13th Sunday of Luke
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear the well-known story of the rich man who came to Jesus to ask what one must do to inherit eternal life. Before addressing his question directly, Jesus reminds him of something much more basic, which also provides us with the key to understanding his subsequent answer. The rich man had addressed Jesus with the words, ‘Good teacher’. Jesus answers, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except one: God’. Far from denying his divinity here, as some suggest, Jesus is pointing out to the rich man that, although he has approached him as a mere man — calling him ‘teacher’ —, by calling him ‘good’ he is also confessing his divinity (albeit unintentionally), since only God is good, and all that is good has its source in him. As we read in the Epistle of James — quoted in the final prayer of the Divine Liturgy — ‘Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights’ (1:17).
The same is of course true of earthly goods. They come from and belong to God. As St Cyril of Jerusalem says, ‘Riches, and gold, and silver are not, as some think, the devil’s […] if you use it well, there is no fault to be found with money […] a man may even be justified by money’. Referring to today’s Gospel reading, he continues, ‘Money can become a door to the kingdom of heaven: “Sell, says Jesus, all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”’ (Catechetical Lectures 8:6). This is why other Church Fathers, commenting on this story, make a distinction between those who are ‘rich’ and those who are ‘stewards’ of riches. The ‘rich’ man is one who places his trust in material wealth, who considers what he has to be his own, hoarding it for himself and spending it on himself. The ‘steward’, on the other hand, is the one that recognises that what he has is not his own, but comes from and belongs to God — the source of every good, in whom he puts his trust — and spends it accordingly.
While the wealth of a good steward can ‘become a door to the kingdom’, it is the rich man’s failure to acknowledge God, to trust in God, and to offer the things of God back to God (which is the purpose of every human being as priest of creation) that makes it so difficult, if not impossible, for him to enter the kingdom of heaven. And this failure to acknowledge that all things ultimately belong to God —even our very being is “on loan”, as St Maximus the Confessor says — is one we are all guilty of, regardless of how little or how much we may think we possess by way of material wealth.
This brings us to another important point: the words of the Lord apply to every one of us. It is easy when reading today’s passage to think of the super rich, of celebrities, politicians, business tycoons, or even well-off acquaintances. But whenever hear the Lord admonishing a person or group of people in the Gospels, we should first and foremost hear him speaking to us, not others. I am the Pharisee, I am the Sadducee, the tax-collector, the harlot, and today the wealthy ruler who became ‘very sad’ when he realised that, in order to inherit eternal life, he had to render all his goods to the one who alone is Good.
Fr Kristian Akselberg