Joy of All Who Sorrow

34th Sunday after Pentecost / St. Paul of Thebes, St. John the Hut-Dweller

Gospel: Luke 18:18-27

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Father, brothers and sisters:

In this week’s Gospel we move back from the Gospel of Matthew, and the readings relating to the coming of the Light through the Glorious Theophany of the Lord, back to the Gospel of St Luke and the encounter of a rich man, a ruler with the Saviour. As we move through the Gospel we can see that despite the huge numbers of people that our Saviour met each day, whether asking for healing or asking questions, each encounter of the Lord was in its own way completely unique and deeply personal. To help us understand this brief encounter between this rich man and our Lord, let us turn to St Ephrem the Syrian who wrote a remarkable, extended series of reflections on this passage. We will also consider how this passage relates to some of the saints who we also commemorate this day: Sts Paul of Thebes, St John the Hut-Dweller of Constantinople and our own St Ita of Killeedy.

And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

In his rich, theological ruminations on this passage, St Ephrem turns the words of this short passage over and over in order to wring out all the Truth and Goodness within it. From his greeting, it may seem that this man is what we might call a true, spiritual seeker, looking for the Kingdom of God. However, throughout his series of reflections, St Ephrem sees through the glitter and charm of this rich ruler, and sees him as a one of the Pharisees, there to tempt the Lord.

The pharisees, seekers of pretexts, were seeking to find a pretext. Accordingly, they sent one of themselves to tempt our Lord as to whether the perfection he was introducing into the Law was abrogating it.

Far from being a truth-seeker, therefore, this young man was rather seeking to tempt the Lord, or at least had been set up by those seeking to do this. Let us start by analysing his two-word greeting – “Good Master”. St Ephrem sees the rich ruler here as indulging in naked flattery

The rich man came to the Judge in a flattering manner, with the bribe of a sweet tongue. The Judge showed him that, in his judgment there is neither bribery or hypocrisy.

In His time, walking through the towns and villages surrounding Jerusalem, so many people in all sorts of walks of life also hailed and addressed Him. In St Luke’s Gospel alone, we can think of the blind men or the lepers who entreated Him to help to have mercy. In most of these cases, those who lives were touched by suffering, would so often approach Christ on their knees, in need and desperation, seeing in Him One who had the power of God to heal and to save. However, our rich ruler though seems to approach him differently on much more of a horizonal axis, as just another Jewish Rabbi.

The rich man called him Good Master, as though one of the ordinary good teachers [for] He had assumed that he was from the earth, and like one of the teachers of Israel.

This rich ruler of the Pharisee party thus came to the Lord, not seeking true answers to the question of how to inherit Eternal Life, but rather to tempt the Lord and to have his own piety, and righteousness under the Law, fully affirmed and validated. According to the Law of Moses, this wealthy Pharisee saw his own fortune as proof of his blessedness and God’s favour upon him. Rather like one of those oily televangelists of our own times who preach a heretical “Prosperity” Gospel message, this man was full of self-assurance and without any doubt in the spiritual legitimacy of his possessions and wealth. As St Ephrem notes,

He was enriched according to the blessings of the Law, and was confident in his earthly wealth, which the Law promised. So he came as one confident of receiving approbation from our Lord, both for his wealth and his deeds … He questioned him about the Law, for he was about to question him after that with regard to what one who keeps the Law would receive in recompense here on earth.

So, how does our meek Lord respond to this flattery, from this wealthy Pharisee –

And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God.

As Orthodox Christians who affirm the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, this response of our Saviour, could seem rather puzzling. Indeed, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Arians who denied the divinity of the Son of God, would seize on such passages to diminish Jesus’ equality with the Father and see in this passage a proof text of Christ’s ontological distinction from the Father. But again, we should see in this passage that our Lord is not denying His divinity but is again seeking to use this brief encounter to challenge the man out of his spiritual complacency. As St Ephrem explains, when our Lord says –

Why do you call me good? This is an example of his humility, in that he honoured the Father … The rich man called him good, as though favouring him, as people favour their companions with honourary titles. The Lord fled from that by which people favoured him, so that he might show that he had received this goodness from the Father, through nature and generation, and not merely in name.

Our Lord is not a good man in the way that this man thinks, He is One with the Source of Goodness itself. As again St Ephrem underlines, we know that he did not deny his Goodness as elsewhere in the Gospel, our Lord clearly calls Himself Good, such as “I am the Good Shepherd” and indirectly through the Parable of the Sower of Good Seed as well as in such statements as “I and the Father are One”. Against the Arians, therefore, it was not at all that our Lord was denying His goodness, but was engaging in a more subtle and sophisticated point with this wealthy and rather complacent Pharisee. In his meditation on this passage, St Ephrem has our Lord explain his meaning more clearly in an imaginary extended dialogue –

If it is true for you that I have come down from above and that I am Son of the Good One, you did well to call me good. But, if I am from the earth, as you think, you have wrongly called me good … I am not God and God, but God from God, and not good alongside good, but good from good”

Thus in challenging and turning around the rich man’s flattery and praise, our Lord sought to make an important point about humility –

Every single evil has entered into humanity because of the love of pre-eminence. It was for this reason that our Lord abhorred pride before God, since it is this that makes humanity abhorrent before God. Accordingly, he instituted humility as a curb for humanity, so that through it humanity would be obedient to the wishes of the Law, its leader.

After his unsettling reply, our Lord then confirmed that Eternal Life could come from those who were truly obedient to the full letter and spirit of the Law.

Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.

As St Ephrem says –

Our Lord did not give him a pretext from which he might take flight, so that his flight might be rebuked … he confirmed the Law and gave honour to the Lord of the Law.

Despite our Good Lord’s humility in rejecting the rich man’s false praise, again we can see the Pharisee’s pride in his response to our Lord’s rejoinder about the keeping of the commandments.

And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up.

Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.

We can imagine, perhaps the utter shock and surprise of the Pharisee who came to this encounter complacently expecting confirmation and praise but instead find that he is challenged to his very core by what Christ reveals is found in a true and full keeping of God’s Law.

Instead the Lord presented to him, not what he was expecting to hear, but something he did not wish to hear, something which had not even entered into his heart that he might hear.

When the Lord saw from the beginning that his entire heart was buried in the earth, he startled him and shook him from the dust of the earth and made him run towards heaven … If only one is good, and he is in heaven, lift up your love from the earth to the Good One, whom you love.

And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!

This conversation with the Lord had certainly not ended in the way the rich Pharisee had expected. Far from being told that he had completely fulfilled the spiritual life, he was told that he was still lacking, that he still had far to go. In this, though, the Lord was also and kindly opening his eyes to the fulness of the Gospel, so that he would not be deceived from further spiritual struggle by his pride.

So, instead of the milk and honey of infants, the Lord was proposing to him the nails and the cross of those who are perfect.

On this day when we hear our Lord essentially rejecting the Prosperity Gospel, a complacent spiritual righteousness, and a spiritual view which equates material prosperity with blessedness, it is appropriate that we also commemorate three great monastics: St Paul of Thebes, St John the Hut Dweller and St Ita of Killeedy. Ones who each in different ways, and different places, voluntarily gave up their wealth and fortune for the sake of Christ. This morning, I would particularly like to dwell on the life of St John the Hut Dweller and how his life resonates with our Gospel reading today. St John the Hut Dweller was from a very, very wealthy family in the Imperial Capital Constantinople in the 5thC. When he expressed interest in learning more about the teaching of Christ, his parents had a magnificent Gospel made for him with intricate calligraphy, with a cover of Gold, encrusted with gems. According to the view of our rich Pharisee, as well as the Prosperity Gospel, St John with his riches was by definition favoured and honoured by the Lord with nothing left to achieve. Yet, imbibing the words and example of the Saviour, St John decided to leave all his material riches behind to attain greater spiritual riches in heaven and he left with a monk for the Monastery of the Unsleeping Ones in Bithynia. After 6 years in the Monastery the brethren were amazed by his asceticism and prayerfulness, but St John yearned deeply to see his parents again, and so with the blessing of St Marcellus he returned back to his parent’s estate and settled in a small hut on the edge of their property. For 3 years he continued to conceal his identity from them, and had the appearance of a beggar, dressed in rags. His parents fed the pauper with regular parcels of food but had no idea that this was in fact their son, until one day, being told by God that he would soon depart this world, St John gave them the copy of the Gospel they had made for them. After confronting him, St John then revealed his identity amidst tears of joy and sadness. At the age of just 25, St John departed for the Lord and his parents built a church over the hut and entombed his relics inside it, they also built a hostel for strangers next door and at the end of their lives were buried next to their son.

My dear Father, brothers and sisters, as we all know only too well, nothing is so easy in the spiritual life as falling into the pitfall and pot hole of self-deception and puffed up, empty pride. Our Saviour’s conversation with the rich Pharisee should shake us out of our own inclination to spiritual complacency. St John’s life as well as his righteous parents has much to teach us about the right relationship with material wealth. In St John we can see the perfect fulfillment of the “one thing” the rich man of the Gospel lacked: he gave up his wealth and followed Christ. However, we can also see that through the whole family’s prayerfulness, his parents whilst materially wealthy, used their wealth to give to the poor, to feed the needy and went on to found churches and hostels. Thus, as St Ephrem the Syrian explains concerning our Lord’s saying on how hard it was for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God –

Our Lord also said, It is difficult to enter, but not that it was impossible.

Looking around at all the saints that surround us, let us not fall into despair or sadness and let us also remind ourselves of that final verse from our Gospel reading today –

And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.