The rich ruler becomes “sad” after Jesus shows him the way to “inherit eternal life” (Luke 18: 23, 18). Why should that make him sad? That’s what he asked for, isn’t it (18:18)? Yes, but the way Jesus shows him is uncomfortable. It’s not the answer he wanted. Perhaps he wanted a pat on the back for what he was already doing – a “well done, good and faithful servant” – and why not? He’d been keeping the commandments!
God knows that many of us fail to keep the commandments. This rich ruler did not commit adultery, did not kill, did not steal, did not lie. He honored his mother and his father. When Jesus began to list these commandments, the ruler must have been pleased. He had observed all these commandments from his youth (18:21), so hearing Jesus describe these as the way to eternal life must have felt reassuring at first, I would think.
The ruler had done so much already, in his own estimation. Surely following all these commandments should be enough? My brothers and sisters in Christ, there is no such thing as enough.
Upon hearing that the ruler has taken the step of following the commandments, Jesus has for him another step: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor… and come follow me.” If the ruler had not yet been following the commandments, I wonder if Jesus would have revealed to him this next step. I think not. He feeds us first with milk, not solid food, and gives us solid food only when we are ready (cf. 1 Cor 3:2). And, on the other hand, if the ruler had readily distributed all his wealth to the poor and followed Jesus, as many saints have done, he would then have been given another step to climb. This is what those saints have discovered.
There are those who have followed the way of Jesus and have given away all their wealth to the poor to follow after him. We celebrate one of these great saints of this coming week, Saint Nicholas. Also Saint Anthony the Great. Also Saint Francis of Assisi. Many have followed Jesus in this way of poverty. What they have discovered is that this, too, is not the end of their growth.
Eternal life is still not a done deal, even if we’ve grown to such a degree of radical trust in God. Rather, out there in the desert with no possessions and following Jesus, Saint Anthony was beset by countless demons and passions. He had to do battle out there still. The work was not done. There is always more growing to do.
We find growth uncomfortable. But Jesus is teaching us to embrace growth, which feels rather like embracing the cross. For as long as we do not embrace it, growth remains painful. We suffer growing pains. If we never embrace growth, the pain becomes everlasting. The rich ruler did not embrace growth, and so he went away sad.
I am convinced that growth is life and life is growth – and that eternal life is eternal growth. What must we do to inherit eternal life? Grow eternally. When we stop growing, it means we’re dead.
St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches us this in his book about the Life of Moses. Life is about becoming one with God, and God is boundless and perfect. “How can we reach the boundary when there is no boundary?” asks Gregory (paraphrased). “The one limit of perfection is the fact that it has no limit.” The race to virtue never ends (I, 5-6; cf. II, 242).
It’s important to remember that God commands us to be perfect. But perfection is unlimited, so how can we ever reach it? Only God is good, as Jesus reminds us today (Luke 18:19). St. Gregory observes, “The perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness” (I, 10). Growth is the perfection we’re called to. Growth is life. “No limit… interrupt[s] growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the good brought to an end because it is satisfied” (II, 239). There is “always… a step higher than the one [we have] attained” (II, 227). If we live virtuously, our capacity for more virtue will increase. Our capacity to love increases the more we love. It’s not a limited commodity. It doesn’t work like that. Our potential for growth is limitless, because the God calling us to himself is limitless.
In imitation of Christ, our Byzantine tradition constantly calls us to grow. It is not a minimalist tradition. You may have noticed. It does not propose to us the least we must do to in order to find a place in the back pew of heaven. This is not what Jesus does either. When we have grown to a certain point, he shows us that it is now time to grow to a still higher point. Our Byzantine tradition is a maximalist tradition. It proposes to us more than we can possibly do so that, no matter how much we have done, there is always more to do. There’s always another step. There’s always more growing to do.
In this season of the Philip’s fast, our tradition challenges us to grow, to give a bit more of ourselves, more of our time to prayer in the church and at home, more of our wealth to the poor. Let’s listen with some fear of God to Jesus’ admonishment about wealth today and his invitation to remember the poor (Luke 18:24-25, 22). Let’s make an effort to come to church once or twice more than we usually do during the week. Let’s go to a service we’ve never been to before. If we don’t sing the Divine Liturgy, let’s start singing – even if we only sing quietly at first. Let’s accept the challenges our tradition offers us to grow.
Since this Byzantine tradition of our is so challenging, some might be asking, why should I bother? It’ll be more convenient – won’t it? – and more comfortable to find a Roman Catholic parish nearby where I can get in and out of Mass in 45 minutes and then be about my business. Maybe business, after all, is what we really care about. Probably, most of us could find a parish closer to home, too. Being Byzantine these days takes so much extra effort and, really, what’s the point? It’s all the same thing, isn’t it?
I’m telling you, our tradition has something to offer you very much like what Jesus is offering the rich ruler today: opportunity for growth, which is life itself. We must stop looking at the inconveniences of our tradition and our situation as a problem to be avoided, and begin to embrace them as opportunities to grow in union with God. We must stop regarding our liturgical services as some drudgery to get through in order to fulfill some imagined obligation. Check the box and move on, as if that would help us grow in union with God. If we really pray our services, rather than waiting for them to be over, we wouldn’t care if they went on all day. Getting to the end isn’t the point, we’d realize. The Divine Liturgy has no end. If we don’t like praying together, we’re not going to be able stand it in heaven, because that’s what we do there. And not being able to stand it in heaven is a condition of being known as hell.
When we embrace our tradition, we will see how much it helps us grow and eventually we will realize is that it is possible to take joy in our growth. Because we are growing closer to the Lord, who is our true joy. If things other than the Lord are our joy, we find it drudgery to grow. Because growing in the Lord, after all, is growing apart from the things of this world, inasmuch as they are fallen, broken, and disordered by our sinfulness. As long as we resist this growth, it will cause us pain and life will be pain for us. As soon as we begin to take joy in growth, we begin to delight, even now, in the eternal garden of paradise.