Our Path Toward Perfection
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?… If you want to be perfect, go sell all you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”
The Gospel story presents a challenging picture to all of us. A pious, faithful man approaches Jesus and sincerely asks one of the most important questions in life – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must I do to walk with God in a faithful manner? What must I do in life to please God? What must I do to fulfill the divine potential God has given me and to use it to its fullness so that I may glorify God?
How many of us even take the time to deeply reflect on such a question? How many of us can honestly say that this is the central pursuit in our everyday lives, a pursuit that overshadows all else in our lives? Yes, we may be occupied with our profession and may have our days consumed by family obligations. Yes, we may have hobbies and various passions that take up our time. We can have a full life filled with many preoccupations, but is the underlying foundation of all we do and the cornerstone of our identity, of who we fundamentally are, founded in our pursuit for the kingdom of heaven? In everything we do and in all the ways we identify ourselves, is our passion for Christ and love for God the primary force that directs us and influences who we are?
In the Gospel story, this pious young man comes up to Jesus with a bit of religious self-assurance. He confidently says to Jesus, “I have obeyed all of the commandments of Moses – I have not killed anyone. I have not committed adultery. I have not stolen. I have not lied. I have honored my father and my mother. I have loved my neighbor as myself.”
He then asks the most important question – “What else do I lack?”
This highlights a fundamental aspect of our spiritual journey with Christ. We must take care never to think that we have done enough, that we have fulfilled the requirements, that we are in good status with God. If we ever reach a point where we think we’ve attained the level of being good in the eyes of God, then we have deceived ourselves!
The story in today’s Gospel begins with the rich young man calling Jesus “Good Teacher” and our Lord responding “Why do you call me good? There is only One who is good.” In other words, Jesus warns that we must be careful about placing that label of “Good” or “Good enough” on anyone, including ourselves!
Goodness in the eyes of God is an ongoing, endless journey into the Goodness of God, into the perfection of the Almighty. Never forget that our Lord is an Infinite Reality, a Mystery that we can never fully comprehend or reach. Therefore, our journey of faith is an unceasing voyage into the eternal depths of our Lord’s Love. We can never say we have arrived. We can never say we are there. We can only strive to travel from “glory to glory,” discovering new realities in the depths of God’s love.
Do you ever think about why some of the greatest saints confess how they are the greatest of sinners? For example, the Apostle Paul, one of the pillars of the early Church, confesses to his disciple Timothy that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost!” How could Saint Paul look at himself among the foremost of sinners???
In a few moments in the Divine Liturgy, right before receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist, we will all together say the Pre-Communion Prayers, in which Saint John Chrysostom says, “I believe and confess, Lord, that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.” How can one of the greatest Patristic Fathers believe and confess that he is the first among sinners???
Is this hyperbole? Do Saints Paul and John Chrysostom and the many other saints of our church truly believe that they are the first and foremost among sinners?
A fundamental theological point which these saints highlight, and what our Lord Jesus tries to get across to the rich young man in the Gospel story is that when we compare ourselves only to God Himself, when our standard of judgement is only based on Jesus Christ, when we understand what Divine Goodness truly is, then we will be very careful to never think of ourselves as good, we will never think we have reached our divine potential.
We are all on a never-ending journey of faith! Therefore, we realize that we can never be satisfied with where we are at. We can never be content that we are good enough in the eyes of God. Goodness is an ongoing transformation of our personhood into more and more the likeness of God.
This is why the Apostle Paul and St. John Chrysostom, two of the greatest saints in Church history, would confess that they are the first among sinners. Because they understood that when compared to God Himself - not when compared to their fellow believers or to other people in the world, but only to God Himself – they realize that their divine transformation was still incomplete. They could still grow and be filled even more with Divine Grace and be changed even more into the likeness of God. They looked at themselves as the first among sinners because they compared themselves only to God and felt they fell short in their effort and faith, their love and commitment to the Lord.
This sincere, authentic and deep self-knowledge is centrally important to each of us in our own journey of faith. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you are good, or good enough. Don’t hold on to a simplistic understanding of faith where you believe your faith has reached its potential.
Let’s go back to the Gospel story of the rich young man. He was on the right track of faith. He asked the most important question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He followed the path of obeying the commandments of God – he did not kill or commit adultery or steal or lie and he honored his parents and tried to love his neighbor as himself. This was all good!
Yet, when he asked Jesus the important question, “What do I still lack?” the Lord looked into his heart and understood his unhealthy relationship with his wealth. Christ could see that his possessions and wealth controlled this young man, and thus, he told the man, “If you would be perfect, [if you want to continue growing in your relationship with God and go on to the next level of faith] go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
Jesus is saying to the rich man, take the next step in your journey of faith. Don’t be content and stop at where you are but continue to grow. In order to do this, however, you need to address your unhealthy relationship with your possessions and wealth. To follow Me means to give over your life, your entire life, to Me and to follow Me wherever I may lead you!
The Gospel story ends with the rich, young man walking away from Jesus sad and sorrowful. He was not willing to follow Christ to the next level of faith. He preferred to stay where he was at!
This may sound harsh to many of us and yet it is a lesson we have to carefully reflect upon. Too many people who go to church think of themselves as Good Christians. Too many of us are content with where we are in our faith journey. We compare ourselves to the world and think we are better than most.
Christ is saying to each one of us today, “There is only One who is good.” Remember that. We are all on a journey toward Goodness that should have no end. Don’t stop in your journey and or be content with where you are in your faith commitment. Have the courage of this rich young man to ask, “What do I still lack? What else must I do? How else can I grow in my love and commitment to Jesus Christ?” And then be prepared for the answer that our Lord may give you.
Christ’s demand may seem impossible to follow. That is why the disciples observed this entire story and desperately concluded, “Who then can be saved?” Yet Jesus responded with words of hope. Yes, my demands seem impossible. But always remember, “What seems impossible for us humans is possible for God!” My heavenly Father will give you the courage and the strength, the wisdom and the discernment to follow Me if you choose to do so! If you really want to. “What seems impossible for us humans is possible for God!”
IN WHOM DO WE TRUST?
Our Orthodox Faith
History: The Great Epochs of Orthodoxy