What is your central focus in life, the thing that is most precious to you right now; the thing that gives meaning to your life? Is it, yourself, your private life?
Is it your proud accomplishments?
Is it your family?
Is it, your solitude?
Is it your study?
Is it your dreams of a successful career in the field of your choice?
Is it, a particular natural ability that you have that makes people admire you, like being a good writer, a good speaker or a good musician, good at sports, or having a good memory?
Is it, your mother, father, sister, brother or one of your grandparents?
Is it, your close friend or a group of friends?
Is your central focus in life, great food, travelling, nice clothes, nice shoes, or your good looks?
Is it your hobby? Going to the Gym? Talking to the world on Facebook, surfing the internet or playing PlayStation?
Is it your work, your shrewd ability to save lots of money in your bank account, or your know how of making money through investments and stocks? Or is it cherishing your wealthy family inheritance?
Is it your children, your wife or your husband? Is it your teacher or some great person you admire? Is it your virtue and the up keep of your good morals? Is it your confidence in your abilities and the sureness of your knowledge?
Is your central focus, your spiritual father, your priest, your church and its facilities and fellowship?
Is it your pet or the whole world and its beautiful variety of nature and animals, cities, countries and islands?
Or is it your fascination with the sun, the moon, all the galaxies and stars? Or is it simply, just having a good time, not hurting others and minding your own business? What is the thing most precious to you? What does life mean to you?
The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes is the key that unlocks the message in the New Testament gospel story in Luke with its parallel. It reflects the struggle of a rich ruler who was searching for meaning in life, like the ruler in Luke who asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 18:18).
The book does not directly identify its author (although scholarship thinks it may have been King Solomon or his name used as a literary device), nevertheless as a sacred text, it is the life-giving message that is important. The writer states that he was a King, a ruler over Israel (Ecc 1:12). But although he had so much power and wealth, he was a troubled person, a person bothered by the inconsistencies, the inequalities, and the mysteries of life.
The first verses in this book written by this King, state: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanitiy of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecc 1:2). The book of Ecclesiastes is masterfully composed to reveal the vanity of trusting in human wisdom, pleasure, wealth, honour, virtues, or any other human endeavour, for satisfaction in this life.
Having gone after human wisdom, pleasure, and wealth, unlike the ruler in Luke’s gospel, this ruler in Ecclesiastes realised his prodigal ways of life, and his efforts to find happiness left him empty, as empty as he was when he began his search.
The primary lesson of Ecclesiastes is that money, power and the glory of this world cannot satisfy that unnameable hunger of the human soul. The human soul is hungry for meaning, for the assurance that life is important, that the world will be different once answers are found, and that human life will be better because one is aware of one’s purpose in the world.
The central theme in Ecclesiastes is that human life without God is vanity and empty of meaning. This enlightened ruler and King (an image of the pinnacle of humanity) illustrates his theme by stating the futility of all human wisdom, the vanity of pleasure and labour. To him, everything in life is hollow, it is like vapour, and it amounts to very little, to nothingness. People live in a world in which there is endless movement but little change, there is a perpetual pouring out of effort and yet, little spiritual profit.
The message of the book of Ecclesiastes is a message than can be addressed to people who live today in the twenty-first century, people who are trapped in a world of materialism, consumerism, secular humanism, greed, vain glory, and hedonism. These people are us! Like the author and King, we are searching for a better life but are unable to find satisfaction in the things we do, and in the things that we have.
The book concludes by providing the answer to life’s purpose and to its message, it says: “The conclusion, when all has been heard: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person; for God will bring every act to judgment; everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecc 12:13-14). What this means is that one should put all of one’s efforts towards that which is above this world, that which is bigger than you or me, to work towards being/living with God, by following Him, by truly obeying Him, not just externally with our body and mind, but internally with our heart, and soul.
This is what it means to obey existentially, to live it and not just mechanically, go through the motions of ‘keeping the rules’. This way we could delude ourselves that we are good and don’t need to do anything more. This is what Jesus challenged the rich young man to do, because seemingly he was good and keeping the commandments, but he didn’t want to truly obey what Jesus had asked of him. For example, the rich young man followed all the rules and commandments of the Mosaic Law, but it seems he did so to gain his wealth which was his passion. Therefore, he followed the rules externally, superficially. We say this because, when the Law-giver challenged him to give up this passion, he was upset/sorrowful (Lk 18:23), he was not able to, and therefore showed that he was not a genuine follower of Christ’s Law, or the spirit of the Law, since the Law is personified in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God, and our life with Him is eternal.
Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) said: “By obedience, your heart and your mind will expand to the dimensions of infinity”. But without obedience to God through faith, it is humanly impossible to enter the kingdom (Lk 18:24-25), however, nothing is impossible for God (Lk 1:37; 18:27; c.f Gen 18:14). Jesus’ response at the end of the pericope makes it clear that “salvation” is something that comes from God’s power received by faith/trust or obedience to God (Lk 7:50; 8:12, 48, 50; 9:24, 56; 17:19; 18:26-27).
This is the main theme raised by the pericope reading of The Rich Young Man in Luke. True obedience to God through faith, is an issue which every Christian must confront and work for. Obedience is perfect renunciation of our own will, for God’s will (expressed through the teachings of Holy Tradition and scripture). It is the path which we must follow in order to become free, in order to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in our heart. As long as there is any passion within us, for everything else except for obedience to God, our life will be hopelessly tragic.
We cannot find peace except in perfect renunciation of our self-will, to crucify our self will for God’s will. True obedience is not just following moral codes and rules; it is a way of life. It is more important to be conscious of, and responsible about, every movement of one’s heart and mind, than to follow a rule. And it is more difficult to develop a certain capacity for discernment than to fix rules for oneself.
Christ said:”He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And He who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt 10:37-38). The Lord’s word is very serious. It is not about a career or about petty things of this life; it is a question of overcoming the passions/or attachments of this world so as to live eternally with the Father. Since the Fall, human nature in all its manifestations is contrary to what our Heavenly Father expects from us. That is why we must hate ourselves in the state in which we are, within the fallen world.
This topic raises the question whether or not each of us has surrendered our entire fallen/broken life, and misguided will, to God; or do we reserve some part wholly for ourselves? In other words, do we observe the more difficult commandments of the New Testament which says: that you truly love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all your strength, and all your soul and that you love your neighbour as yourself? Or have we compartmentalised/ sorted out our life, so that God is consigned to only one of a great number of other important aspects of our lives, pigeon-holed/shelved and kept separate from the rest of our life?
Is God the centre of our life? Or is that centre replaced by something else? Is God first on our list of the endless things that we do each day? Is He even on that list? Should He be on that list? Or does the list go something like, today I have to wake up, go for a run, have a shower, have breakfast, read the newspaper, get dressed, go to work, make some good business, have lunch, speak to a friend on the iphone, come home, get changed, watch some TV, go shopping, eat and go to sleep?
A young man, described as a rich ruler, comes to Jesus. It appears that he is seeking justification, or at least some reassurance that he is on the right spiritual path. In response to Jesus’ questions, he asserts that he has followed the commandments all of his life. He has not committed adultery, nor murder. He has not stolen from others, nor given false witness, nor failed to honour his parents. He has, in other words, followed the rules. He has obeyed the commandments. In the eyes of the Jews, he was most certainly a righteous and smart man. For us, today, his way of life would be considered praiseworthy and good. We are all required, at a minimum, to keep the commandments of God. What could be simpler? But the truth is that the “thou shall not’s” of the OT Scripture, are only, if you will, kindergarten for Christians.
If we want to be perfect (which we are called to be by God), in John Jesus said in His prayer for the Church: “And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: “I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me” (Jn 17:22-23). If we want to follow the road of the saints, who witness to this perfection by the grace of God, and truly become the children of God in Christ, we must not think that our spiritual life stops at the commandments.
The issue, as Jesus observes, is not the simple obedience of rules, regulations and canons, so that we can justify ourselves, to make ourselves appear to be righteous or worthy of praise by following and clinging to these rules exactly. Even Christ said: “No one is good but One, that is, God” (Lk 18:18). This statement that God alone is good derives from the piety of the Old Testament Psalms, where the affirmation of God as ‘good’/’agathos’ occurs (c.f Ps 25:8). This response by Jesus to the rich young man is to redirect human praise in favour of God as the source of all being and all goodness.
The topic here is, while having all these rules, and having everything in this world, one must not be strictly attached to these things; especially if they interfere in our progress to realising the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. That is, when it comes to choosing to live with this created world only or choosing to live with God, the creator of this world.
As a Wise Teacher, Jesus knew through His pure discernment that the focus or deep attachment of the young man was his wealth. It was what characterised his life. It was, in the end, the way in which he defined who he was and what he did. But Jesus knew that it was, in the end, the ultimate thing that kept him from true life, from a personal relationship with God and His Body, the One Church. Jesus thus challenged His questioner the rich man, at his deepest attachment or passion, to abandon the very thing that, whether or not the man knew it, separated him from God, from true life and true obedience or righteousness to the Law. Jesus asked this particular man to surrender that part of him which he kept separate and that he valued the most – in his case, his wealth.
For example, like this young rich man, we can give 99% of ourselves to God, but He expects us to give 100%, our all, our whole life and nothing less; just like He gives all of Himself, all His eternal life to us, as God, in Jesus Christ.
Keep in mind that in this instance, wealth was simply the symptom of the disease of passionate attachment to something. When the Fathers talk about controlling or purifying our passions, this is what they mean: not allowing “anything”, to usurp/take over, or replace the central location and focus of God in our life, by letting ourselves enter into a relationship with this, “something else”. This “something else” could be a passion or an interest which leads to the exclusion of God, Who is the meaning of our life, and the path or direction our life should be headed towards.
In our circumstances, or with other people, this “something else” is an attachment of our heart to something ‘other’ than God, for meaning and true life. Abandoning consciously or unconsciously, our will to follow in the Body of Jesus Christ, to love to be, “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God … Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph 2:19-20).
For many of us it is not uncommon to reserve some aspect of our lives as being separate to our faith in God. This can be anything. As I mentioned and asked earlier, for some of us, it may be our desire for wealth, or what we do for a living. For others, it may be a seemingly unimportant hobby or desire. It may be the music we like, the clothes we wear, or the television and movies we like to watch. Whatever it may be, we know – if we are honest with ourselves – that this is an area that we like to keep for ourselves. We may even say, as the young man in Luke’s gospel did, that it doesn’t matter, because we are at least obeying the Ten Commandments, the rules and expectations of our society, and that we are, on the surface, leading a moral and ethical life.
There are two problems with that sort of thinking. The first is that any area of our life that we segregate from our God, Jesus Christ, is an open door for sin to enter our life (it draws us away from the life-giving grace of God); because any such part of our life is almost certainly rooted in some passionate attachment, some deeply held personal desire and connection of our heart to this transient/temporary world who’s “darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining” (1Jn 2:8).
Secondly, if we allow ourselves to focus on that deeply held passion or desire, it can cause us to miss entirely what God may be saying to us. Our worldly interests create, if you will, a background noise, a distraction, for our lives and the path we are called by God to follow. We may think to ourselves that if we are straying off the path, our conscience will warn us, and that God will call us back.
But the background noise of our lives will often drown out that warning, if we are not constantly vigilant and willing to prioritise our attention to the fountain of life, by following the spiritual guidance of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again”, in other words, whoever drinks and eats the things of this world will thirst and be hungry again; then Jesus said “but whoever drinks of the waters that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (Jn 4:13-14). Jesus IS the final revelation of God, and giver of life and refreshment to all.
In today’s gospel, Jesus knew that even though the rich young ruler kept the rules, and observed the law, that his desire for wealth, this, his defining characteristic, was also the background noise and distraction that would keep him from hearing the small and humble voice of God, which said to him and which says to us “come follow me” (Lk 18:22). It was what would keep him from truly entering the Kingdom of God, because if he could not hear that whispering call, he would never enter into the inheritance of eternal life, which is to live in the Body of Jesus Christ, and thus walk in His footsteps, like the saints did.
This is the challenge for us. We may not be rich young rulers, we may lead moral and ethical lives not breaking any of the external rules, and we may think that this gospel does not apply to us. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will see something, somewhere inside of us that we cling to firmly, an area of our life which we place first and which we stubbornly refuse to give up, for God. Whatever it may be, we find ourselves faced with the dilemma of the rich young man.
For those who ‘rely on themselves that they are righteous,’ and who ‘justify themselves’ and who are ‘lovers of money, or the things of this world’, by the standards of Luke’s gospel, it is indeed ‘humanly impossible’ to enter the kingdom of God; trust in money, other people or yourself for security in one’s existence, makes it impossible to follow Jesus when He said, “sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Lk 18:22). At this point Jesus is highlighting the deeper aspect of obedience, which is “kenosis”. This means the total offering of ourselves: mind, body and soul, to God; and to serving our neighbour in this spirit.
on the mercy of God –like children, the poor, the lame, the blind, the sinners, those who have no attitude at all. The kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus is made up of just such helpless types of simple and humble people, who are open and trust (Lk 18: 17; c.f Matt 22:2-14). Jesus’ stark statement of the camel and the needle, when He said, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:25), is to make the point that, no one should seek, as so many have, for a soft or easy path toward the kingdom of heaven; and that what is humanly impossible in this world, is possible for God.
The kingdom proclaimed by Jesus is entirely about the power of God at work to heal and liberate and empower; not about humans accomplishing things for themselves.
The point of the rich man’s disposal of his property was not another ‘good work’ or observance of Mosaic Law, but precisely to abandon all possessions in order to receive the good news as one who was poor.
The pronouncement by Jesus, “How hard is it for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:24), is not about ‘the wealthy’ finding it difficult to enter the kingdom, but ‘those who have possessions, those who are attached to the things of this world’. It is just as hard to leave family and friends, boats, the tax collector’s business, and our knowledge, as it is to leave ‘great wealth’ when it means throwing one’s life completely over to God in faith.
The words of promise by Jesus concerning those who have left/ detached themselves from all such things, stands as surety for what was told the ruler: giving away possessions/ the things that possess us, makes a “treasure in heaven” (Lk 18:22).
The rich ruler and author of the book of Ecclesiastes shares with us this more down to earth and sober outlook of life, which acknowledges the priority of communion and total dependence on God. He becomes an image of a more enlightened rich young man, to the one whom Jesus was trying to teach in the gospel of Luke.
People who read the book of Ecclesiastes discover that the way of life described in its pages is an accurate description of the way life is lived today. It brings a special message of hope and direction to those who are searching for a better life, for it shows that the author confronted a life of perplexity and meaninglessness and in the end found his answer.
What then is life all about?
The rich ruler in the book of Ecclesiastes struggled with the mysteries of life, and he found the answer to the same question the rich young man in Luke’s gospel was asking Jesus. What was his answer? Well, he discovered that all human affairs and pursuits are vain and useless, unless God is present in human affairs, and this is the lesson that Jesus teaches us in Luke’s gospel.
The book of Ecclesiastes is the key to understanding the message of the pericope in Luke. It exhorts the reader to avoid the vanities of this life and to pursue the things that lead to love, hard work (vigilance), patience, and the fear of God.
In the end, the book is an invitation to draw near to the living God in reverent worship and in humble acknowledgment of His power, and in reliance on His justice. Life is highly complex, and it is the work of a great Creator. God has designed the world and everything in it to function according to His wonderful purpose which has eternal and dynamic dimensions. When we humans are not aligned to His purpose, our life has no meaning and everything we do will be disruptive and have a dead end.
Because the rich ruler in Ecclesiastes was courageous enough to express the deepest sentiments of his heart, we can acknowledge with all certainty that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the best help for us who live today in a world that offers no easy answers to the difficult problems of life.
St Isaac the Syrian, in his homily on faith and humility said: “O miserable man, do you wish to find life? Hold faith and humility fast within you; for through them you will find mercy, help, and words spoken by God in the heart, along with a protector who stands beside you both secretly and manifestly. Do you wish to obtain these things, which are a fountain of life? From the very outset take hold of simplicity. Walk before God in simplicity and not with knowledge. Simplicity is attended by faith; but subtle and intricate deliberations, by conceit ; and conceit is attended by separation from God”.