Success. It is a pretty important word to most of us. Success is something we strive for every day. How would you define success? Does it consist of having a big beautiful house with a swimming pool and jacuzzi, a couple of cars, a six-figure salary, a profitable investment portfolio, and a few “toys?” Now, none of these things are bad things. It is how we view them and what level of importance we ascribe to them that can be problematic, even sinful.
When we find our identity in worldly success and material things, we are building our futures on unstable ground. But even beyond building on unstable ground, the fact of the matter is that even when you have all those things, there are plenty of times when the “successful” life does not seem to be so successful, or even happy for that matter. You can have millions of dollars in the bank and not want for anything and still be empty inside. You do not have to look any further than Hollywood to see proof of what I say, and many of us do not have to look beyond our own community, or even beyond our own families to see the truth of my statement. What is constantly touted as the “good life,” often turns out to be quite an unhappy life.
Throughout my entire priesthood, I have encountered many people whose whole view of success was how much they made and how much they had. If I made more than you, I was more successful than you. If the boat I bought was bigger than yours, it stands to reason that I am more successful than you. But so many times, as they accumulated money and stuff and had an outwardly beautiful wife and kids, the successful life they were striving for seemed to crumble around them as the desire for more stuff and wealth led to affairs and broken marriages, to drug use, to power struggles, and to a continual lack of contentment.
The “successful life” that many people chase after and work so hard to obtain is a mirage, an illusion. Such a life tricks people into believing that money and material possessions, and the so-called freedom they promise to provide, is all one needs to be truly happy. Their identity and character, therefore, are tied to their wealth and possessions. The identity they were given when they were created by God is slowly replaced over time with an identity that deforms and disfigures them.
In today’s Gospel, we encounter a man who is the picture of success and happiness as the world sees it and understands it. We heard him ask Jesus: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call Me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.” “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” the man replied. When Jesus heard this, He said to the man, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” When he heard this, the man became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, 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.”
At the beginning of his encounter with Jesus, the man asked the Lord, “What must I DO to inherit eternal life? The word “DO” is significant in that it implies that something must be done in order to get to Heaven. But what is it that we are supposed to do? Well, we know what Jesus said, and it did not make the man very happy.
You see, there is “doing” things and then there is “performing.” What the young ruler was doing was merely performing. He was “doing” just to look good before others. When we are driven by pride and self-love, we learn how to look good doing what we do because ultimately the focus is on us. How do people see me? Do they like me? Do they think I am good? So, to get people to like us, to make them think we are good, we perform.
Some people want others to know how good they are without having to tell them. So, they perform. This is called false humility. Such people appear to be humble but try to orchestrate things, so that others will know how good they are. They are not really doing good things for others as much as they are doing them to make themselves look good. Rather than their good works being about others, they are really about them.
I think there is a level of false humility in the man who approached Jesus. He does not want to let others know how good he thinks he is, so he approaches Jesus in the hopes that Jesus will affirm him in his obedience to the Commandments and in his goodness. But that is not what Jesus did. In fact, Jesus put the man to the test by telling him to go and sell all that he has and give to the poor. This made the rich man very sad and he went away disappointed and dejected.
The reason the man was sad was that his definition of goodness was not the same as God’s definition of goodness. The man was good, according to the world’s standards of goodness; he kept many of the commandments since he was a boy. The problem was, however, that his keeping of the commandments was merely mechanical. There was no heart, no feeling, no true understanding of why he was doing what he was doing.
Is that not what many people do today? Take for instance attending Divine Liturgy on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. How many of you come to church because you have always done it or because it is an obligation? Coming to church on Sunday is part of your weekly Sunday routine. You get up, shower and get dressed, come to church, and after church go home or out to dinner. You do this Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. So, my question to you is this: “Why do you come here every Sunday? How many truly know what happens during the two and a half hours you are here? Do you know what the Divine Liturgy is? Do you know what happens at the consecration of the bread and wine? For many people, coming to church is “performing.” They must be seen in church so that other people know they are good. Sadly, however, there are many Orthodox Catholics who have no idea why they come to church or what really happens here on Sundays and feast days when we celebrate the Divine Liturgy. It is all about performing.
Regrettably, many people go through life performing and not living. People will like me if they see how I perform: if I am good; if I am successful. This is America’s religion. Do good, be good, and success in all things will be yours. Perform well, and you will be liked by many.
Notice how Jesus responds to the rich man. I believe He sees that the man’s heart is proud and immediately gets to the heart of the issue concerning who is good and who is not. Jesus tells him "No one is good-except God alone.” (Luke 18:19) And then He starts listing the commandments. But notice that Jesus skips the first four, the ones that have something to do with our relationship with God and lists the next five, which have a lot of outward actions that people can see.
The rich ruler says, "All these I have kept since I was a boy," (Luke 18:21) Well done, everyone says. Everyone except Jesus, that is. That is because performance-driven success is a thief. Performance driven success focuses on the external, the things people can see. Performance driven success keeps you constantly striving and reaching for more and more of the things people can see. The result of this is that the True God is replaced by an earthly god, a false idol. What happens next is that you stop worshipping the Triune God, the Holy Trinity, and start worshipping a false god, the god of self.
The god of self is the false idol of apparent success. One ultimately ends up worshipping one’s self and seeking one’s own glory. We all suffer from this to some extent. This is certainly the case with the rich ruler in today’s Gospel. He is a man of great wealth we are told. Not just rich, but a man of great wealth. He is the Bill Gates, the Oprah Winfrey, the Warren Buffet of Jerusalem in terms of wealth.
Jesus knew what the man was all about. He also knew that the man had issues, especially heart issues. The man’s heart was caught up in doing good and having a lot, and this represented to him a successful life. His trust was in his “stuff” and not in the Lord.
A person could be as wealthy as Bill Gates and still have his heart focused on Christ, A person can also be as poor as dirt and have his focus on money or possessions; on the things he does not have, and not think of Christ at all. Money always reveals the condition of one’s heart. Money dictates how we think of ourselves and of others. Money dictates how we view our good works and what kind of good works we do. When money is our motivating factor, when we seek to worship at the altar of the god of self, the good we do is negated so that, when the time comes for us to give an account of our life on the Day of Judgment, such “good works” will work against us.
Success in this world does not mean we will get to heaven. In fact, success in this world can mean failure in heaven. Even though we may be outwardly successful, we can face inner failure; a failure which will hinder us from getting to Heaven.
I believe the rich ruler, who had done many outwards acts of good and had all kinds of wealth, was still struggling with inner failure, struggling with who he really was. I think that is one of the reasons he came to Jesus. “Maybe if He tells me I am good, I will feel better.” “Maybe if He affirms me, I will feel fulfilled inside.” But that did not happen. Rather, Jesus told the man to do something very difficult. He put the man to the test.
In both the Old and New Testaments, the word “test” means “to prove by trial.” Therefore, when God tests His children, His purpose is to prove our faith is real. Not that God needs to prove it to Himself since He knows all things. On the contrary, God tests us so that we may prove to ourselves what is truly in our hearts, that our faith is real, that we are truly His children, and that no trial will overcome our faith.
The Prophet David sought God’s testing, asking Him to examine his heart and mind and see that they were true to Him (Psalm 26:2; 139:23). When Abraham was tested by God in the matter of sacrificing his son, Isaac, Abraham obeyed God’s command without question. Thus, Abraham showed to all the world that he is the father of faith (Romans 4:16). So, too, in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tests the faith of the rich ruler by telling him to do something very difficult; a task the ruler could not complete because his heart was weak in faith.
God tests us because He loves us. Like gold which is purified in a furnace, we too are purified by the trials of life which we experience on an almost daily basis. God loves us and wants the very best for us. But the very best is not found in “stuff” or accomplishments. It is found in Christ. Following Christ is the key that opens the door to a treasure house filled with unimaginable riches.
When we are centered on Christ in our life, when we live a life in Christ, when we let Christ work in us and through us, we understand what the meaning of life is truly about. We understand who we are in Him and recognize that we have nothing apart from Him. That is the moment we realize that we have a successful life, both in this life and in the life to come.
As He did with the rich man, Jesus invites us to follow Him. Now, Lord is not asking us to really go out and sell all that we have. But we should be willing to do so happily and without hesitation, if the Lord puts us to the test.
If our possessions get in the way of our relationship with God, then we should be willing to go and sell everything we have, that we may follow Christ without distraction. If your possessions and money are more important to you than your relationship with God, you too will walk away sad and disappointed when the Lord tells you to go and sell everything you have and follow Him. In that moment, you will realize that all your giving and good deeds were nothing but a performance and a worthless one at that.
Remember, beloved, the words of Christ: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”