Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”
And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He 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.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” (Luke 18:18-27)
To succeed in the world, we need many “good” things. Good grades, good job, good income, good work habits, good credit scores, good schools, good neighborhoods, good opportunities, good family, and maybe some good luck too.
But for all those goods, our Lord Jesus might say, “why do you ask me about what is good?”
For Christ speaks to us about and calls us to a goodness which belongs to God alone. It is not that those goods don’t matter as they do affect our lives. And God knows we need such good things (Matthew 6:32). But they all matter on a relative scale, for Christ tells us there is something greater to strive for, something which benefits us not only for the short time we live on earth, but which is eternally permanent. We don’t have to have all those worldly goods to be good. And even without all those worldly goods, we humans are still offered an even greater good, namely eternal life – a good portion which cannot be taken away from us. As the Lord told Martha in Luke 10:41-42 :
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
We don’t come to Christ in order to have our beliefs reaffirmed or are thoughts validated or to learn what we can learn anywhere else in the world. We come to Christ to discover what we don’t know – about life and eternal life. We come to Him to seek what is missing from our lives, what we hope for but don’t have [“For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24)] The person in today’s Gospel knew the Law and how to keep the Law and how to accumulate wealth. But he didn’t know the way to eternal life. This is why he came to Jesus in the first place. It is why we come to Christ, and come to the Liturgy, not just to be told what we already believe and know, but to learn what is missing from our lives. How do we find our way to eternal life? What do I lack? What do I need? What do I have to change to find eternal life?
Jesus says we are to follow Him. Not to just do the things that everyone in the world does, but to learn what is missing in our life. How do I get Christ to come and live in me? How do I become like God in what I do? In the Liturgy, we come to behold Christ so that we can see what we need to change in our thinking, in our habits, in our attitudes, in our behavior, in our faith, in what we do daily so that we can find what this person in the Gospel was seeking.
Are we ready for that next level? We might honestly say to Christ, I do keep the Ten Commandments – I haven’t murdered anyone, nor stolen anything, nor committed adultery or told any lies. What else do I need to do?
And then we have to be prepared to hear Christ’s answer and to live it. We have to be far more ready to deal with the shock wave which is the Gospel commandments than this person who came to talk to Christ in the Gospel lesson. The way to the kingdom is not in the things we love so much and value so much and strive to get so much. We have to seek first the kingdom of God, and that is as big a challenge to us as it was to this rich person who came to talk to Christ. The little things we are asked to do as Orthodox Christians – to fast, deny the self, to practice self control, to resist our temptations – are the baby steps we take to move beyond this world into that eternal life.
This person in today’s Gospel, was very obedient to God’s commandments, yet still lacked something. The man had a heart condition but not one that could be corrected by diet or exercise. This person saw religious perfection only in terms of rigorously following the commandments of God. Jesus tried to get this person to see that religion is more a matter of the heart. It is not pure obedience that God willed for His creatures. God wants us to be like God. To care about something beyond our self and beyond our immediate gratification. This person in the Gospel was quite willing to obey God as long as he was richly rewarded for doing so. But to give up his riches, this was beyond what he was prepared to do because it was only to get more riches that he obeyed God at all. He had turned God into his servant.
The Prophet Habakkuk said:
Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)
Unlike the rich person in today’s Gospel, Habakkuk says even if he is not wealthy, even if he is in miserable poverty and hungry, yet he will rejoice in the Lord. It is a stark contrast to the rich man who was only willing to rejoice in his wealth and prosperity.
Do we each have such faith that no matter how good or bad things are going, we still rejoice in the Lord? Do we have such love for God that even when things are going badly, we still rejoice in the Lord?
What Jesus asks is “what do you really treasure in your heart?” We have to think whether we want God to be our servant giving us all we want, or whether we want to be His servant, no matter what condition we find ourselves in. How can we seek God rather than just seek the things God might give us?