The meeting in today’s gospel between Jesus Christ and the rich, young man is important. Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention the meeting in their gospels. Clearly, this meeting did happen. The three evangelists focus on different characteristics of the man. St Matthew, Chapter 19, describes him as “young;” St Mark simply says he was “a man who ran up” to Jesus; and St Luke describes him as “a ruler,” that is a significant member of a Jewish council. All three evangelists point out that this man was very rich.
Now, over the centuries, this man, whatever his background, has received a bad press, a very bad press, for being unwilling to follow the advice that Jesus gave him to “sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor.” Does he deserve all this criticism? What kind of person is he? I’m not sure, but let’s try to understand him. As far as we can tell from the three evangelists, the life of this man, when he ran up to question Jesus, was being guided by three significant principles.
First, he was, someone who was a seeker after truth, someone whose first question to Jesus, according to St Matthew was: “What good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” In other words, this man is thinking in terms of how he can become righteous through good works. In St Matthew’s view, the man is what today we would call a Pelagian—a Christian who believes that he can achieve righteousness through good works, that he can earn his salvation. Yet what Jesus wishes to communicate to this Jewish man is simply to be devoutly committed to God. Moreover, Jesus is also implying that He is God, because He is “the good” which this man is seeking.
Second, this man is not only seeking truth, but he is already a devout believer in God and His law. This man has kept all the laws to the best of his ability; and now he asks Jesus: “What am I still lacking?” All three evangelists report that Jesus tells the man to sell his possessions and then “come, follow me.” That is an important invitation; and St Matthew phrases it neatly: “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.”
St Paul phrases that 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 10, that we might each “stand complete [and mature] and fully assured in all the will of God.” It is this completion in Christ that Jesus urges upon this young man, this devout believer in God and Jewish law.
Third, this man is, according to St Luke, “very wealthy;” and Saints Matthew and Mark give the source of his wealth: he “owned much property.” We do not know whether this wealth was inherited or whether this portfolio of property had been built up through the efforts of this man. The precise process of how the man gathered his property is not important, but the possession of that property is a significant obstacle to eternal life. Jesus challenges this Jewish seeker precisely as he challenged the apostles to follow Him and become totally committed to Him. My wife, Sylvia, has pointed out to me that for this wealthy man, “it is a question of being, rather than doing, because doing comes out of being.” In other words, what he will do with his wealth will be determined by what he believes is important in life.
I put it to you today that many of us are in the same position as this man. We seek truth; we are following God’s path in our lives; and we are relatively wealthy in material terms as compared with most in the developing world. Furthermore, I would suggest that we are deeply committed to each of these three guiding principles.
First, we are deeply committed to truth; otherwise we would not be Orthodox Christians; we, like others around us, both Christians and non-Christians, would have settled for an easier, less challenging way to live. Second, we are deeply committed to seeking God’s will in our lives; otherwise we would have viewed our Orthodoxy as only a cultural heritage that permits us to go to church when we wish, to stay home on Sunday when it is convenient, and to orient our lives around what we choose to do, rather than seeking the paths that God has for us. Third, the reality is that despite these genuinely hard times in which it is difficult to find and keep decent jobs and homes, we are still wealthy in the sense that our material needs are being met to a far greater degree than was possible in first century Palestine.
I believe that Jesus is challenging us today to follow Him with a deeper commitment, just as He challenged this rich, young man who ran up to question him 2,000 years ago. The precise nature of the challenge is not easy to understand. Certainly, the apostles were quite confused by the advice Jesus gave to this man, because the apostles—like a few Protestant evangelists today—thought that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, so why should anyone give away all of their wealth? Indeed, the apostles themselves became quite worried about how they would attain eternal life, just as we and many others throughout the centuries have pondered the relationship between material wealth and spiritual riches.
St Peter boldly asks: “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” Both St Mark and St Luke have an unnamed apostle ask, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus reassures them that they will receive eternal life because of their commitment to Him. In fact, according to St Matthew, not only will all of those who have followed Jesus “inherit eternal life,” but as for the apostles, Jesus says: “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” That is quite a promise to the apostles. Jesus is linking His rule to the words of Gideon in the book of Judges, chapter 8, verse 23, when Gideon told all of the Hebrew tribes: “The Lord shall rule over you.”
Furthermore, all three gospels then continue with the warning of Jesus to the apostles that He is “about to go up to Jerusalem” to die and be resurrected. Thus it is very important, I think, that this story of the wealthy young man is understood in the context of how Jesus Christ brings eternal life to each of us. Jesus Christ is concerned in this story not so much with personal wealth as with personal commitment to Him. Jesus was showing this rich, devout Jew that wealth was blocking him from eternal life.
To conclude, the issue for each of us to deal with now is perhaps not so much wealth but whatever obstacle is blocking us from becoming more deeply committed to Jesus Christ. Is there anything in our lives that is more important than eternal life? Each of us, including myself, needs to face, privately in confession (rather than publicly), whatever in our lives is causing us not to be deeply committed to eternal life, to the life that Jesus Christ intends for each of us. Thus I think what Jesus Christ is saying to us now is precisely what St Matthew tells this young man: “If you wish to be complete . . . come, follow me.” Therefore, the message to us today is the same message as to this wealthy man, but this message is not necessarily about wealth. The message, as far as I can understand it, is simply: Let us leave behind whatever is blocking us from following Jesus Christ.
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 the ages of ages. Amen.