|20 - Certain Rich Ruler, Jan 15, 2017 (with audio)|
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When he heard from the LORD what he must do to inherit eternal life, it says that this rich young ruler became sorrowful because he was very rich. He loved his money so much that he didn’t want to give it up for the sake of following the LORD Jesus. In the other Gospels, we’re told that the rich young ruler walked away in his sorrow. But, let us note that he was not forced to walk away from Jesus; he chose to give in to his sorrow and walk away. I mean to draw attention to the man’s will.
Now, the love of money, writes St Paul, is the root of all evil (I Tim 6:10). He goes on to say: “While some coveted money, they have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.”
Now, from the same chapter of the same epistle we read this morning, St Paul says that covetousness – a different word than the word in Timothy but which has a broader meaning – is idolatry (Col 3:5). Love of money, then, is covetousness, which is idolatry. The rich young ruler’s love or covetousness for his money, then, reveals his idolatry. His sorrow, then, was that had to give up his idols and follow Jesus in order to inherit eternal life. (Note that the man does not ask what he must do to follow Jesus; only what he must do to inherit eternal life, showing that he does not believe in Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life).
But now, St Maximus the Confessor teaches us that the root of all evil is self-love. He says somewhere: “Where self-love is absent, there no trace of evil can be present.” Between the testimony of Holy Scripture and the holy fathers, then, we see that love of money or covetousness or idolatry are all expressions of self-love.
So, to say that this “certain ruler” was “rich” is to say that he was an idolater. But, to call him a “certain ruler”, following the custom of biblical Greek, means that he is “Everyman”. He is you and I. To call him a “ruler” can refer to the dignity of the image of God in which we are created by which each one of us is the “ruler” of our own heart, our own will. Created in the image of God, i.e., we are each one free to love who or what we will, whether idols, which is love of self, or God, which is to love our neighbor, even our enemy.
So, when the LORD tells this “certain ruler” – you and me – that he, and we, must sell all he has, He is telling us that to inherit eternal life we must get rid of our idolatry and follow Him. I.e., we must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus. We must lose our life – our self-love, the root of our idolatry – for His sake and the Gospel’s if we want to gain our life, or rather eternal life.
The “certain ruler”, I said, is a biblical way of saying “Everyman”. That’s why the disciples are so alarmed and cry, “Who, then can be saved?” Who of us can be saved, for who of us is not an idolater? Who of us is not full of himself? Who of us is able to root out our self-love so that we love the LORD and not ourselves with all our heart, soul, strength and mind?
As I indicated a moment ago, I see this morning’s Gospel bringing into view the mystery of our will by which we choose to do this or that. And, do we not always choose to do what would help us acquire what we love? I see the will as the (hypostatic or personal) movement of our “self”, that originates in and moves out from the heart, that which is “beyond all things and that is the man” (Jer 17:5/9 LXX).
I see in the “eye of a needle” an image of the heart. As difficult if not physiologically impossible as it is for a camel to stoop down and crawl on its knees through the “eye of a needle”, a small opening in the city walls of Jerusalem, it is even more difficult for us to find and lay hold of our heart, an irreducible ‘point’ that is even narrower than the “eye of a needle” because it is spiritual, invisible, immaterial. But, even if we could find our heart, could we lay hold of it so as to change its love?
My self-love is an adamantine wall. I can play the game of piety up to a certain point until I run head on into the wall of my self-love expressed in my gluttony, my lust and my greed. I can follow the LORD Jesus and be obedient to His commandments up to a certain point – like this “certain ruler”: “All these commandments I have kept from my youth!” – until I run into that adamantine wall of my self-love.
I see all of this in this Gospel account of the “certain ruler”, and in the cry of the disciples because I see how deeply the idolatry of self-love is entrenched in my soul, in my gluttony, my lust and my greed. I wonder if this is the enmity and the “middle separating wall” St Paul speaks of (Eph 2:14-15)? It corresponds to what he says about his own inner experience: “With my inner man, I delight in the Law of God, but I find another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom 7:21-23; cf. Rm 7:7). Beneath the outward trappings of my religiosity, I find that I am willy-nilly an idolater, a slave, even an unwilling slave, to gluttony, to lust and to greed. These are the “riches” my soul loves. I find myself crying with the disciples and with St Paul: how can I be saved? Who shall deliver me from this body of death?
The LORD answers: “What men have no power [to do] God has the power [to do].” To be saved means to be healed and made whole, and to be delivered or set free from. The salvation that man hasn’t the power to do is to be healed of death so that we are restored to our having been made in the image of God’s own eternity (Wisd Sol 2:23), and it is to be delivered from the power of the devil who holds us enslaved through the fear of death (Heb 2:15). We haven’t the power to save ourselves because we are dead in the core of our being, our heart, which St Macarius of Egypt calls a tomb (cf. Eph 2:1). And, we are dead in our heart because of the idolatry of our self-love. Idolatry is the very essence of disobedience, turning away from God to chase after another lover; and death is the very essence of disobedience, for it is turning away from the LORD who is the Resurrection and the Life. Our gluttony, our love for the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, our greed for more and our envy of those who have more than we, all of these are symptoms of our spiritual death; they are the vaporous stench of death rising from the corpse of our soul lying dead in the tomb of the heart. We have no more power to save ourselves, not even our will power, than a corpse has the power to raise itself to life. We die because of our disobedience and idolatry. And that we are so given to the idolatry of self-love and all its symptoms – gluttony, lust, greed – that we cannot not, it seems, be subject to the enticement of gluttony, lust and greed is the theological proof that when we hear of tombs we ought not to think of physical tombs but of our own heart, for it is a tomb (cf. St Macarius, Hom 11.11).
So, when the LORD answers the disciples: “What men have no power to do, God has the power to do,” He is speaking of the mystery of His Incarnation. In His obedience to the Father, He emptied Himself – He denied Himself – for our sake, the opposite of self-love, even to the point of death on the Cross. So, where our death follows from disobedience, the LORD’s death follows from His obedience – and that’s why He destroys it (cf. Heb 2:14). For, righteousness does not die (Wisd Sol 1:15). He destroys it in His human body and soul that He received from the Holy Virgin. The power of salvation, then, of being healed and delivered from death to eternal life, is embedded in His Body, the Church. It is given to us – the “gifts He gives to men”? – to the degree we turn the face of our heart (faith) and willfully choose to do what He commands us: to deny ourselves for His sake. But, what is this but to love Him who first loved us? Like the widow’s mite, even if we are able only a little bit to do what He commands, to that degree and more He gives to us the gifts of grace that empower us to “have faith”, i.e. to “put on love, the bond of perfection.” To that degree and more, the WORD of Christ begins to dwell in us richly, i.e., in the riches of His Grace and kindness and Glory;and the peace of Christ, the peace of eternal life, for it is the peace of Him who is Himself the Resurrection and the life, begins to reign in our heart, the “symptom” of the gift of eternal life. Amen.