Sermon for the 29th Sunday after Pentecost: The Rich Young Man (2018)
Salvation is impossible without God. Of course, we say, this is perfectly logical. But do we feel this reality? Do we really feel how helpless we are without God? Do we really feel our poverty? Or do we feel ourselves rich? We must constantly examine ourselves with heedfulness and care, lest we be found to entertain a proud and vain and self-reliant mindset. We must search our hearts with sobriety, honesty and humility, lest we be found under the condemnation of the Lord Who spoke to those in the Book of Revelation:
“You say of yourself, ‘I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing’; yet you know not that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.”
If we feel ourselves so, then blessed are we. Even so, many of us may feel these words too true of ourselves; many of us might despair because we are constantly coming into contact with the reality of our wretchedness. Therefore, we need care to avoid the pitfall which lies opposite of pride—despair.
Sometimes it seems that we change with the wind. One moment we are happy, the next we are sad, the next we are irritable; one moment we are weeping, the next minute we are condemning, one moment we have tenderness for all, the next moment we want to scream or hit someone. It is difficult to be tossed to and fro by every wind. It is difficult to be constantly afflicted with overwhelming feeling of our wretchedness and poverty. But maybe this is the only thing which makes us seek God. Maybe we could not be saved other than this.
Do we really comprehend the mysterious ways of our God? Do we not realize that the most long-suffering Lord will endure any sin from us, as long as we are humbled thereby, brought to contrition and a knowledge of our poverty? His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts.
Sometimes we want quick success. We would like deep interior transformation of our hearts with ease and painlessness and a feeling of assurance. It is hard to bear our spiritual poverty. We want to feel good, comfortable, and to have confidence in ourselves. But let us remember the word of the Saints: “If you now feel yourself condemned, you will go away free at the Judgment.” St. Paul says this too, “when we are judged,” that is, in this life at the moment of trial and the encounter with our sin and the moment which calls us to repent, “when we are judged here, it is so we will not be condemned with the world.”
The Lord calls us in today’s Gospel to “sell all that we have, to give to the poor and to follow Him.” What are we to sell? Our riches. What are our riches? This differs from person to person. Is the Lord simply saying that we are to rid ourselves of money and physical possessions, and then we are ok? No, if it was, there would not be any monks in hell; for they have taken up a life of poverty. But the monastic vow of poverty is not simply concerned with physical things. It is a whole manner of life, a whole disposition. And this is demanded of all Christians. Therefore, we must ask ourselves: “What are my riches?” More specifically: “What are the riches I have which place a wall between me and the Lord? What is it which I love more than God? What is it that, even when confronted with death, I will not let go of?”
Some of us are rich in opinions. Some in high thoughts, a high opinion of ourselves, a deluded image of ourselves compared to others. Some of us are rich in inward attachments. Some of us love some person in this world more than God. Some of us love books, some of us love speaking, some of us love our own way, some of us love our job, some sports, some music, some object. Some of us love our imaginations, some those nostalgic memories of the past, days gone by, romantic feelings of some time or place in our past life. Whatever it is which distracts us from God easily becomes an idol. Our Christian faith is not mediocre, it is not lukewarm, it is not half-and-half. Christ Jesus says, “sell all,” not “sell some.” Christ says “deny yourself, take up your cross,” not “oh, it’s okay, you can pamper yourself a little, and just do what is comfortable and makes you feel good.”
Our God is an extreme God. He says, “I am a jealous God!” He says, “give Me your heart—give Me all—love Me with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength.” Our Faith demands an extreme transformation from us, a total repentance, a holiness beyond spot. However, we cannot attain this in one moment, we cannot attain to this overnight. The high calling of Christ is indeed a tall order, but a whole life time is given to us in order that we might ascend more and more.
This is all well and good, we say, but the reality is, I am utterly weak, I constantly fall. How can I make a beginning? How can I overcome my wretchedness? What must I do, we ask, with the rich young man of today’s Gospel. All of these questions are indeed justifiable. However, they all revolve around our own selves—what can I do? How can I overcome this or that? As long as we are stuck mentally in this endless rotation around ourselves—what we can do, what we can achieve—salvation will always remain an impossible thing for us.
The Apostles marvel today in the Gospel: “who then can be saved?” Christ God says simply, “with men this is impossible…but with God, all things are possible.” Do we really believe this? Do we truly believe Christ when He says, “without Me you can do nothing?” This of course does not mean that we sit back, take it easy and expect God to work wonders without our efforts. But it does mean what the Psalmist says, “if the Lord builds not the house, in vain do they labor who build it.” The Church teaches us in Her hymns that if the Holy Spirit does not perfect our labors, they will be fruitless. How do we mix this most essential element with our feeble labors? How do we get the Holy Spirit to infuse our every thought, feeling, word, deed, attitude and prayer?
Christ teaches us that we must simply ask for the Holy Spirit. He says to us: “if you being evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father, He Who alone is Good, Goodness Himself, Source of Goodness and beyond every human conception of goodness, how much more will He give the Gift of the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.” Elsewhere Christ teaches us that the Father “will give us the Holy Spirit through His Name.” “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Is this not the prayer which opens heaven? Is this not the prayer which calls down God’s grace at every moment? Is this not the prayer which unlocks the all-merciful bosom of the most-loving Father of all mankind, especially of those who believe in His Son, and those who are united to His Holy Church as His children?
This does not mean that help comes quickly, or when we will it, or in some manifest vision or powerful feeling or miraculous event. Did not St. Monica pray for 20 years before her beloved son Augustine, now a Saint of the Church, finally repented? Did not the prophets cry out their whole life time, “O Lord, bow down the heavens and come down and save us!” Did they not pray this for a whole lifetime, and was it not only hundreds of years later until their prayer was answered, when the Lord came down incarnate and descended into hades and came to them and lifted them up to Paradise? Were not Adam and Eve promised the coming of the Christ when the Lord spoke to them about the Seed of the woman, which can only mean, the offspring of a Virgin? But how long did it take until this promise was fulfilled? 5500 years later it was fulfilled.
The Lord calls us to sell all. First and foremost, we must sell all our self-wisdom, our opinion of how things should be and what should take place and when. How God should act and the timing He should do it. We must also sell our own self-confidence, that is, our trust in our own power, ability, cleverness, intelligence, supposed theology, our own asceticism, even our own prayer. We must constantly come to face the reality that we might be self-deceived, that we just do not see things the way they really are. St. Ignaty Brianchaninov says that everyone—sinner or saint—is in at least some sort of delusion. What does he mean? He means that we do not see and know yet as God does. Because we do not yet possess His heart, His love, and therefore, our minds have not been fully baptized in the illuminating light of this divine love, and therefore, we do not yet possess perfect divine vision. Even so, no one will ever see and know as perfectly as God does, no matter how perfected they become. Yet we are nonetheless called to constantly seek greater illumination and union with God and the greatest likeness to Him as far as is possible for us created beings.
Abba Isaac says that repentance is needed from all—saint and sinner. Because repentance is not just feeling bad about what we did, it is not beating ourselves up, and it is definitely not driving ourselves to despair and paralyzing ourselves so that we cannot even pray. Repentance is a liberating opportunity to cast aside our falsehood, our own self-confidence. It is a moment which invites us to freedom in God, to cast aside the delusion that we are okay. Repentance is an ever-open door which graciously beckons us to confess our weakness, our poverty, our failures, and to lay aside our trust in ourselves and to turn our hearts to the all-powerful grace of God, that we might be conformed more and more to Him. But if we love our own wisdom, our own self-image, our own abilities, our own religiousness, our own theology, our own way and opinion, then when we hear this joyous invitation to follow Christ, we will become sorrowful, because Christ first says, “sell all,” before He says, “and follow Me.”
The Saints teach that if we become sorrowful for any reason it is a sign that we have some passion. Many of us do not need to be reminded of just how many passions we have. This is more than apparent to us as we struggle day to day to keep our peace, to repent, to pray and to conform ourselves to Christ. But there is hope for us who are weak. There is hope for us who are sick. There is hope for us who are sinners. Christ says that He has come not for the righteous, and nor for the healthy, but for the sinners, and for the sick. The problem is when we see ourselves as righteous and healthy. Christ did not come for the righteous, He came for those who need Him. St. Paul says, “you see your calling brethren, that not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble after the flesh are called. But God has chosen the weak things, and those things which are not, to put to shame the wise and mighty of this world, so that no one should glory in His presence.”
Even so, even if we find ourselves to be afflicted with a high opinion of ourselves, with self-trust, with pride and confidence in our own strength, when we realize this, and confess this, then we become those weak and helpless ones who are able to receive the help of the Lord.
We are constantly offered every moment as an opportunity to wake up, to realize how far we are from the Lord, and to fall down before Him, confessing our weakness, confessing our poverty, and seeking His help. We must fall down, in our icon corners, and always in our hearts, before the Most High Lord. We must constantly offer to Him every thought, every feeling, every moment. For this we have the Jesus Prayer or other short prayers from the Psalms or prayer-books which touch our hearts and are meaningful to us. But if we fritter away our time by daydreaming, by building castles in the sky, by forming a whole sticky maze of complex thoughts and fantasies, then we will miss every present moment which is an opportunity to draw ever closer to the Lord. Let us wake up before death meets us. Because when death meets us, we will all call out, “Lord save me! Lord help me!”
Therefore, let us die daily, as St. Paul says, let us die to our self-confidence, to our laziness, to our inaction, to our pride, to our fantasy, and let us offer the fruit of our lips as an offering, as St. Paul says, confessing to His name, and let us constantly seek to fix our minds on God and to beg Him—Who is the Way Itself—to take us by the hand and guide us, for we are blind and poor, and will always remain so unless we beg for His help, for He alone is King, He alone is rich, He alone is all-knowing. He alone is our Sinless and Perfect God, Who constantly and fervently desires our union with Him more than we can ever imagine: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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