01 - Sell Your Goods: Sept 7, 2008

I Corinthians 15:1-11

Matthew 19:16-26

Jesus is speaking to each one of us when he says to the rich young man in this morning’s Gospel: “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your goods and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” We may or may not be rich in money; but are we not rich in our love for what money can buy: goods to indulge our lust for the flesh and our love for the world? It’s this greed for the goods of the world and the energy we devote to acquiring them compared to the energy we devote to prayer and fasting, the study of Holy Scripture and the teachings of the Church in the desire for a clean heart and a new and right spirit that makes us the rich young man in this morning’s Gospel. When we devote our energy to acquiring the goods of the world, and precious little if any to prayer and fasting under the guidance of the Church, we show that we do not love God but ourselves and our worldly riches. In this, we are closer to being in the image and likeness of the prince of darkness than in the image and likeness of Christ God who made us and then refashioned us in his Holy Pascha.

The command to “sell all your goods and give to the poor” is in essence the call to take up the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting and to practice the commandments of Christ in the desire to acquire the love of Christ; for as Christ says: “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The Savior’s words that preface this command, “If you wish to be perfect,” show that when we do take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church, then we are becoming perfect: i.e. healthy, complete, whole; for, we are beginning to live according to our nature that was made in the image and likeness of God. And since becoming “perfect” or whole is a “good” thing, when Jesus commands the rich young man to “go sell your goods and give to the poor and come follow me,” he is in fact proclaiming his Gospel, his Good News, to the rich young man, saying to him in effect: “Repent, because the Kingdom of God is near.” Why would you want the world when God himself is at hand? Why would you want imprisonment when the prison doors are open before you? Why would you want darkness and death when light and life are shining all around you?

There is to be sure a heavenly vision in the Savior’s command to the rich young man that is opened to us when we reflect on it against that moment when Jesus began preaching his Gospel. That moment was his baptism by John the Baptist. Jesus’ baptism, it so happens, was our assigned Scripture reading last Tuesday. So, let’s reflect on Jesus’ baptism to see what heavenly vision we might uncover in Jesus’ command to the rich young man to sell his goods and give to the poor. Perhaps, if I am successful at all in conveying even a glimpse of the beauty of that heavenly vision, our reaction to the Savior’s command will be different than that of the rich young man in this morning’s Gospel.

There are many parallels to be found in Jesus’ baptism and Adam’s creation; but this is the one that particularly arrests my attention this morning. The first Adam, after God breathed into his nostrils the Spirit of Life so that he became a living soul, was led by God into the Garden. Jesus, the Second Adam, after the Holy Spirit descends on him to bear witness to him as the only-begotten Son of God, the Way, the Truth and the Life, is led by the Spirit into the desert. Like the first Adam who was with the beasts in the Garden the Second Adam also is with the beasts, except that he is with the beast in the desert. Do you see the parallel between the desert into which Jesus, the Second Adam, was led by the Spirit and the Garden in which the first Adam, having been made a living soul by the Spirit, was placed? The parallel suggests that the desert into which Jesus is led by the Spirit is in its spiritual significance the Garden of Eden that has been made barren like a desert because of man’s transgression. In the Garden, the first Adam encountered the prince of darkness and was tempted by him in the form of a serpent, and he fell – in less than a day according to certain fathers of the Church. The Second Adam encountered the same prince of darkness in the desert and was tempted by him for forty days, yet he did not fall. Far from it: instead, he made the prince of darkness to fall as he said later to his disciples, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning.”

If the desert into which Jesus is led by the Spirit is the Garden of Eden that has become a desert, then according to the Church’s liturgical and spiritual traditions, it means that the desert into which Jesus is led by the Spirit is an image of the human heart that has become barren like a desert,[1] filled with demons, for the Garden of Eden is taken in the Church’s spiritual texts as an icon of the human heart. In the desert, Jesus overthrows the prince of darkness. His victory over Satan in the desert is the re-conquest of Eden and the expulsion from the human heart of the devil and all his hosts and his pride that lurked there. Christ’s victory in the desert fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah: he whom the Church poetically describes as a precious rose born in the cave,[2] makes the desert, creation and the human heart, to blossom like a rose – just as they did in the beginning when He first planted the Garden of Eden to the East: a prophetic pre-figurement of His Holy Pascha in the last days, when as the God-man, the Second Adam, he would trample down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestow life. From the desert, the Lord answers the Psalmist’s plea: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right Spirit within me. Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” It is in this victory over Satan in the desert that the Savior comes into Galilee preaching the Gospel of repentance, proclaiming that the “moment is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is near.” Or as given in a Christmas hymn of the Church: “Bethlehem has opened Eden!”[3] This is the Gospel that Christ proclaims to the rich young man in this morning’s Gospel when he commands him: “Sell your goods and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven and come, follow me.”

But is it possible to sell all your goods, to deny our love for the flesh if there is no love for God in our heart? And is it possible to love God if one has never seen him, or if he is but himself a mean, self-absorbed tyrant, like we have become through our self-love? I think not; and so the Church at the beginning of the Church year elevates Christ’s holy Cross for all the rich young men and women to see who have eyes to see, and she sets before our eyes the image of Christ crucified. It is in this Gospel of a God who so loved the world that he emptied himself to the point of death on the Cross[4] that he might share wholly in our poverty and make our clay godlike through his union with it and partaking of it[5] that the Church calls out to all the rich young men and women of the world: “Sell your goods and give to the poor. Come and see! We have found joy in secret. Paradise is opened to us! Christ has made himself in the form of a creature of vile clay. By sharing in that which is worse, even our flesh, he has made us partakers of the divine nature! Come, let us take possession of the paradise that is within the cave – in the desert. For, of his own will he has been born from a Maiden that he may establish a path for us to mount to heaven.”[6] Eden that was a desert has been made a Garden again, so that we can become once again gardeners of immortal plants.[7]

Here in the Church is revealed what is hidden to the eyes of the rich, drunk on the love of the flesh, fixated on the pride of the world. It is God’s ineffable love for us by which he suffered the agony of the Cross and died for us. What the Savior commands you and me to do, viz. to sell our goods and give to the poor, is nothing more than what he himself has done for us. His command to sell our goods and to follow him is the call to empty ourselves in love for him as he emptied himself in his love for us, and in this love to come out of ourselves to meet him in the desert of our heart that he has made to blossom like a rose, that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him who died and rose again for us.[8]

When I see before my eyes this Church’s Gospel image of Christ crucified for our sakes, I do indeed wish to be “made perfect”, to be made whole. I find that I yearn to rise from the bed of my love for the world to follow Christ into the desert. But this same wish reveals how sick I am, or rather how rich I am in my love of money and for the pleasures and comforts it can buy. My self-love renders me impotent to deny myself for Christ’s sake and the Gospel’s, to sell my goods, to take up my cross in order to share in the Savior’s voluntary poverty. Thank God for St Paul’s confession for it gives me hope. Like him, in my inner man I will to do the good, but I find in my fleshly members another law that is opposed to the good. The good that I want to do I do not do, viz., to sell all my goods in love for the Savior; and the evil I do not want to do, viz. to fall to the love of the flesh, that is what I do. I see that I am captive to the law of sin or to the riches of sin that dwell in me and are at war with my inner desire to come out into the desert to meet the God who loved me and gave himself for me.[9] Instead, the law of sin that is in my fleshly members leads me away from God and into the darkness of death and corruption. It leads me, that is to say, into the desert, for the desert is the place of death, is it not; and Satan’s dominion is the desert because he is the lord of death, is he not?

Is this why St Paul suddenly cries out: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Could his words not be rendered: who will deliver me from the desert of my soul? Does he cry out in answer to his own question, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” because he sees that the crucified and risen Lord is proclaiming his Gospel from the desert where I lie sick and dying because of my love for the riches of the world, but where Christ stands in triumph over Satan and all his hosts and all his demons and all his pride, trampling down death by his death and giving life to those in the tombs through his obedience to the Father even to the point of death on the Cross?

Beloved faithful, even in the discovery that we do not love God as he commands or even as we would wish in our inner man, that we love the pleasures and comforts of the body, the reputation of our ego, and the riches of the world more than we love God, there is no reason for us to turn away from the Savior in despair as did the rich young man in this morning’s Gospel. There is every reason for us to choose instead to stay at the feet of the Savior and in meekness and in the confession of our sin, to go with him into the desert of our soul and to make our prayer this: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” “O Thou who art a Fire consuming the unworthy, consume me not, O my Creator, but instead enter into my members, my veins, my heart. Consume the thorns of my transgressions. Cleanse my soul and sanctify my reasonings. Illumine my five senses. Nail me to the fear of Thee. Cleanse me, purify me and adorn me. Show me to be a temple of thy one Spirit and not the home of many sins. May every evil thing, every carnal passion, flee from me as from a fire as I become thy tabernacle through communion.”

Beloved faithful, we can make our own these prayers given to us by the Church by resolving that from this day, this hour, this moment to be more conscious of how we spend our money, and strive to spend it in ways that give expression to our desire to love the Savior. We can strive from this day, from this hour, from this moment to “redeem” our time here on earth by giving our empty moments, our “desert” moments no longer to those images and pursuits, those habits, those diversions and distractions that sow in our heart seeds of selfishness and self-pity, of love for the flesh and the pride of the world, but only to those images and pursuits that cultivate in our heart a love for the Savior who has so loved us that he gave himself for us. From this day, from this hour, from this moment, we can resolve to pursue the love of God above all else by taking up our cross in the love of Christ who loved us. We do this by taking up the ascetic disciplines of the Church with the goal of crucifying the desires of our flesh so that there might rise up in us the new man, refashioned and restored through Christ’s Holy Pascha in the image and likeness of God, so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who is living in us and we are living in Christ, in the uncreated light and love of Christ. It is through the ascetic disciplines of the Church that we rise up and make ourselves to walk in the love of Christ. And it is the taste of God’s love for the world and all mankind that we receive when we give our love to him that gives us the desire and the strength to sell our goods and give to the poor and to follow Christ  – i.e. to deny ourselves and to lose our soul for the sake of Christ and his Gospel, that we might fulfill our wish to become “perfect”, whole, complete, by being made partakers of his divine nature, communicants of his uncreated light and life that he has made to blossom in the desert like a rose. Amen.

[1] Cf texts for the Nativity of the Theotokos; e.g. Festal Menaion, pp. 99 & 100. Here, it is human nature that is barren, represented by the barrenness of Anna.

[2] FM, 218

[3] FM, 278

[4] Jn 3:16 & Phil 2:6

[5] FM, p. 275

[6] FM, 271, 275, 278, 270

[7] FM, p. 207

[8] II Cor 5:15

[9] Rm 7:16ff.