Melkite Greek Catholic Church
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

THE GOSPELS TELL US LITTLE about the man who approached Jesus to learn how to attain eternal life. Luke (18:18-27) calls him “a ruler;” Matthew (19:16-26) describes him as “a young man.” Both agree that he was rich. He was not willing to abandon his status and his wealth to follow Jesus, he became the classic example of how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God if your mind is on wealth and power in the kingdom of this age. On November 27 the Byzantine Churches remember another rich young man – one who made a very different decision from his Scriptural counterpart. The holy martyr James the Persian lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. He was raised a Christian at a time when Christians exercised a measure of freedom in the Persian Empire. James became a respected and important member of Persian society. He was a military officer under Yisdegerd I and a favorite companion of his son, Bahram. James enjoyed royal favor, wealth and an enviable position in the inner circle of the Persian royal family. He was, in short, a rich young man.

Christianity under Attack

Religion and politics were inseparably entwined in this era. When the Roman Empire persecuted Christians, the Persian Empire welcomed them. Thus when Jerusalem was demolished in the second century many of its Christians crossed the border into the Persian realm. On the other hand, as Christianity came to be the official religion in the Roman Empire, life became difficult for Christians in Persia. Yisdigerd I, who had at first protected Christians and persecuted Zoroastrians, reversed his policy. The Church of the East was cut off from the Churches in the Roman Empire in the interests of national security. When Yisdegerd turned against Christianity he began urging the members of his court to abandon the “Roman religion” in favor of the Persian. The king tried hard to estrange James with gifts and gratuities. He chose a good-natured approach, persuading James with benefits and flatteries, rather than with threats and torments. At first James resisted this pressure, but ultimately was seduced by the many generous favors of the ruler and denied Christ. Like the young ruler in the Gospel, James put status and wealth ahead of the Lord. According to the account in the Great Synaxarion, James’ wife and mother, hearing what he had done, wrote to him to this effect: “It was not proper to your nobility to exchange falsehood for the truth; to defraud the faith for the honor of men and temporary rewards, which pass by as a dream and disperse like smoke; and to love the perishable and temporary kingdom, and abandon immortality and eternity. For this violation you would elect to be cast into the inextinguishable fire and endless torment?… We have been greatly distressed by you and pour forth many tears and, with all our hearts, we pray to the true God not to desert you, as He is compassionate, but to receive your return. … you departed badly; but the Master, whom you denied, will receive you with open arms and rejoicing. If you disdain our advice and tears, when you reach the divine judgment, you will be punished in torments endlessly and your crying will be in vain.” James was moved by his wife and mother and resolved to confess Christ before the Persians. Meanwhile James’ onetime friend Bahram had become the emperor on the death of his father Yizdegerd. Bahram V, intensified pressure on Christians to adopt the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. When the king learned that James had reverted to Christianity, he confronted him and tried to persuade him to return to the Persian religion. When James refused, Bahram invoked their friendship and promised him greater wealth and power than before. Again James refused and the king, in a rage, handed him over to be tortured. Taking the advice of a more obliging courtier, the king ordered that James be tortured in a public spectacle. His body was slowly dismembered: first his thumb was cut off, then each finger and so on. At each amputation he was encouraged to save his life by renouncing Christ. Instead James answered each time with a prayer. After several hours he was finally beheaded. When the news of this reached Constantinople it caused the Roman emperor to invade Persia, starting the brief Roman-Sassanid War (421-422). James quickly came to be revered in the Byzantine Churches as James the Persian and among the Latins as St James Intercessus (the Dismembered). The great Armenian cathedral in Jerusalem is dedicated to his memory.

James and the Melkite Church Today

By the sixth century a monastery had been erected in his honor in Qara, a desert town north of Damascus. Abandoned since the death of the last monk in 1930, it was restored and, in 2000, reestablished by the Melkite metropolitan of Homs, Hama and Yabroud, Kyr Ibrahim Nehmé. The monastery is dedicated to the service of Unity of the Christians of the Middle East and in a spirit of openness towards Muslims as well. The monastery was founded as a women’s community, but by 2004 a men’s monastery has also been established there. These communities include members from various traditions – Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Syriac Orthodox – and even includes brothers from Muslim background. Besides the usual practices of traditional monasticism – worship, asceticism and communal life – the communities at St James Monastery are noted for their commitment to Christian unity. While remaining monastics of the Melkite eparchy of Homs, they accord filial honor, to all the Patriarchs of Antioch – Greek Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic – and from there embark towards ecumenical horizons and loving openness towards the other Churches and religions.
Troparion (Tone 4) James the Martyr and scion of Persia drowned the dragon in his blood by his contest: he was dismembered for his faith and became the Savior’s trophy-bearer. He intercedes unceasingly for our souls. Another Troparion (Tone 4) You astounded all, long-suffering James, by enduring horrible tortures with great patience. As the evil assembly performed the slaughter, you uttered prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord. Through your sufferings you received your crown, and came to the throne of the heavenly King, Christ God. Entreat Him to save our souls! Kontakion (Tone 2) You listened to your wife and considerer the final judgment O courageous James. You spurned the threats and commands of the Persians and your body was pruned like a vine. We praise you; O noble Martyr.
“WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?” This question is posed by a young Jewish leader whom Jesus meets on His way to Jerusalem. At first glance it seems a reasonable inquiry, one that many people would still ask today. Tell me what prayer to say, what shrine to visit, what project I can take on which will guarantee that I’ll get to heaven. Church Fathers, however, saw this as a trick question, seeking to trap Jesus into setting some new requirement not in the Law. The Lord does not give him another thing to do, adding to the list of precepts which devotees of the Torah felt set forth God’s will for them. Rather Jesus says that to be perfect you must “sell all you have” and commit yourself completely to Him. Perfection does not come from performing this or that isolated action, however good it may be. Perfection comes from entrusting one’s whole life to Christ. In the Pastoral Epistles we see some consequences of this life in Christ as it was perceived in the apostolic Church. The “elect of God” (Colossians 3:12) have died to the world, buried in Baptism and are now alive in Christ. Their way of life is to be Christ’s, embodying the compassion and forgiveness of Christ Himself. They are to bear with one another (after all, others are putting up with them). They are to build up one another’s faith “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16), thankful for the grace filling their hearts. This is certainly in stark contrast to the way of the world, where self-love, resentments, grudges, and slanderously tearing others down is the norm for many. One of the first qualities of someone dead to the world mentioned in Colossians is humility, a virtue most associate with monasticism rather than life in the world. In fact, as the Church grew, perfection came to be associated increasingly with some kind of ascetic life. At first people like the “sons and daughters of the covenant” in the Syriac Church lived in the world, but somewhat apart from others, devoting themselves to prayer and good works. By the third century ascetics like St Antony and the Desert Fathers lived as hermits in the wilderness, completely apart from others. Monasticism brought like-minded people together to live in a community, where they could commend themselves and one another and their whole life to Christ God while being apart from the world at large. But the Gospel is not addressed simply to monks and nuns; it is meant for all believers. How does a Christian in the world “sell all” and follow Christ? Is there a way for a believer to live in the world but not be of the world, as Christ enjoins? It is not wearing some distinctive dress that says “I am different.” It is rather living by a different set of principles, given by Christ. The popular book, Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander, affirms that our “wealth” is nothing less than our self-centeredness:
“Take a look at yourself and see how bound you are by your desire to humor yourself and only yourself. Your freedom is curbed by the restraining bonds of self-love, and thus you wander, a captive corpse, from morning till eve. ‘Now I will drink,’ ‘now I will get up,’ ‘now I will read the paper.’ Thus you are led from moment to moment in your halter of preoccupation with self, and kindled instantly to displeasure, impatience or anger if an obstacle intervenes” (p. 5).
Colliander stresses that asceticism is the only path to victory over our self-centeredness. He gives some practical suggestions for living an ascetic life in the world. Like St Paul, Colliander begins with meekness and humility. He contrasts true humility with the desire to be perceived as humble:
“We notice the person who is forever bowing and fussily servile, and perhaps say, ‘How humble he is!’ But the truly humble person escapes notice: the world does not know him (1 John 3:1); for the world he is mostly a ‘zero’” (p. 26).
Humility is rather a matter of not always putting forth one’s own will. Colliander teaches that following the Church’s tradition for fasting is the most basic school for obedience. We fast when the Church says to, we do not fast when the Church says not to. We fast not to be “righteous,” but to be obedient. Ordinary life provides countless other occasions for us to develop a humble spirit through obedience. Colliander notes,
“Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. A novice in a cloister could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbour” (p.44).
To “sell all one has,” then, ultimately means to give up one’s own will to follow Christ. Along with a certain simplicity of life and chastity appropriate to one’s marital state, we attain what St Tikhon of Zadonsk called “interior monasticism.” We put aside the values and pursuits of the world to follow Christ along the way of perfection in whatever state of life we find ourselves.

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