In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear father, brothers and sisters: Spraznecom! Happy Forefeast of the Mother of God!
In today’s Gospel reading we hear the story of a young man who came to Christ excitedly and left sorrowful. By contrast we also commemorate today according to the church calendar a saint who as a young man came to Christ with worldly sorrow but then went on to stay with Him, and follow Him for the rest of His life with joy. Let us look at each of these young men and understand more about why one ended leaving Christ behind in despair and why the other remained with Christ and followed Him with joy in his heart. As with our reading last week, our Lord is not performing signs and wonders, but again is teaching us slow sinners through more hard-hitting words and striking images. Unlike last week, however, in chapter 19 of St Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord leaves Galilee for the coasts of Judea, a journey in a south westerly direction of around 70 miles or so. When He arrives, as well as the usual crowds that always thronged about the Author of Life, there were of course the usual band of Pharisees, who did not follow Him out of any love, devotion of faith, but, on the contrary they followed Him deliberately and specifically in order to tempt and trap Him out of pure envy, spite and hatred.
However, a little later that day, after He had blessed the little children, a ‘young man’ came to Him. Unlike the Pharisees, He approaches the Lord, not with a spirit of hatred or dishonestly but genuinely. By greeting Christ, unhypocritically, as “Good Master”, we can perhaps tell that He does not have the faith of the Centurion, or of the blind men, but this earnest young man does seem to regard Him as a great teacher or prophet, as one inspired by God, chosen by God, but not necessarily the Messianic Son of God or even God Incarnate. Our Lord senses this in His reply to the young man –
Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God
As if indicating the necessary corollary of what it means to call him Truly Good. And the question that the young man brings to Christ is the same burning question that each one of us should bring –
‘What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?’
This young man was not tempting Christ, or trying to trick him with endless pointless and pedantic questions but was earnestly seeking eternal life. Our Lord answers Him by affirming the necessity of keeping the commandments, thereby showing, as He was at pains to do when surrounded by the Pharisees that He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. The young man then answers Him –
All these things – the commandments – have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
We can perhaps imagine our Lord, smiling internally here at the young man’s naiveite and youthful pride here, as our Saviour’s teaching on the true fulfilment of the commandments as expressed through the Sermon on the Mount, earlier in St Matthew’s Gospel, is far more rigorous, far more challenging, that simply refraining from murdering someone or not committing adultery. The new covenant in Christ Jesus goes down beyond the external and the legal to the internal and interior world of the heart and the purity of our intentions themselves –
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.
And it is at this point, in that most poignant image, the young man went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
Our Saviour then concludes by saying – Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
From the lives of the saints, we know that the Kingdom of Heaven, is not simply populated with one socio-economic class. Rather, amongst the saints we can find both emperors and beggars, rich men and paupers. How are we to understand our Lord’s words? Let us turn here to our father among the saints St Theophan the Recluse, who says –
‘as soon as one who has many possessions cuts off all attachment to them, extinguishes within himself all reliance on them … then in his heart he is the same as one who possesses nothing’.
Thus, it is not so much our possession or non-possession of riches itself, but whether the riches have wholly possessed us and our hearts with a spirit of greed and cupidity that is the most critical thing.
As St Theophan explains –
Riches are not the danger, but rather reliance upon them and attachment to them. This thought,’ the saint continues, ‘can be generalized in this way: whoever relies on something and is attached to it is rich in that thing. Whoever relies on God alone and cleaves to Him with all his heart is rich in God. Whoever relies on something else turns his heart to it instead of to God … From this it follows that he who is not rich in God has no entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is for this reason, therefore that a rich man, can – with difficulty – enter heaven if they are not tempted by their wealth, and through lack of attachment, use their wealth for great good by practicing almsgiving and charitable works.
Our young man in the Gospel though was clearly too attached, too wedded to his possessions and riches such that when God and the Fountain of Eternal Life itself is standing in front of him, asking him to ‘come and follow’, he instead turns sorrowfully away, back to the tawdry allure of his riches.
But today we also celebrate another young man, one who lived a thousand years later than the young man of the Gospel who shows us another way and makes another response. St Theodosius was from a wealthy and prosperous background and his father was a judge in the cities of Kursk and Vasilikov. Like the young man of the Gospel, the young Theodosius was also filled with a strong spiritual yearning for eternal life. And it was this spirit which led him, even at a young age to engage in ascetic warfare. He became more and more devout and aflame with love for God, and for the Kingdom of God. With the death of his father when he was a teenager, Theodosius yearning for God became deeper. He loved to attend church, to read the scriptures and to live simply. He would also enjoy working with the peasants much to his mother’s chagrin who felt this was incompatible with his rank and status. Such was the increasing tension with his mother that Theodosius that in his early twenties he escaped and was guided to Elder Antony in Kiev where he lived in simple obedience to him. In the monastery St Theodosius lived a rigorous and ascetic lifestyle praying all night and not allowing himself to rest in a bed or on any kind of mat, and he would take short naps whilst sitting up against the cold cave walls. Imagine, the son of a judge, dressed in rags, eating only cooked vegetables, bread and water, living in a cold cave with a muddy floor. And yet, St Theodosius would make his the cave complex of the Kiev Lavra into a spiritual palace. Importantly, St Theodosius also put His trust entirely in God, and resisted the temptation to lay up large stores of food and provisions in the monastery. Rather he trusted that God would send what they needed. St Theodosius had a special concern for the poor and the destitute and established a court within the monastery where they could always come and partake of whatever food and resources the monastery had to share.
So, my dear ones, let us not follow the example of the young man in our Gospel reading and become attached and weighed down with all our material possessions and abundance of things. Instead, let us follow the example of that other young man, St Theodosius who even as a teenager and young adult became detached from his wealth and inheritance and looked instead to become, in St Theophan’s words, rich in God, the source of our true joy beyond all the sorrows of this world.