In the Gospel for August 19th, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Mt 19.16-26), we hear about the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man. After being told that perfection requires that he sell all he have, give the proceeds to the poor, and become himself a disciple of Jesus, the young man "went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions" (v. 22). As the young man turns and leaves, Jesus says "to His disciples, 'Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, 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'" (vv. 23-24). In response to this teaching of Jesus the disciples " were greatly astonished, saying, 'Who then can be saved?'" (v. 25).
This question of the disciples is key to our understanding of the Gospel: Who can be saved?
Certainly not the rich young man, at least not at the moment in his life when we meet him. When he is offered salvation he simply walks away. St John Chrysostom in his homily (Homily 63) on this passage cautions us that while the young man is "avaricious and greedy since Christ showed him up as such" we ought not to think him "a dissembler," who was simply trying to trick Jesus. We know that the young man was sincere in his question to Jesus for two reason.
First, Chrysostom tells us, we have the testimony of the Apostle Mark. In Mark's Gospel (1o.17, 21) the man is shown running up to Jesus "and kneeling before him" asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus, for his part according to Mark, looks at the young man with love. So both the young man's own behavior in asking the question as well as Jesus' gentle, even affection, response suggests that whatever his other faults he wasn't trying to trick Jesus.
But Chrysostom offers us a second reason for not doubt the sincerity of the young man. St John tells us that the young man "seems ready to do what he would be told." The young man was well disposed toward obedience. Had his heart been otherwise, had his intent been "to put Jesus to the test, the Evangelist would have give some indication of this as he does in other cases." And so
If the young man had come to test him, he would not have retreated downcast at what he heard. This never happened to any of the Pharisees. When refuted they were all the more angry. This man was not angry. He went away in sorrow, which is no little signal that he did not come t0him with evil intent.Well, if the young man did not come with evil intent, what was the problem, why didn't he follow Jesus? Chrysostom says though he did not come withe evil intent, the young man "did come with too weak a will." St John continues:
Truly he did desire life but was held in the grip of a serious moral infirmity. When therefore Christ said, "If you would enter life, keep the commandments," he said "Which?" not putting him to the test--far from it--but because he thought that there were some other ones beside those in the law which could bring him life. So he seems quite earnest.Though he is sincere, the young man is weak willed. St Jerome in his Commentary on Matthew points of that divine grace is never lacking and so for this reason it "is in our power whether we wish to be perfect." But perfection demands not simply that we "sell . . . in part, . . . but sell . . . all." And even this is insufficient Jerome says
unless after despising riches [we follow] the Savior, that is, abandon evil and [do] good. For easily is a little purse despised than one's will. Many abandon their wealth but do not follow the Savior. To follow the Savior is to be an imitator if him and walk in his steps, Anyone who says that he believes in Christ must himself also walk in the steps he walked in.It is this last thing that the young man lacked. It was less that he was unwilling to follow Jesus and more that he was unwilling to imitate him. But again, we ought not to judge him harshly for this since. Yes, "he put great trust in wealth" but because he "was a young man." He was, in St Hilary of Poiters' phrase trapped in "an arrested adolescence."
Here I think developmental psychology can help us. The difference between and adolescent and an adult is not that one loves and the other doesn't. Rather it is that the adult is willing to love sacrificially and do so for the good of others. The young man was willing to keep the law for his own sake--but unwilling to go beyond the law for the sake of others. He would not use his wealth for the salvation of others.
St Cyril of Alexandria tells us that while the law isn't perfect, it "is a kind of introduction to the eternal life, briefly acquainting trainees to the things above." How can the law do this? Because it "is the starting point for social justice." He continues, "For the beginning of good is to act justly, . . . [and just] action . . . is shown by the law, . . . [even as] goodness is shown by Christ." The young man in refusing to imitate Christ showed himself unwilling to become perfect. Like adolescents everywhere, he preferred the lesser good of justice, but refused to go beyond justice and commit himself to the greater good of sacrificial love which in the end brings the only lasting justice since love reconciles us not only to God, but to one another and to ourselves.
So, who then can be saved?
St John Chrysostom says that Christ promises "a significant reward for the wealthy who can practice self-denial." But this ascetical exertion isn't meant to be an end in itself, but rather is in the service of the salvation of others. Think about the disciples at the very end of the Gospel reading. When they heard how hard salvation is they were clearly upset. "But why were they upset," Chrysostom asks, "since they were poor, very poor in fact?"
They were upset for others' salvation and because they possessed great love towards them all. Already they were taking on the tenderness of teachers. At least they were in such trembling and fear for the whole world from Jesus declaration as to need much comfort.So what about us? What are we to do in response to the teaching the Gospel reading puts in front of us? Again, from Chrysostom's homily:
If you want also to learn the way and how the impossible becomes possible, listen. He did not make this statement that what is impossible for man is possible for God merely so you could relax and do nothing and leave it all to God. No, he said this so you could understand the importance of calling upon God to give you help in this rigorous contest and that you might ready approach his grace.Like the disciples in the Gospel, all of us who are in Christ have been called to be witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are each of us called personally by Christ to evangelize the world around. We are each of us called to put the salvation of others at the center of our lives and to prefer nothing else to obedience to our great calling.
So who will be saved?
Only those who make the salvation of others their concern. For most of us our spiritual lives never seem to ever quite get started, or if we start we quickly run out of energy, we stall out. I would suggest that, like the rich young man in the Gospel, this happens because we fail to imitate Christ, we fail to be concerned for the salvation of others. But when we work to advance the Gospel, to bring others not simply to Church, but to Christ in and through the things His Church offers (prayer, fasting, Scripture, the Fathers and above all the sacraments), growth in the spiritual life, peace, love and joy really do become ours even if the circumstances of our lives are not what we would hope.
At the end of Matthew's Gospel (28.19-20), Jesus tells us
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen.St John Chrysostom says in his homily (Homily 90) that Jesus "does not scold Peter for his denial or anyone of the others for their flight." Rather, after putting "into their hands a summary of Christian teaching, which is expressed in the form of baptism, he commands them to go out into the whole world."
If we would be saved then, like the disciples and unlike the rich young man, we must be faithful to this final command of Christ.