The rich young man holds Jesus in high regard, and comes running to him, and kneels before him in the position of a student before a master. He calls our Lord, Teacher. In fact he first addresses him as ‘Good Teacher’, and the Lord asks him why he calls him ‘Good’, since only God is good. This is perhaps an opportunity for the rich young man to reflect, and he could have responded as St Peter does saying elsewhere, ‘My Lord and My God’. But it is not clear he understands what Christ means, and addresses him again as ‘Teacher’.
Our Lord had asked him if he kept the commandments, and he had replied, ‘Yes indeed, from my youth’. Had he come to Jesus as a person who was knowledgeable in the Law to some extent, and was looking for the instruction which would take him to the next level. He was asking for the wrong thing altogether. What did he expect Christ to say? Did he expect him to provide some additional commandments, some more moral principles he could work hard to apply to himself that would allow him to show just how committed to the Law he was?
That was not what Christ had come for. He had come to fulfil the Law, not to add to it. To show how it was to be superseded by the Law of Christ, not to reform it by making it easier or harder.
We face this same temptation. We can easily allow ourselves to believe that religious practices, and even moral behaviour, are the means of salvation, or rather the means by which we earn salvation. As if God needs our prayers and praises, and must reward us in the manner of some sort of religious contract. Sometimes we are tempted to come to God and say, I have prayed and fasted since my youth, I have attended Church services and studied the Bible. What more do I need to do to be rewarded for my efforts.
Yet our Lord goes straight to the heart of the rich young man’s problem. There is one thing you need to do, he says. And there is only one thing that we need to do. The rich young man needed to give up his riches. We know this is not an absolute requirement because there have been many wealthy Christians who have done much good in their lives and even become saints. So what does our Lord mean? I believe that the central issue in this man’s life was that he was self-reliant. He believed that he was keeping the Law, he had no money problems. He was doing fine, and wanted to do better. But he was doing it all in his own strength.
Our Lord asks him to give away his wealth and take up his cross. It is not possible to follow the Lord and become a Disciple when we rely on our own resources, whether money or intelligence, abilities or experience. We must carry the sign of our own death with us if we want to find true life. Indeed it is through the death of our self, and of our self-reliance, that we are able to find eternal life. The young man had the appearance of living this new life already. He kept the commandments and was concerned about his spiritual state. But by relying on himself and his own resources he was fooling himself. And when Christ called his bluff and asked him to abandon those things he really trusted in then it became clear that he was not quite a serious as he had thought.
We may not be rich, and perhaps we are aware that we have broken many of the commandments of God. But we can still put our trust in our own abilities and capabilities. We can say to ourselves, I’ll pray a bit more, I’ll fast a bit more, I’ll attend Church a bit more regularly and then everything will be OK. If we think like this then we will be rather like the rich young man, simply trusting in our own efforts. Of course effort is necessary in the Christian life of Discipleship, but we are not rewarded with eternal life by working hard and being religious people, rather we enter into eternal life as we are united with Christ by taking up the cross, denying ourselves, abandoning all trust in our own strength and abilities, and seeking to follow Christ.
This was too much for the rich young man. He wanted to be religious on his own terms. For those of us who have become Orthodox by the grace of God, and who seek to live the Christian life by the grace of God, the spiritual way is made clear to us by these words of Christ. Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.
May we be able to let go of a sense of relying on ourselves. May we be able to give up being religious and seek to be truly spiritual. May we take up the cross, the sign of the death of our own self-centredness and follow Christ. We are easily deceived. The religious way of life looks like the spiritual one. Both require us to make ascetic effort. But the one is based on self reliance, the other is a response to the grace of God. Let us examine ourselves and determine what inspires our Christian life. May we offer Christ all that we have, and all that we are, seeking only to serve him as he wills, so that we might have a share in his life, both now and into eternity.
Scriptures – Matthew 19
1 When Jesus had finished these words, he departed from Galilee and came into the borders of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 Great multitudes followed him, and he healed them there. 3 Pharisees came to him, testing him and saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” 4 He answered, “Haven’t you read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall be joined to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh?’ 6 So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, don’t let man tear apart.” 7 They asked him, “Why then did Moses command us to give her a certificate of divorce and divorce her?” 8 He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been so. 9 I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries her when she is divorced commits adultery.” 10 His disciples said to him, “If this is the case of the man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this saying, but those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake. He who is able to receive it, let him receive it.” 13 Then little children were brought to him that he should lay his hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But Jesus said, “Allow the little children, and don’t forbid them to come to me; for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to ones like these.” 15 He laid his hands on them, and departed from there. 16 Behold, one came to him and said, “Good teacher, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” 17 He said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but one, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, “ ‘You shall not murder.’ ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ ‘You shall not steal.’ ‘You shall not offer false testimony.’ 19 ‘Honour your father and your mother.’ And, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” 20 The young man said to him, “All these things I have observed from my youth. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he was one who had great possessions. 23 Jesus said to his disciples, “Most certainly I say to you, a rich man will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven with difficulty. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into God’s Kingdom.” 25 When the disciples heard it, they were exceedingly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Looking at them, Jesus said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter answered, “Behold, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Most certainly I tell you that you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 Everyone who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive one hundred times, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many will be last who are first, and first who are last.
From the Fathers
John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D)
When establishing this law, he did not say, “Therefore, do not sever or separate” but “What God has joined together, let man not separate.” If you quote Moses, I will quote the God of Moses, and with him I am always strong. For God from the beginning made them male and female. This law is very old, even if it appears human beings have recently discovered it. It is firmly fixed. And God did not simply bring the woman to her husband but ordered her also to leave her father and mother. And he not only ordered the man to go to the woman but also to cling to her, showing by his way of speaking that they could not be separated. And not even with this was God satisfied, but he sought also for another greater union: “for the two shall be one flesh.”
[Though the Lord Jesus was asked about divorce, by those hoping to trip him up, his words, and this commentary from St John Chrysostom, always practical, rather has something to say about marriage. It is not merely a human institution, or even a Christian sacrament, though it is both of these in different senses. Rather it is the gift of God to all mankind, in all times and places. One man should be joined to one woman in a lifelong relationship that becomes more than leaving the parental home, as if it was a business transaction. More than clinging to one another, as if it was an emotional bond. But becomes a union of one flesh, personal and spiritual and comprehensive in the deepest sense.]
Again, from St Isaiah the Solitary, though the riches of the Orthodox tradition are so deep and rich that the cannot be exhausted in a single lifetime of study and reflection. He says,
Be attentive to yourself, so that nothing destructive can separate you from the love of God. Guard your heart, and do not grow listless and say: ‘How shall I guard it, since I am a sinner?’ For when a man abandons his sins and returns to God, his repentance regenerates him and renews him entirely.
We are to be attentive, and we can imagine on the pathway of Discipleship there are many obstacles placed before us to distract us and lead us from the straight road, or to make us abandon the journey in fear and confusion. We are to be attentive, and this means that we must become more and more proficient in examining what is going on inside of us, since the way of Discipleship is an internal one.
To guard the heart means that we do not allow unexamined thoughts, attitudes, memories and emotions to establish themselves and cause us harm. We must not imagine that this is simply the matter of reflecting on our behaviour through the day, though this is certainly useful and fruitful. Rather we must be on guard at every moment. We can begin by trying to be aware of what we are thinking, and remembering, through this day, and if we are led into sin and fall down, then we do what St Isaiah instructs and we repent, turn back to God, and with renewed strength begin again.
1. Be sure to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening, with warmth and attention.
2. Prayerfully read Psalm 1 in the morning. This is part of the traditional Coptic Orthodox prayers of the morning.
3. Pray the Jesus Prayer in the morning and evening. Prayerfully repeat the words of the prayer to 25 times in the morning or evening.
4. Read the Gospel again carefully, and listen for the words that come alive by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Write this in your notebook and reflect on them through the day.
5. Do not forget to pray for those on your intercession list in the morning and evening, with warmth of heart and attention.
6. Pray Psalm 134 again in the evening.
7. In the Coptic Orthodox daily prayers we pray Psalm 51. Add this to your daily devotions in either the morning or the evening.
8. Reflect on how you were able to become more aware of your thoughts at all times. Were some of them unhelpful and distracting? Were you able to resist and reject them?
There is an anointing with oil for exorcism before baptism, but the anointing with oil and laying on of hands after the baptism is even more important and significant. The oil used after the baptism is chrism. It is a holy oil, made occasionally and with great prayerfulness and reverence by the bishops of the Church, including the remains of the chrism which had been made previously. Therefore we can conclude that the chrism is use today contains very ancient elements.
Oil is always symbolic of the grace and gift of the Holy Spirit, and in this anointing and laying on of hands the Holy Spirit is asked to come down and dwell within the heart of the person who has been baptised. The priest or bishop breathes into the face of the new Christian and says, “receive the Holy Spirit!“
This is what the Lord Jesus Christ did for his Apostles when he first gave them this gift of divine life. It is what they gave to those who became believers through their teaching. It is what the Orthodox Church has continued to give through prayer, anointing and the laying on of hands. It is the necessary fulfillment of the sacrament of baptism which has the character of – exorcism from all evil influence – baptism for the forgiveness of sin and new life – the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit.