49 - Who Can Be Saved? Aug 31, 2014

I Corinthians 15:1-11

Matthew 19:16-26

The words and actions of the rich man in our Gospel this morning scream prelest, spiritual pride. The blind men of Jericho address Jesus as “Son of David, have mercy on us!” Even in their blindness they recognized Jesus as the Christ, the King, the Holy One of Israel, and so, the Son of God.

But, the rich man addresses the LORD as do the Pharisees: not as LORD or Son of David, but as “teacher”, showing that, like the Pharisees, puffed up in the conceit of his own wisdom, this rich young man is blind, not seeing Jesus as the Christ, the King of Israel, the Son of God but as an ordinary human teacher. He is so absorbed in himself that he cannot receive the LORD’s saving instruction as coming from God. He receives it as from an ordinary man. It catches him quite by surprise. It punctures his vainglory, and he walks away in sorrow – not the sorrow of conviction but of wounded vanity.

If his heart had the sight of the blind men of Jericho who saw Jesus as the Son of David, would he not, like them, have cried out with fervor: LORD, I cannot sell my riches! My riches enslave me and I am perishing! Help me, LORD, in the weakness of my unbelief and have mercy on me!” Instead, he just walks away. He could not see, apparently, that by turning his back on Jesus, he was setting his face for the gates of hell. He could not see that on the day of his death, willy-nilly, he would sell all that he has anyway;  and that, if he wasn’t “selling” his riches to the “poor” – i.e., to Him who emptied Himself and took the form of a slave and was obedient to the Father even to the point of an accursed death on the Cross (Phil 2:5-11) – he would be selling them to the “rich”, i.e., to “Pluto” (Pluto means wealth in Greek), the god of death, i.e., the devil; and that whoever he sold his riches to would receive in exchange his soul and become his master, his LORD.

How was he so blind to the LORD, and so indifferent to the eternal fate of his soul?

The LORD says in another place, where your heart is, there your treasure will be also. I think we can discern from this rich man’s behavior that his chief possessions that made him so rich were of his heart, and those riches were all tied up in a very high opinion of himself. He was his own treasure. He was his own god. He was an idolater.

The Psalmist says, “The idols of the nations are silver and gold.” Materially, the rich man’s silver and gold were his idols; spiritually, his silver and gold was the conceit of his own wisdom, his self-esteem.  The Psalmist goes on: “The idols of silver and gold are the works of men’s hands.” At the hidden level of the soul, the religions of the world and the grand philosophical systems of human history are but the creation of human wisdom, not the Wisdom of God. “They have eyes, but they see not,” says the Psalmist. They cannot see God because their eyes are gazing in the mirror at the reflection of their own wisdom. “They have ears, but they hear not.” Their mind is wholly conformed to the logic of its own discursive dialectic. The Word of heaven is too high and too large to fit into the smallness of their human reasoning. They cannot understand it, and so they dismiss it in derision. “Those who put their trust in them become just like them.” (Ps 134:15ff. LXX) They become, in effect, spiritual corpses who, like idols of silver and gold, have eyes but see nothing; who have ears but hear nothing. There is no sound in their throats, says the Psalmist, not even breath in their mouths. Their hands do not feel “that which was from the beginning, the Word of Life”. (I Jn 1;1) Their feet cannot walk in the Way of the LORD”.

The idolatry of this rich man’s conceit is what blinded him so that he could not see Jesus as the “Son of David”, the “Son of God”, the Holy One, the King of Israel. He was so convinced that he was “spiritual”, that he was “perfect”, that he was “right with God” (even “entirely sanctified”) that he could not see Jesus or hear His Word.

The rich man frightens me because, well, he looks like me. But, I am not like him in this respect: I do not walk away in sorrow like he did. Instead, I take myself to my closet and implore the LORD to teach me truth in my inward being, to reveal to me His Wisdom in my hidden and secret parts. Show me my sin, purge me with hyssop. Create in me a clean heart. Renew in me a right spirit (Ps 50 LXX) that with my whole heart I may seek Thy face in love for Thee. (Ps 118:58 LXX) Test me and know my heart. Find the law of sin that is active in my members, (Rom 7) even and especially in its most subtle, most hidden forms. Root out of me my vainglory, my self-esteem, my spiritual conceit, and lead me on the path of eternal life. (Ps 138:23-24 LXX) I am a lost sheep. Call me, O Savior, and save me! Help me to find the way of repentance before the end that I may decrease so that Thou might increase! (Jn 3:30)

Notice that in the set of commandments the LORD gives to the rich man initially, all the commandments are given but one: the first and greatest commandment, “Thou shalt love the LORD Thy God with all thy heart, soul, strength and mind.” The rich man’s failure to keep this first commandment is what kept him from being “perfect”, and it opened the door, I think, for his delusion and idolatry that produced his prelest. Indeed, I see many who call themselves Christians all but ignoring the first commandment; the second commandment in effect takes the place of the first. Everywhere I have seen that happen, I have observed that the Christian Faith is reduced to a social Gospel, and the Church to a distributor of social services. Love itself is confused with tolerance for if not acceptance of sin. The “Christian”, meanwhile, remains closed off from his deep heart. His life remains in the world, buried in the tomb of his heart. He remains untransfigured in his inward and secret parts. There is no death in Christ, and so there is no resurrection, and so there is no theosis and glorification.

This first and greatest commandment is imbedded in the command the LORD gives to the rich man: “If you would be perfect;” If you would be my disciple. “Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” Deny yourself and take up your cross. Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, “and you will have treasure in heaven.” He who would find his life will lose it; he who would lose his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will find it. “And follow Me.”

In this command, which is but the first and greatest commandment in veiled form, the LORD is bringing to the light the rich man’s spiritual pride that blinds him, and at the same time giving him the antidote for it. For, self-love is not healed by self-hate but by loving God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind, and in the new heart created in that love, loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

So, when the disciples, hearing the LORD say how hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, cry out, “Who, then, can be saved?” we could take them to be saying, “But, LORD, none of us loves God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind?” Who of us is not rich in self-love? Who of us is a saint? None of us is; who, then, can be saved? How can a corpse raise itself to life? 

The LORD answers, in effect: “You’re right. It is impossible for you; but not with God.” Therefore, when the LORD tells us to love Him with our whole heart and we can’t because we have too much love for ourselves, let’s not walk away in sorrow like the rich man. Rather, let’s fall on our knees in sorrow, and, like the blind men, cry out: “LORD Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Then, calling on the Name of the LORD, let’s take up our cross – the disciplines of the Church – as we are able. In this, we are practicing obedience. Through obedience to the Word of God the world came into being, death was destroyed and life given to those in the tombs. If we take up obedience to the Word of God, our conceit will be withered up so that we can pass through the eye of a needle. Our hearts will be enlarged and, lo! the love of God will fill our heart with the heavenly treasure of Christ Himself. Amen!