28 November 2010

Homily on the Rich Ruler

I was struck, when reflecting on our Gospel for today, with its connection to what comes immediately before. Some people brought little babies to Jesus, that he might touch them, but the disciples tried to prevent it. The Lord responds by saying, "Let the little children come to me, and don't forbid them, for of such is the Kingdom of God." And then he adds, "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it."

Then follows our text, at the end of which the Lord says "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!" There's a common thread here, between these two: entering the Kingdom of God. And what do we learn? Little ones, babies, get it. Rich people have lots of trouble.

You see, beloved, the Lord Jesus stands all the values of this world on their head. Elsewhere he says, "I praise thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and hast revealed them to babies. Yes, O Father, for such was your gracious will."

From the time we are small, we want to grow, to gain: in wisdom...in strength...in popularity...in financial security. We work out in the gym. We go to school. We friend others on facebook. We try to increase our bottom line. We do all that we can to stop being babies.

And in a certain sense, that's good. It's ok to work out...to learn and study...to be sociable...even to have a healthy bank balance. Wealth is not morally wrong. It's better to be Solomon than a fool...to be strong...to have friends. The trouble comes when we hold those things with a clenched fist, instead of in an open hand...when we try to make them ours...when they enter our inmost heart. Then the things that are relatively good, become absolutely bad. For they come between us and Christ.

In our text, the Lord tells this ruler, "You lack one thing." But that one thing was everything. This rich ruler's heart had grown attached to his wealth. It is not the wealth, but the attachment, that the Lord rejects. I cannot open my hands to receive from Christ, when they clutch my wealth, my wisdom and strength. I cannot be justified by God when I try to justify myself. I cannot receive the Kingdom as a gift, when I think it's something owed to me.

Nor can I be saved without works. The Lord does not condemn the ruler for his striving to keep the commandments. Christ does not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Real faith shows itself in action. St. James says, "Faith without works...is dead." And St. Mark the Ascetic says, "Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken."

The Lord Jesus stands all the values of this world on their head. Nowhere is that seen more clearly than at his cross, where he dies weak, and friendless, looking foolish, utterly bereft of anything good. If you would see true wealth, see the Lord of heaven and earth suspended on the tree, giving himself completely for those who hated him. If you would know wisdom, see God himself hanging there, becoming a curse for us, that we might be blessed. If you would know strength, you must know it in his broken body--as he later told St. Paul, "My power is perfected in weakness."

We understand the Lord's words rightly only when we can say, with Christ's disciples, "Who, then, can be saved?"...when we take with complete seriousness his reply:"the things that are impossible with men are possible with God." He doesn't say "necessary'; he doesn't say "certain"; he doesn't say "actual." He says "possible." I cannot presume on salvation, because it is impossible for me. I do not despair of salvation, because it is possible with God.

So in this life, I must be content to plead for mercy, like the publican...to detach myself from following after wealth, and wisdom and strength that I might follow after Christ...to be a little child, a nursing baby, who entrusts himself completely to the goodness of the crucified God and risen man. He who led his people Israel through the Red Sea as on dry land...he who passed through the womb of his mother without disturbing her virginity...who rose from the dead without breaking the seal of the tomb...is able also to bring me through the eye of a needle to the joys of his heavenly Kingdom: to which may we all attain, through his grace and love for mankind, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.