Saturday, 22 November 2014
Give what you have to the poor
Jesus looked straight at him with love and said, "You need only one thing. Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me."
It is always wise to study a passage of Scripture in its context, rather than as a small fragment of text that is isolated from everything else in the Gospels. In the case of the passage from the Gospel of St Mark which we have just heard we would find that there were three people or groups of people whom Jesus met on the way that day.
The first group were some Pharisees who sought to tempt Jesus and came to him without any sense of wishing to learn anything for their salvation. They were hoping that he would say something which would expose him as a false prophet, or would allow them to seek his prosecution as a rabble rouser. They asked him questions about the Law, and especially that of divorce, but Jesus made it clear that their hearts were hardened and they were unreceptive to what he had to say. His words were like seed falling on hard, baked soil.
The second group were young children, brought by their parents to have Jesus bless them. In this case we will recall that our Lord welcomed them, and was displeased with the disciples who had tried to keep the children away from Christ. It was the disciples who failed to understand the breadth of the Gospel on this occasion, while the parents and the children saw something deeply attractive in Jesus which drew them to him.
It is the third interruption to the journey with which our Gospel is concerned today. Although we can see that all of these accounts are to do with how people see Jesus, and how they respond to him. This third account shows us a man who is found between the two positions of the Pharisees and the Children. On the one hand he holds Jesus in high regard, and comes running to him, and kneels before him in the position of a student before a master. But we learn that he does not quite have that simple generosity of heart which our Lord commends in the Children he had blessed.
We can notice that 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’. I wonder if he had 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. But 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?
But 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 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, 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.