1 Timothy 1.15-17

Luke 18.18-30

When a woman falls deeply in love with the man who loves her, and she is affianced to him, everything, even her loving him with all her heart, is preparation for that sacred moment in the bridal chamber when her love for Him is consummated, when it becomes incarnate, and she becomes one with Him body and soul. She becomes bone of His bones, flesh of His flesh, spirit of His Spirit. But what if on the wedding night, she does not want to follow him into the bridal chamber and leaves him to consummate her love for another man? Is it not revealed that her love for the Bridegroom was feigned, that she was drawing near to him with her mouth and honoring him with her lips, but in her heart she was far from him? [Isa 29.13]

Dear faithful, Zaccheus Sunday is but two Sundays away. That means we open the Lenten Triodion in just three weeks; and that means that Great Lent is ‘at hand.’ This is a pre-Lenten Gospel showing us what Great Lent is all about. But this Gospel anticipates Holy Week as well.

We need go no further than the prayers of preparation for Holy Communion to see this Gospel as a mirror of Holy Thursday. ‘When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of the feet [on Holy Thursday], then the ungodly Judas was stricken with love of money. And he delivered the righteous Judge to the lawless judges. O lover of money! Behold him who for the love of money hanged himself. Flee from that insatiable soul that dared such things against the Master!’

‘Flee that insatiable soul!’ the prayer says. This is what Great Lent is all about: fleeing the love of riches that makes us betray the Bridegroom and then go out and hang ourselves. But if love of money is but the outer form of love for the invisible riches of the world – lust, greed, anger, envy, laziness, scorn, contempt, and all the rest – then I may understand that I am the rich ruler. Each one of us needs to look to ourselves to see if the self-righteous pride of those who are at ease is not the spirit active in our soul, that we may flee the greed of the rich ruler.

See how this rich ruler approached the Master: ‘Good teacher,’ he says; ‘what shall I do to gain eternal life? I have kept all the commandments from my youth up!’ Can you not hear the presumption of self-righteous entitlement in how the rich ruler sidles up to the LORD as though he was one of the LORD’s best pupils? Can you not see in this a dark reflection of Judas approaching the Savior in the Garden and betraying Him with a kiss?

Compare this to how the Church directs us to approach the LORD: ‘O Master, LORD Jesus Christ our God, incline Thine ear to me and hear my words. I have sinned, O LORD and I am not worthy to gaze upon the height of Thy glory!’ ‘It is not as one presumptuous that I draw nigh to Thee, O Christ my God, but as one taking courage in Thine ineffable goodness, that I may not become a prey to the spiritual wolf.’

All these things I have kept from my youth, says the rich young ruler. These are the words of one who is in love with himself; they are not the words of the bride longing for her beloved Bridegroom. The bride who loves the Bridegroom knows well the one thing she lacks and why: she lacks the Bridegroom, because she has been unfaithful to Him! She strives to do all His commandments because they are given to her by the Bridegroom to help her prepare for the one thing she longs for: becoming one with the Bridegroom, ‘putting on Christ,’ becoming a partaker of His divine nature, becoming bone of His bones, flesh of His flesh, so that it is no longer she who lives but the Bridegroom who lives in her.

It says that the rich ruler was filled with sorrow at the LORD’s word. It’s clear that his sorrow was because he could not have eternal life, nor could he continue to live with his riches. This is the sorrow of greed and of self-righteous entitlement.

One can also hear the beginning of sorrow, I think, in Peter’s alarm (as it is given in other Gospels), when he says, ‘Who, then, can be saved?’ But Peter’s sorrow will come out fully on Great and Holy Friday when he denies the LORD and he goes out weeping bitterly, because he lost Him.

Oh, blessed compassion and mercy of the Savior! It was as impossible for Peter, as it was for the rich ruler, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But the difference between the sorrow of the rich ruler and the sorrow of Peter is absolute, and I offer this as the principal lesson we need to take from this morning’s Gospel. The rich ruler’s sorrow was over the LORD’s command to lose his riches—to lose his life for the sake of Christ. Peter’s was the sorrow of losing the LORD whom he loved.

Blessed is the LORD’s compassion because, ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ The LORD could not save the rich ruler because he didn’t want to be saved if it meant losing his riches. But the LORD was able to save Peter because Peter longed to become one with the Heavenly Bridegroom. His sorrow wasn’t because he couldn’t keep his riches. Those meant nothing to him. As he had said: ‘Did we not leave everything, LORD, to follow you?’ His sorrow was because he had lost the Bridegroom because he was not strong enough, finally, to lose his life for the sake of Christ and His Holy Gospel. In that sorrow, the LORD was able to come to Peter and save him because Peter’s tears flowed from his desire to do what he himself could not do: to become one with Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection in his heart.

Dear faithful, contemplate the story of this morning’s Gospel in this heavenly light and look to yourself to see if that indescribable sweet sorrow of Great Lent is not beginning to stir in your soul. Great Lent, with the ascetical demands of the Great Fast, does it not expose what’s hidden in our heart, that we, in our smug self-righteousness in which we fancy ourselves ‘as though’ we were gods, do not otherwise see? In fact, we do not love Christ as He has loved us. Yes, we have been baptized into Christ; we have been clothed with the Robe of Light, but have we not wandered away like the Prodigal Son and given the ‘riches’ of our inheritance, in many different ways, over to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life, the riches of this world that is passing away? We have become willy-nilly, perhaps imperceptibly, friends with the world and enemies of God.

If this acknowledgement of our soul’s true orientation, however, evokes in us the alarm of St Peter, might it be a sign that, even though we are not strong enough to deny ourselves (rather than Christ) and to lose our life (rather than our riches), there may be the seed of that godly sorrow in us that drew Peter to Christ and saved him? We may take hope in the blessed compassion of the Savior, who gives to us this season of Great Lent to cultivate the tears of contrition, that we may mourn with that blessed mourning that softens the soul, turns her away from trusting in herself to place all her hope in the merciful God, and finally even rolls the stone from the tomb of the heart that the Heavenly Bridegroom may enter and begin to bless even in this life with the riches of eternal life: the riches of His Peace and Joy the world cannot take away. Amen!