The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (19:16-26)
“What good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” That is the question posed today by the young man to our Lord Jesus Christ. In my opinion, part of the question is excellent and part of the question is not. The part of the question that is excellent is the stated objective of the question. His desire for eternal life. Anyone who asks questions with eternity in mind has certainly aimed in the right direction. However another part of his question is problematic because he says “what good deed must I do”. In the greek he says “what good thing” or “what good”. The problem here is that we cannot trade good works for the kingdom of God. There is no magical activity that we can undertake that will earn us a spot in heaven.
So our Lord draws this young man toward the heart of the commandments and the heart of the gospel because if a man dedicates his life to ceaselessly pursuing these two commandments, he will surely find himself with God and that is exactly the goal. Eternal life is a life with God, communion with Him, joy with Him, peace in His presence, love fulfilled.
Eternal life can’t and won’t be found by doing one good work or deed. It is found in unceasing desire for the ultimate good, God Himself. And our Lord Jesus perceives that the man is not serious about his objective. The young man has asked a good question but he hasn’t done it in a serious way. So our Lord changes his understanding. Christ invites him to give up everything that he loves, everything that he leans on, everything that he identifies as, in order to follow Him. You don’t bring your identity to Christ and tell Him who you think you are. That is blasphemy. Your creator gives you your identity and your identity becomes clear as you pour yourself into knowing the One who created you.
This young man was immature in his understanding of all things especially his understanding of God and of himself. He self-identified as blameless and perfect according to the law. Yet we are reminded that self-identification is often self-delusion. Christ proved this by asking the young man to give up his riches and give them to the poor and He invited the man to follow Him. In rejecting this invitation and going away sorrowful, the young man proved what was really in his heart, that in fact he didn’t love his neighbors and certainly didn’t love God with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength. Perhaps he loved God a little bit, but he loved himself a whole lot more.
Our Lord taught us that you cannot love and serve two masters. Jesus Christ requires a full commitment of our whole life. He doesn’t compromise. He gives us freedom to explore and choose what type of life we will live, but He doesn’t compromise with those who claim to desire Him and seek eternal life. He doesn’t compromise because He can’t lie to us. We often lie to one another in order not to offend others but you are no friend if you lie about things that matter. Actually you become the worst enemy of all, the enemy that looks like a friend. Our Lord loves us too much to misrepresent the truth. So He shares the truth with us regardless of how difficult it might be for us to hear and accept. Eternal life is found in a deep relationship with Christ. There is no room for negotiations or compromise. St. Anthony of Optina writes “Can you place your hope in the world? Whom has it not deceived? To whom has it not lied? It promises much, but gives very little. Only those who hope in the Lord, according to the words of the Prophet David, do not sin, i.e., they are not deceived in their hope!”
Christ tells the disciples that “it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.” Often we focus on this as it relates to financial wealth. We should also understand that it has implications that go beyond finances. This teaching can relate to anything that we treasure or hold most dear in our lives. For some it is their intellect, perhaps their academic degrees. For others it is their outer beauty and physical health. It could be your position at work or the business that you built from the ground up. It could be our children, or our spouses and loved ones if we put our love for them before our love for God. It could even be our unerring, legalistic adherence to traditions such as fasting and other religious observations. If we hold anything in our hearts as a matter of pride, or as more important than Christ, then we are very much like the “rich man”.
This rich man went away sad because he counted what he would lose in order to follow Christ. But let us instead imagine what we will gain if we follow Him. We will gain purpose for our lives. We will gain peace. We will gain joy. We will gain forgiveness and redemption. We will gain spiritual health. We will gain wisdom. We will gain holiness, resurrection and divinity. We will gain life in the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We will gain the saints and the angels as our friends and helpers on this royal path. So in fact, what Christ asks us to put aside, He plans to return many times over. He will share unfathomable spiritual treasures with those who trust Him. As the Apostle Paul writes “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Cor 2:9)
How are you rich? How are you self-sufficient? Where in your life do you place your hope? Ask these questions prayerfully and the Lord will help you to discern the truth. He loves you and wants to share life with you forever, and that my brothers and sisters is the definition of eternal life. May the Lord make us worthy of such treasure. Glory be to God forever, AMEN.