Asking the Wrong Question

OKAY, OKAY – SO WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO to get an A in your super course, prof? … Is it too farfetched to see the young man in Matthew 19:16-26 as an exuberant adolescent bursting upon the scene who wants to sew up this heaven thing as soon as he can? The Lord Jesus puts on the brakes (“Why do you call me good?” ) and then gives him the first step – keep the Commandments.

“I keep those commandments already – there’s got to be more to it than that. Spell it out for me – what else can I do to nail this down?”

The young man wanted another rule to follow; the Lord told him to offer his whole life: “Come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Put everything else aside and join the company of My followers. He was not ready for this; he was too attached to his current way of life.

The story must have been one of the most popular in the early Church. It appears in all three synoptic Gospels. And in each it follows immediately on Jesus’ encounter with the little children. He is the Lord of all – children, overanxious youth and, in the following passage, His close disciples.

No Other Law

Many Fathers saw in these passages an indication that the Christian life was not a matter of specific laws but of progressive growth from one stage of development to another. The young man wanted to know the (one size fits all) rules that he could incorporate into his life, but there are none.

The Christian life is above all a relationship with the Person of God in Jesus Christ. It is not static, a matter of a few precepts we can master early on which will guarantee us eternal life. As a relationship it will grow as we grow and to the degree that we grow. The two-year old learning how to act when he gets “Jesus Bread” and the elder cherishing the experience of the Liturgy all week long are both living their life in Christ, each in a way appropriate to him or her. One cannot be forced from childhood to adulthood – it happens gradually or not at all. The same is true in the spiritual life. As St John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, advised, “Do not then seek all at once, but gently, and by little and little, ascend this ladder, that leads you up to Heaven” (Homily 63 on Matthew, 16).

Rungs of the Ladder

There have been a number of descriptions of this ladder in the Christian East. Certainly the most famous is that of St. John of Sinai whose work, The Ladder (klimax in Greek), earned him the name “Climacos.” There are several other schemas, drawn from the experience of other ascetics, as well. One is worth considering here as it speaks of the rungs as successive stages in our attempts to serve God.

The first stage is that of the “Slaves of God.” Slaves may have a sincere desire to follow God’s commandments, but they do so out of fear. They reason that, if they don’t keep these commandments, they will go to hell. On the positive side, this idea may keep them from wrongdoing and even draw them closer to God. On the negative side, they may not be willing to engage in any spiritual activity unless failing to do so would be a mortal sin. “Do I have to?” is an infantile way of relating to God. There is more.

The second stage is those who serve as Employees of God. They serve the Lord, not to escape punishment but to earn a reward. They are not just trying to keep out of hell – they look to attain heaven, to gain eternal life. The rich young man was perhaps at this stage. He wanted to know what he could do to earn this goal.

Many pious people have been told that if they perform this or that act of devotion they will earn points with God: “If you do this, God will do this.” This is some kind of a contract, but it is not faith in the biblical sense of the term. The Lord’s story of the vineyard owner who rewards the last even as the first (Matthew 20:1-16) illustrates that it is not our work (our good deeds) but God’s freely-given generosity (grace) that produces spiritual blessings. The works they do, the deeds they undertake to do may be good things in themselves, but “employees” do them to get a paycheck.

The third stage is that of “Friends” or “Lovers” of God. This is the stage of people who have come to realize deeply that God is truly their Father, and that Christ is truly the Lover of Mankind, as we say so often in our divine services. Whatever pious or charitable things they may perform, they do – not to get a reward or avoid punishment – but out of love of the One who loves them.

When we are children our understanding is so limited that fear of punishment may be the only thing that keeps us from getting into trouble. As children grow, their relationship with their parents changes – they do things to gain their approval, not just to avoid their displeasure. As they grow to adulthood their relationship must mature as well. It is the same with our relationship with God.

The “Oil on the Rung”

After the young man had left, Christ told His followers, “Assuredly I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 23). The rich man here is not the person who has material things, but the person who is attached to them: the person who, like the young man in the story, cannot move to a deeper communion with God if it means giving up a comfortable lifestyle. Their attachment to the comforts of this life prevents them from climbing to the next rung. Attachment to the life we have made for ourselves can be such hurdle to overcome in progressing toward God that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” (v.24).

Some modern commentators have tried to make this image more “reasonable” by explaining it away. For years people said that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle through which a camel could not pass unless it stooped and first had all its baggage first removed. There never was such a gate, but fundamentalists were uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus exaggerating to such a degree. He must, they reasoned, have been referring to a real place.

Hyperbole – the use of exaggeration as a figure of speech – was as common in Jewish speech as is in ours. In the Babylonian Talmud there is a similar expression about an elephant passing through the eye of a needle as a figure of speech implying the unlikely or impossible. It is equally improbable, the Lord is saying, that someone in love with the things of this world would easily give his or her heart to God.

When the rich man came and said: “what do I still lack?” expecting our Lord to speak to him of some details of the Law in which, like Paul, he was perfect, our Lord told him not what he was hoping to hear, but what he did not want to hear… Seeing right away that the man’s heart was totally submersed in this earth’s goods, the Lord took him by surprise and lifted him up from the dust of this earth to make him run toward heaven.

St Ephrem the Syrian