01 The Rich Young Man - September 3, 2006

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Matthew 19:16-26


This same story of the rich young man is told by St Mark and St Luke, but neither St Mark nor St Luke includes the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” According to St Mark and St Luke, the Lord says only: “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, honor your father and mother.” But in St Matthew, the Lord adds also: “love your neighbor as yourself.”

We know there are two principal commandments of the bible. When a lawyer asked Jesus which was the great commandment in the Law, Jesus replied by quoting from Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind,” he said. “This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets”.[1] In St Mark and St Luke, both of these commandments are missing in what the Lord says to the rich young man. They are hiding, however, in the Lord’s word to, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor and come, follow me.” This is simply the two commandments in another form to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

But in St Matthew only the ‘great’ commandment is missing: to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind. This means that the rich young man, when he says: “All of these things I have kept from my youth,” has loved his neighbor as himself. How then does he lack only this one thing: to love God with all his heart, soul, strength and mind? Does not St John say that one loves God by loving one’s neighbor? He writes in his first epistle: “How can one say he loves God whom he has not seen if he does not love his brother whom he has seen?”[2] If the rich young man has loved his neighbor as himself, how is it, then, that he has not yet loved God with all his heart, soul, strength and mind? St Matthew, so it would seem, is very clearly teaching us that to love one’s neighbor as oneself still is not enough to make us perfect or whole. It is possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself and still not love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind, and so still lack eternal life. What are we to make of this? This is the question I address this morning.

“Good Teacher” is how the rich young man addresses Jesus. Jesus is addressed by those who come to him to be healed of an infirmity as Lord. The demons call him, “Son of God.” St Peter at one time beseeches him, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” In the Upper Room, when St Thomas beholds him risen from the dead, he falls down and worships him, saying, “My Lord and my God.” It is true that Jesus is sometimes addressed by his disciples as, “Teacher,” but when they call him such, it has a different feel than when the rich young man calls him, “Good Teacher.” They are not calling Jesus ‘teacher’ as one would call the Buddhas, or the yogins of the Upanishads, or Moses and the prophets. All of these teach about ‘God’ – or the Eternal or the Great Compassion – and about the way to God as something they, too, strive for. But Jesus is not such a teacher. Jesus is himself God, the Eternal One, the Greatly Compassionate One – as we sometimes call him in our worship. Jesus is himself the Way to God, as he himself bears witness: “I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[3] In other words, Jesus is the God and the Way to God about whom not only Moses and the prophets, but we could also say the Buddhas and the yogins speak. This would explain why there are so many similarities between the several religions of the Spirit that God has given to us in this world. All of them, for example, have at their heart what Christians call the Golden Rule that the Lord Jesus taught us: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” All of them teach compassion and mercy and forgiveness as indispensable for attaining the Eternal. But that Jesus is the One about whom all the true teachers of the religion of the Spirit are speaking also explains what seems to be unique to Christianity. The God of the bible revealed in Christ is personal, for we worship Jesus as himself the Son of God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity. God is not an impersonal spiritual nature or life force. (To guard against possible confusion among those who are students of world religions, let me point out that while the Upanishads of the Hindu religion speak of Atman as the Self, the Self of Atman is not personal in the manner of the God revealed to us in Christ.) To love God in the way of Christ is to love God himself as a Person. This is why one can love God. He is not an impersonal spirit or life-force; he is personal.

That God himself can be loved, that one can enter into a personal relationship with God: this is the revelation of the Old Testament Law and the experience of the prophets. But not until the coming of Christ is it revealed that God not only can be loved, but that God is love,[4] because God is not just one; he is one nature in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Moreover, in the theological teaching of the Orthodox Church, the oneness of God derives not from the one nature that the three persons of the Holy Trinity are. If that were the case, the divine nature would be, as it were, the foundation of the Godhead, and so God would be primarily impersonal because nature is in itself impersonal. Rather, the oneness of God derives from the fact that it is the person of the Father who is the foundation of the Godhead. The Son of God is begotten of the person of the Father;[5] the Holy Spirit proceeds from the person of the Father.[6] The one nature of God, therefore, is personal; it exists in the three persons of the Holy Trinity, according to the teaching of St Gregory the Theologian.

This may explain why the Lord gives only this commandment to love God with one’s whole heart, soul, strength and mind as the great commandment. The commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself is like the great commandment, but it is not the great commandment. One loves one’s neighbor as oneself in a biblical way only as one’s love for the neighbor proceeds from a love for the God of the bible, and to love the God of the bible is not to love an impersonal spirit or life-force – how can you love something that is impersonal? – but it is to love a personal God, namely the Father in his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and who bears witness to Christ as the Son of the Father. To love one’s neighbor as oneself in this biblical way is to love oneself and one’s neighbor not as impersonal things but as persons of eternal value, each of whom are precious in the sight of the Lord, the personal Lord.

And so, Christ is not a Good Teacher like Moses or the prophets, or even like the Buddha or the yogins of the Upanishads. They teach us about God and the way to God. Jesus is the God and the Way to God about whom they are speaking. Therefore, to follow after Jesus as Jesus commands the rich man to do if he would be perfect or whole is not to master some spiritual technique or meditative practice or method of prayer, nor is it to fulfill perfectly the commandments – do not steal, do not murder, do not commit adultery, even the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself – and then consider oneself spiritual or whole or perfect. One follows after Jesus not to master some spiritual technique, but to discover the Father in a personal way through the Son in the Holy Spirit. From this experience of God as a triune mystery of persons, one’s inner eyes are opened to see the full depth and richness of the unseen personal character that we all are, a personal character that makes each of us a person of eternal value because we are all created in the Image of the personal God; in the Person, specifically, of God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Image of the invisible God.[7]  

When Jesus ends his last command to the rich young man with these words: “Come, follow me,” he shows that this last command, to sell all that you have, is also another way of saying, “Whoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and come, follow me.” We could say that loving one’s neighbor as oneself is the horizontal beam of the cross. But the horizontal beam of the cross is supported by the vertical beam, which is the ‘great’ commandment to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind. The two commandments do indeed go together. Without both commandments, there is no cross to take up. But if we are reading St Matthew aright, he is saying that to take up the cross given us by Christ, we must carry it by laying hold of its vertical beam. Moreover, to that cross, God the Word has affixed himself with the nails voluntarily, freely, by his own will, out of his great love for mankind. So, when we take up our cross in Christ, we are taking up God’s love for us in order to learn how to love a personal God; and, it is in this love for the persons of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit that we learn how to love the neighbor as ourselves in the biblical way, which is a personal way, the Way of the I AM who is the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In this light, we begin to understand the command to sell all that you have as a command to give your love no longer to things because things are impersonal, and you are a person created in the Image of the personal God; you are personal, not impersonal. To be perfect, to be who you are, learn how to be a person. That means, learn how to love others as persons, just as you have been loved as a person in a personal way by the personal God. Learn how to be love as God is love. But again, this lesson is learned only by taking up the great commandment to love God in a personal way with one’s whole heart, soul, strength and mind.

Let me close by suggesting how we can discover the personal mystery of God, or how we can lay hold of the vertical beam of our cross that supports the horizontal beam, and so follow after Christ.

The revelation of the bible is that God the Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that we beheld his glory:[8] we saw God with our own eyes. The personal God continues to become flesh and dwell among us in his Church, which is the ‘body of Christ.’ God the Word is present to us in a material and concrete way in the sacraments and worship of the Church his Bride, in the words of her prayers – and in the icon. When you pray at Church or at home, pray in front of the icon of the Lord Jesus Christ and of his holy Mother, the Theotokos. An icon is not a religious picture. Because it depicts the physical form of the Lord Jesus Christ as he appeared among us in the flesh, the icon manifests the personal presence of the Lord Jesus dwelling among us. So, when you stand before the icon, you are standing in the personal presence of the Lord Jesus. When you look at the icon, you are looking at the Lord Jesus himself face to face.

The Scriptures say we do not know how to pray as we ought. So, the Church gives us prayers to say, so that we can learn how to pray as we ought. When you stand before the icon, say the prayers of the Church. Listen to what you are praying: absorb the words of those prayers into your mind and heart, and with those words address yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ as you look on his face in the icon. With those words, speak to the Lord Jesus as you would if you were standing in his physical, personal presence – because you are.

The Church gives us ascetic disciplines to follow. These ascetic disciplines are meant to help us ‘sell all that we have,’ i.e., to detach ourselves from our love of money and our attachment to material, impersonal things so that we begin to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind and our neighbor as ourselves. According to the way of the Orthodox Church, our practice of these ascetic disciplines is centered on this practice of standing in prayer before the icon of the Lord Jesus Christ as though standing in his physical, personal presence, because we believe that we are. Praying before the icon opens us onto an experience of the personal God; and this experience of the personal God becomes the foundation of our life, the vertical beam of the cross that we plant in the ground of our soul that supports the horizontal beam of our life: loving our neighbor as ourselves out of our love for God the Holy Trinity.

Let us pray God to teach us this love. It is the love that clothed us in our baptism. Let us pray God that we may be granted truly to taste this treasure in heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ himself in the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit, who enters bodily into our members, our veins, our heart in Holy Communion. Even if it is a small taste, may it be enough to set us on fire with love for this God who is love, so much so that we will be willing even to lose our life for his sake that we may find it again in Him.

[1] Mt 22:36-40

[2] I Jn 4:20

[3] Jn 14:6

[4] I Jn 4:8

[5] Jn 1:14

[6] Jn 15:26

[7] Col 1:15

[8] Jn 1:14