for the Pharisee to reaching the will of God. It is very unlikely that any of us will be asked to give up all of our wealth, although we are rightly asked to tithe to the Church and to help the poor. For each of us, there are many paths to maturity. We each have our own hopes and dreams of the kind of life we wish to live, as well as our own fears and hesitations as we seek the will of God for our own lives. What we share with the rich Pharisee is the need to move to a more mature stage of spirituality, to move beyond observing the letter of the law to embracing the spirit of the law.
Unlike the rich Pharisee who wandered away from Christ, many Jews in 1st century Palestine did recognise Christ as the Messiah. The very words mean exactly the same person: The Greek word “Christ” is the Hebrew word “Messiah.” As Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok points out: “According to the Acts of the Apostles, Jews who accepted Jesus as their Saviour in the 30s and 40s continued to pray at the Temple, observed Jewish laws, and considered themselves members of the Jewish people.” It is indeed clear, as Alfred Edersheim has explained that “the Temple and its services form, so to speak, part of the life and work of Jesus Christ; part also of His teaching, and that of His apostles.”
That is precisely the challenge for each of us today: Just like the ancient Jewish Temple and its services, this Orthodox Church and its divine services are a living part of the continuing work of Christ. That work of Christ has both a communal and a personal dimension, because Christ saves the whole world and each of us. As Orthodox Christians who are beginning to understand better the meaning of Orthodoxy, the challenge before us is to move from observing the letter of Orthodox laws into finding the spirit of life as Orthodox Christians. I am confident that we can each achieve that objective as we continue to come to church each Sunday.
To conclude, the rich Pharisee in today’s gospel couldn’t make it. He couldn’t grow up. He couldn’t leave behind the letter of Jewish law to find the spirit of Jewish life. We can grow up. We can move from a focus on the letter of Orthodox law into the reality of living our lives to the full as Orthodox Christians, in church, at work, at school and at home.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise
to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.