24th Sunday after Pentecost – Orthodox Homily on The Rich Ruler

Today’s Gospel relates the true story of a ruler who’s kept the major commandments of God but neglected the conversion of his soul.  In the eyes of the world, the ruler is a ‘good,’ upstanding man.  He’s outwardly followed the commandments and not committed any of the ‘big sins.’  But he comes to Jesus looking to be reaffirmed, justified in his own righteousness and self-reliance, thinking that he’s already ‘arrived,’ and that there’s nothing else God can expect of him.  

Now before we delve into Christ’s answer to the ruler’s question, “what still do I lack?” we can acknowledge the man’s outward keeping of the commandments, i.e., he’s not stolen, he’s not committed adultery, he’s not defrauded his neighbor, etc.  This is right.  This is ‘moral’, ‘God-fearing.’ Yes, but this is not all that God desires for us; keeping the commandments outwardly before God is only the start and notthe finish line of our ‘race of faith,’ of our relationship and communion with God, of what it means to be truly human.  

Recognizing this helps us understand Christ’s response.  The ruler comes confidently, even pridefully, before Christ, as if to flatter Him, but he fails to acknowledge Who the Christ really is. He entrusts to the Lord the ultimate question, that of eternal life, one only God can answer, but without acknowledging Christ’s power to answer that all-important question.  He says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer he gets startles him: he’s not told, “Oh, you’re already so good, why would you need anything else?” No, Christ shakes him to the core, saying, “Why do you call Megood?  No one is good but One, that is God.”

Now, Christ isn’t saying that He’s not God here.  Rather, He’s correcting the man’s first error: he addresses the God of creation, the Word of God incarnate, as, simply,“Good teacher.”  If Christ is merely a “good teacher,” or a prophet, or a moral figure, as some think of Him today, then He cannot answer that ultimate question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  No, only God can answer a question of such personal weight and eternal significance. Only God can so judge a man’s soul.  If you fail to recognize who Christ God is, the Ever-Existing One, if you fail to grasp the priority of putting Him first, of communion with Him, then you have nothing: no amount of civility, “goodness”, or self-improvement can save you because you do not knowGod.    

Wrapped up in Christ’s challenge to this man is His revelation, the fulfilling of the Gospel: Salvation isn’t a duty, a set of morals, but a gift of grace and God’s mercy toward us.  So, the correct response and attitude toward Him is one of thanksgiving and gratitude, coupled with repentance, a hallmark of the virtue of humility working in us.  We cannot save ourselves; we aren’t saved by our deeds, however ‘good.’  Rather, our following the commandments is the fruit of a heart, a soul, submitted to God, thirsting for God, desiring life withGod, learning to love God.  As Christ shows, if goodness—doing one’s ‘duty’ toward God, were the criterion, no one would be saved because One alone is good and that One is God. This is the point of Christ’s response, saying, “Why do you call Me good?  No one is good but One, that is God.”  

In one fell swoop, Christ debunks a philosophy still so prevalent in our own day: that one is automatically going to heaven if one is ‘good,’ if one has done one’s ‘duty,’ as we subjectively decide these terms for ourselves.  This false notion continues to be one of the greatest heresies to this day. But this same philosophy is at work when we seek to minimize our sins: justifying ourselves, e.g., “Oh, it’s only a ‘white’ lie” or “I wasn’t really sinning in my impatience and anger because he had it coming.”  Or, I really haven’t committed any ‘major’sins.  

No, it isn’t a question of insufficient ‘goodness’ that is God’s criterion, as much as it is one of trying to put a square peg in a round hole—it doesn’t fit; it’s not what’s necessary for us to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven; it’s the answer of the Phariseeand not that of the Publican.  

We remember that King David, an adulterer and a murderer, one who did notkeep the ‘outward’ commandments, nevertheless found forgiveness and mercy from God because, as he relates to us in Psalm 50, “a contrite and humble heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.”  For this reason, the Church’s morning prayers prompt us to pray Psalm 50 every day, to remind us of this disposition of heart you and I so desperately need to be with God and inherit eternal life with Him.  

Without honest acknowledgement of sin, without a firm commitment to repentance and growth in communion with Christ, and the accompanying contrition and humility of heart, one simply cannot draw closer to God and find salvation.  Why?  Because it’s this repentant, open and humble heart that is God-pleasing, that’s compatible with life and communion with God.  Such a heart is truly hungering and thirsting after more of God and building up treasure in heaven.

The problem of the ruler, then, is not what he’s doneor not done, but what he still neglects: theconversion of his soul, a change of heart through repentance.  He has another god: it’s not as is sometimes thought onlyhis riches, but also his self-justification, his own erroneous thinking that he’s ‘good enough’ as he is.  Christ God sees into his heart and for that reason, addresses the very thing that will keep this man from being able to follow Him and be with Him: his self-reliance.  His riches are what feeds this self-reliance and self-righteousness.  For this reason, to enable the ruler to depend on God for His salvation, his needs, his very life-breath, Christ admonishes him to give away his possessions and, then,to follow Him.  The Lord makes it clear to us, in keeping with the First of the Ten Commandments, that we can have “no other gods” but Him.  He alone is God.  In his heart, the young ruler has another god: his self-reliance and his riches.  His heart is not yet converted, not yet thirsting for more of God, for life with God.

One of the greatest impediments to salvation is complacency and satisfaction with “where one is at spiritually”: we cannot embrace the life in Christ, communion with Him, if our treasure, our heart, is in our own self-reliance, self-righteousness, or self-satisfaction.  If we follow the ‘externals’ of God’s commandments and the Orthodox Faith and stop at ‘doing our duty’ before God, if our reliance and priorities are elsewhere, then we have no room for Christ to be God and Savior.  Simply put, we too make of God Incarnate just a “good teacher.”  In this context Christ affirms, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God.”  The problem isn’t the man’s riches, per say, but his dependence on them, on himself, rather than on God.

Our Lord Jesus Christ knows how much of a hold our sense of material well-being, our self-righteousness can have on us, and, how it can insulate us against the need to put our trust and our faith in Him, to possess that contrite and humble heart we need to be in Christ God’s near presence, to realize Who it is alone Who can save us, heal us, and grant us eternal life with Him.  

The young man departs in sorrow from his encounter with Christ because he realizes that the very thing that defines him, his ‘treasure’, is, in reality, his material well-being and self-reliance: this is precisely what he’s asked to give up in order to free his soul and inherit eternal life.  

We’re given the opportunity this Sunday to ask ourselves: Do I have anything in my life that I love more than God, that I rely on in my self-reliance and control instead of trusting in Him?  Have I put any other gods before Him: My time? My priorities?  My work?  My self-reliance?  My earthly possessions?  My passions?  Have I followed the externals of the Orthodox Faith while neglecting the inner meaning of the Commandments and the conversion of my soul?

Whatever that something may be that seems impossible to relinquish because of the false sense of ‘control’ it gives us, repent and confess it remembering Christ’s other words today, “The things which are impossible for men are possible with God.”  

Fr. Robert Miclean

Holy Archangels Orthodox Church

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Epistle:            Eph. 2:14-22Gospel:            Luke 18:18-27