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5th Sunday after Trinity

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The Gospels do not always have an easy message.  The readings for Morning Prayer this morning are no exception.  It is Jesus’ uneasy habit of teaching in paradox that often makes it easy for us to give our intellectual assent while struggling to find the correct practice in its application.  Today’s reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel is part of a long line of odd paradoxes: it is in emptying ourselves that we are filled; by making ourselves last, we shall be made first; we save our life by losing it.  This morning we will consider the perfection of abandoning worldly riches to acquire heavenly ones.
Hear the words of the Gospel:

Jesus said unto him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”(Matthew 19:21)

Jesus at this point in the Gospel has completed his teaching and ministry in Galilee and has begun his trek to Jerusalem.  During the journey a young man, hearing of Jesus’ passing by, approaches and asks perhaps the most apt question of Jesus recorded in the Gospels: What must I do to gain eternal life?  Here is a VERY good student – he has asked the Teacher to give the answer to the one question that is sure to be on the final exam.  It is no coincidence then that he addresses Jesus as a schoolboy might: (telios) telios - that is Teacher.  Here we gain insight into the intention of this young man.  He is looking for knowledge – and here the ancients would have understood a distinction.  In Philosophy a distinction is made between intelligence and wisdom.  These two goals come from different sources.  Intelligence comes from seeking knowledge, i.e. thinking about and solving problems, book knowledge we might say).  Wisdom comes from praxis, meaning practice – that is the knowledge that is gained by right living. 

St. Matthew gives us a powerful insight by calling this man young – he is the only evangelist to note the age of this man.  He calls him, (neaniskos)neaniskos, a word often used to identify young servants – as if we are to see this man not only as young, but also spiritually poor.

This man’s youth is telling because there is an irony in youth – despite having more time to “solve” problems, we want to use less of it.  The young are ever so impatient for whatever they have set their sights on.  There is such a heavy need for immediate gratification.  This is why wisdom is so rarely found in their ranks – wisdom takes time, it is accumulated rather than acquired.

The rich man’s youth, I think, tells us a great deal about his question.  Jesus too senses that the man is looking for intelligent knowledge, a fact or a truth – something he can possess inside his mind.  Jesus at first entertains this need – consider His first response: Keep the commandments.  A very bookish response – in effect the Teacher says, why should I give you the answer to a question on an open book test?  Our young man presses Jesus – Which commandment?  Jesus points the man’s attention to the 2nd part of the Decalogue: the social commandments, and not one of them, but all of them.  Jesus begins to try to draw the young man’s focus away from a simple answer, attempting to lead the man away from intelligence and draw him toward wisdom.  It is not one thing you do, but the practice of dealing rightly with your neighbors that will lead you to eternal life.  Our young man doesn’t get it.  But I already do these – isn’t there some other commandment?  Surely there must be something else because I do not feel complete. 

Jesus relents to the request for more: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” Thus, Jesus provides the praxis that will lead to wisdom, the action that will enable one to accomplish the requirements of the commandments.  Here is perhaps what is meant by the use of the word perfect.  St. Matthew uses the word (telios)telios which has many meanings.  Its base ‘tele’ means end or purpose.  And so (telios) telios can be translated a number of ways: completed, i.e. brought to its end; lacking nothing, i.e. perfect; and even come of age, as in possessing the fullness of years.  It is curious that St. Matthew is the only evangelist to tell us the rich man was young, (neaniskos) neaniskos,  and the only evangelist to use the word (telios) telios in respect to Jesus’ answer to this man.  And so I can’t help but to see these words together.  Jesus is telling this man (whether he was actually young or not) to grow up.  In essence saying: you are not a schoolboy any more, how will you ever be satisfied with schoolboy answers?

What does this mean for us?  How are we, in a spiritual sense, schoolboys before the schoolmaster?  Do we recite the Decalogue like the 3rd grader listing the multiplication tables?  Do we read the Scriptures seeking knowledge, missing the opportunity to live the Gospel and gain wisdom?

The last topic we need to consider to understand this Gospel lesson is Jesus’ counsel to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor.  In our material culture we don’t romanticize poverty very often – and for anyone who has volunteered in an urban soup kitchen or spent time in 3rd world countries, poverty (as we understand it) is anything but romantic.  What is there then to be learned by poverty?

A cursory search through scripture yields a great multitude of warnings and cautions, not just against the love of riches, but against their mere possession.  The vitriolic language used against the rich at times rivals the words condemning idol worshipers, sexual perverts, and the heathen. 

Our possessions have an ability to encroach upon the devotion that is due to God alone.  And it is so easy for us to fall for this.  Our things are present; God is unseen.  Money gets us what we want: it is not certain whether God will grant our prayer (or dare I say perhaps certain in the negative).  Most dangerously, our attachments wear away at our focus on the Cross – to risk all to follow Christ, somehow now feels unnatural to us, perhaps even crazy.  And herein lies the great danger of riches: the carnal security they provide.  It is the temptation to think and act as if they and their accumulation are the end and all of life.  To think and act as if I, and I alone, can provide my own security. 

Riches then are a temptation.  As John Henry Newman more eloquently puts it: “We call such objects excitements, as stimulating us incongruously, casting us out of the serenity and stability of heavenly faith, attracting us aside by their proximity from our harmonious round of duties, and making our thoughts converge to something short of that which is infinitely high and eternal.”    Temptations are not yet sins, but they are opportunities to sin, opportunities to turn away from God.

Turning again to our young man – hear again Jesus’ answer.  ‘Grow up – stop thinking about gaining heaven by knowledge, as if heaven or perfection were something you could possess like a fact or a coin.  Empty yourself, remove all distractions that make you think of yourself, and then serve your neighbor.  This is the path of wisdom.’  Again, the paradox: become poor that you may discover where you are rich.  A paradox not meant to be learned but to be lived.  Paradoxes abound in the Christian life, and this is essential for Christians to understand.  Apparent contradictions can and do exist in God’s world; not everything is subject to empirical proof.  When we attempt to place God’s gift of salvation into a beaker, looking to discover the one, certain point of entry, God turns the argument on its head and refocuses us on the true purpose for which we were created. 

This is what Jesus does to the young man in the Gospel today.  In His mercy Jesus challenges a schoolboy-grown-up to grow up spiritually.  And the young man proved not up to the task.  But the task is not hopeless for us.  The message is not ‘Abandon all hope’ but ‘Abandon all for hope,’ hope to follow more completely in the footsteps of our Savior.  For in every age, blessed be God, there are those, who, in proportion to the strength of the temptation that surrounds them, are able to hear Christ’s voice whispering “come follow Me.”  May God grant us the grace to do the same.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.



Stephen Rugg

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