"What Good Thing Shall I Do, That I May Have Eternal Life?" - A Homily on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost

"What Good Thing Shall I Do, That I May Have Eternal Life?" - A Homily on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost - Holy Cross Monastery


Around the year 271, there was a young man who lived in Lower Egypt, born to wealthy landowner parents, both of whom only then recently died, leaving the young man to care for his little sister and the upkeep of the family home. This young man went to church one day, and while there he heard the Gospel which we have just heard. Writing about this experience, his friend says that the young man realized this passage had been read for his sake and he immediately left the church, gave away all the land that he had inherited and then sold his possessions, distributing the money to the poor, and saving some for his sister. This young man we know as St. Antony the Great, and his friend and biographer is St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Originally, St. Antony’s Life was written in Greek, but within twenty years it was translated twice into Latin and then also into Coptic and Syriac and became the impetus for many who desired that perfection which comes to those who leave their homes to make the desert a city.


At the beginning of this Gospel passage, we find a young man approaching Christ to ask Him the question we all have had, “what good thing shall I do, that I may inherit eternal life?” Christ answers and cites the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. The young man responds saying that he has kept all of these even from his youth up to the present day and with further persistence he asks, “What lack I yet?” to which Jesus responds, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matthew 19.21).

“If thou wilt be perfect”

The spiritual life is oft described as an ascent, or as a ladder or as steps which lead one nearer to Christ. St. John Climacus frequently speaks of the beginning, the middle, and the end in relation to one’s spiritual life regarding the passions and the virtues (26.75).[1] In today’s Gospel, the young man approaches Christ indicating that he is one who is closer to the end, closer to maturity and perfection having fulfilled the Decalogue and that continuously from an early age. Therefore, Christ responds regarding Christian maturity, “If thou wilt be perfect.”

I. Christ’s Compassion

St. John Chrysostom considers this man to be sincere and that he was not trying to trick Christ by his question or else he would not have left sorrowing. What is more, Christ responds to this young man in a way which indicates how much Christ loves him. He does not only say “go and sell [what] thou hast, and give to the poor” but includes the “prize” as St. John says, the prize of first, being perfect and second, which speaks exactly to this young man’s passion, “Thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” Continuing, St. John says,

For since his discourse was of money, even of all did [Christ] advise him to strip himself, showing that he loses not what he hath, but adds to his possessions, [Christ] gave him more than He required him to give up; and not only more, but also as much greater as Heaven is greater than earth, and yet more so… But He called it a treasure, showing the plenteousness of the recompense, its permanency, its security, so far as it was possible by human similitudes to intimate it to the hearer.[2]

Jesus’ final response, as we read in the Gospel of Matthew, only discloses that Christ offers an answer to this young man’s enquiry, albeit a benevolent and kindhearted answer, however, Mark the Evangelist writes that, “Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him…” (Mark 10.21). Throughout the Gospels, Christ not only reveals Himself to be the Messiah through what He does and says, He also demonstrates that He loves his creation, He loves humanity, even when they cannot accept His teaching,

  1. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!” (Luke 13.34) and
  2. at seeing his friends Mary and Martha weeping over the death of their brother and His friend, Lazarus, the Beloved Apostle notes, “When Jesus therefore saw [Martha and Mary] weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with [them], [Jesus] groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.” (John 11.33), and
  3. like this young man who will retreat back into the darkness of his passions, Mark writes, “Jesus beholding him loved him” (Mark 10.21).

II. Perfection Defined

Throughout the New Testament, perfection is spoken of as the end goal of the Christian life, which one should be continually striving for.

“If thou wilt be perfect” ει θελεις τελειος ειναι, if you are willing to be τελειος - perfect, mature, complete, brought to the end, full grown - this is the meaning the authors of the New Testament give to this word.

  • Be ye therefore perfect (τελειος), says Christ - Matt. 5.48
  • Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men (τελειος), writes the Apostle Paul - 1 Cor. 14.20
  • Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man (τελειος), unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, the Apostle writes again - Eph. 4.13

In The Stromata, written at the end of the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria, writes about those who seek to be perfect, saying, “to be simply saved is the result of medium actions, but to be saved rightly and becomingly is right action, so also all the action of the [Perfect] may be called right action; that of the simple believer, intermediate action, not yet made right according to knowledge…”(VI.14)

III. Perfection and Elder Zosima

Another example of one believed to have come close to perfection is Elder Zosima whom we read about in the life of St. Mary of Egypt. His life is similar to this young man in that both the elder and the young man are looking for perfection. Elder Zosima struggled with the thought that he was perfect in everything and that there was no man who surpassed him.

These two men desired eternal life but, as we shall see, they come with two different dispositions which leads to two different outcomes.

We may recall that the Elder was handed over to a monastery as soon as he was taken from his mother’s breast and remained there until the age of fifty-three. We are then told:

…he began to be tormented with the thought that he was perfect in everything and needed no instruction from anyone, saying to himself mentally, “Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?”[3]

When he meets St. Mary of Egypt, Elder Zosima realizes that he has not attained perfection and is ashamed and fearful before the holiness of her. However, he does not turn away sorrowful but instead he is humbled and perseveres.

IV. Perfection Is a Choice

St. John Chrysostom notes that when Jesus addresses the young man concerning perfection, He does it as one who advises and exhorts. At first, He gives the Law, quoting from the Decalogue, because all that is in it must be fulfilled by everyone without fail. However, St. John says, regarding perfection, Christ only advises and admonishes, because He leaves it to His listener to choose to obey or not, and it is the listener who has the power to accept or not accept because it depends on his will.[4]


The twenty-six rungs of the ladder of divine ascent are not traversed in one step, nor is Christian maturity attained in one moment but there is a shorter path to perfection and there is a longer path to perfection and each of us need to discern which path to navigate and then not deviate. The young man in the Gospel was told of the path of perfection but turned back in shame. Elder Zosima was shown to fall short of perfection but repented and strove harder. St. Antony, never turned back and left us with a life demonstrating that perfection is possible.

Fathers and Brothers, Mother and sisters, friends, no one else can make you perfect; no one can make you repent; no one can make you confess. The Creator of Heaven and earth has become Man. This Man Jesus Christ offers His body and blood for our perfection, of which we are about to partake. What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? May we seek our perfection.




[1] The Ladder of Divine Ascent, of mortification 4.4; of freedom from anger 8.4; of patience 8.25; of purity 15.8; of the conquest of vainglory 22.39; stages of pride 23.2.

[2] Cf. St. John Chrysostom, Homily LXIII in “Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew”, Philip Schaff ed. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999) 10:387ff.

[3] Cf. The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt at http://stmaryofegypt.org/files/library/life.htm, accessed on 8/26/2023.

[4] Cf. https://bible.optina.ru/new:mf:19:21, last accessed on 8/26/2023.

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