St. Athanasius Icon
St. Athanasius Church in Germas (Loshnitsa)
We’ve got a long way to go. This coming into union with God is a journey. It is progressive – usually. It is not usually an instantaneous and overwhelming moment of grace. Sure, God blinds Paul with his light, but even after his conversion, Paul is still irascible Paul, thorns and all, and even he needs growth (Acts 9:3; 2 Cor 12:7). I believe even heaven itself is an eternal dynamic ascent into ever greater union with God, and not a static, one-and-done, resting on your laurels kind of place.
When a young man comes to Jesus asking what good he must do to have eternal life, Jesus points first to the seemingly out-of-reach source of all goodness and says, “There is One Who is good” (Matt 19:16-17). Yet, he does not begin by commanding that the young man be good, even as the only good one is good. Rather, he begins with basic commandments – five of the Ten Commandments and the human side of the greatest commandment, that is, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 19:18-19).
We have to begin at the beginning. We have to love the person in front of us, the image of God in others, before we can love God, before we can be like God. As Dorothy Day says, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
These initial commandments are essential, but they are not sufficient. They are a necessary first step, but alone, they do not perfect us or unite us to God. Even if we were perfect observers of these commandments, we would not be perfect.
There is a list of sins in the Great Book of Needs meant to aid penitents in confessing their sins in holy repentance. I’m sure many are familiar with similar lists, often called Examinations of Conscience. We might get the sense, while poring over these lists, that if somehow by the grace of God we kept free of these sins, then we’d be perfect. But it isn’t so. Perfection goes beyond the negative prohibition of sin and culminates, above all, in being with God – being with the Being One – the One who is. After we fulfill the commandments, Jesus commands us, “Come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). Only being with Jesus is enough.
The rich young man desired perfection. That’s clear, because he went away sad – saddened by his own unwillingness to follow Jesus (Matt 19:22). He knew that he lacked something. Keeping the commandments that he kept wasn’t sufficient. He yearned for more. He knew there was more.
We are created by our very nature and from the very beginning for union with God. Our created nature yearns for God. Even if we are committing no voluntary sins (and who among us can say that?) but even if we are like the young man and are seemingly guilty of nothing, it still isn’t enough, as the young man could sense when he asked, “what do I still lack?" (Matt 19:20) He could sense an absence and a need for growth.
Our need for growth is everlasting. Even when we die and are planted in the earth, our growth may not be finished. Our ascent into union with God is never-ending. The divine nature of which we partake is inexhaustible (cf. 2 Pet 1:4). We begin to partake of the divine nature, but we never stop because there is no end of God. He is without end and he alone is all-sufficient for us. No riches are sufficient.
Jesus says to the rich man, “Go sell what you possess and give to the poor… and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). If you would be perfect, turn away from the good created things that comfort you, and turn instead toward the true Comforter – the Holy Spirit. Come, follow Jesus. Be with Jesus. Only Jesus is enough.
To be with Christ is pure joy and perfection. To be with Christ – even to suffer with him on the cross – is better than to be the lord of great manor with servants to wait upon you, with all delectables to eat and every comfort at your disposal. It is better to be with Christ. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Matt 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25).
So as we progress in divine communion, we must turn our back on more and more of the things which distract us from that union – even good things. It’s not that the rich man’s things were bad. There is nothing bad about possessions in and of themselves. Except when they possess us.
We must regard our possessions as not really ours. All our things are actually the Lord’s. We are stewards and not the lords of creation. The Lord is the true possessor of all things. If he asks us to give something away, we’d better give it away because it is his to give, not ours.
St. Anthony the Great understood this. When he heard today’s gospel read in the church, he responded as though the passage had been read on his account, and he took it at its word. He went out immediately from the church, and gave away all his inherited possessions. He gave three hundred productive and beautiful acres to the villagers. And all the rest he sold and gave to the poor and to care for his sister and he went to seek the Lord in the desert.
If we will be perfect, it is necessary to turn away from everything that is not God, and it is necessary to keep the commandments, but even this is not enough. Only Jesus is enough. After we keep the commandments, after we give everything to the poor, Jesus then commands us, “Come, follow me.” Apart from this, it is impossible for us to be saved.
The disciples grasp a problem here very quickly – more quickly than I would have in their place. When Jesus teaches that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, the immediate and more obvious conclusion would be, it seems to me, that the poor will have an easier time of it (Matt 19:24). But that’s not what the disciples suggest. They don’t ask, “Can only the poor then be saved?” Rather, they ask, “Who then can be saved?” (Matt 19:25).
Perhaps, as poor men, they already knew by experience how difficult it was to be saved. As poor men, they knew that their poverty alone was not enough to save them. And here is a rich man whose wealth is not enough either. So, who then can be saved? And the answer is: it’s impossible (Matt 19:26). We can’t save ourselves. The rich cannot save themselves and the poor cannot save themselves. Only with God is this possible (Matt 19:26). Only in Jesus. Only Jesus is enough. And that is why Jesus commands the rich young man to follow him, to be with him. That is the only way to perfection, the only way to eternal life.
There is only one way, and it is grace, the life of God. Our salvation is an act of God. It’s not that we don’t have something to do with it. We must do something insufficient, and he makes it sufficient. Divine Grace supplies what is lacking, as the bishop says over those he’s ordaining. Jesus takes our small and insufficient offering, as he took the five loaves and two fish, and he makes it great and sufficient. He takes our poor offering – our prosphora – of bread and wine, and he makes it himself, by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon us and upon our gifts.
Bread and wine is not enough to save us. Only the body and the blood of Jesus Christ saves us. It is for the remission of sins and for life everlasting. The divine flesh of Jesus is our life. Only Jesus is enough to perfect us, to save us, to give us eternal life.
(A version of this article now appears on Catholic Exchange).