In our Believers Eastern Church lectionary the theme for this week is The Divine Courtroom. In the first verses of our Gospel reading, we see the rich young ruler come up to Jesus to present his case. First, he comes to Jesus and addresses him as good, but Jesus rejected that attribution, why? Hilary of Poitiers tells us he was addressing Jesus as a man and as a man Jesus could not receive it1. In His response, Jesus attempted to point this man to recognising his deity.
Moving on to the case that he presented, or Jesus questioned him on, these are all good things that he had done. I think, we often jump to the conclusion that he couldn’t have done these things and was self-righteously bluffing. However, that is not Jesus’ response. Both Jesus and the Fathers, give him the benefit of the doubt. If it is hard for us to comprehend that someone could keep the law, we must remember, however, that St. Paul declared himself righteous according to the law in his epistle to the Philippians. He was blameless, but counted it loss.
Jesus did not condemn him for any self-righteousness, but rather loved him. He is our high priest who sympathises with our weaknesses as we heard in the epistle reading. The law is good and holy and as such brought this man to Christ who is the fulfillment of the law. The law could only deal with outward righteousness, however, as St Jerome points out to us this man had already yielded to riches from the outset2. Riches had a hold on this man, despite his love for righteousness and life.
Therefore, Jesus presented to him what was necessary for him to have life, he must sell all, give to the poor and follow him. Tertullian tells us this is not a harsh thing that Jesus asked of the man, for he still allowed the choice to the man. God does not compel us, (for compulsion is repugnant to God)3. He sets before us the choice of life and of death and leaves us with the choice.
If we think that it is a hard thing to sell what we have and give, Caesarius of Arles encourages us to start small. “If you are unwilling to commit to full obedience, do what you can. But here is the divine requirement: ‘Sell all that you have, and give to the poor; and come, follow me.’”4
For me the image of a courtroom is harsh, but here we see in Jesus there is no condemnation but rather encouragement that we are on the right track and there is only one more thing to make our salvation complete. In the passage from Job, we see him presenting his case as well. We see him also confident, that God will be merciful.
Will he plead against me with his great power? No; but he would put strength in me.
There the righteous might dispute with him; so should I be delivered for ever from my judge.
St. Gregory the Great explains, “In other words for the correction of my ways let him send his incarnate Son. Then by the sentence of my absolution, I will turn out as victor over the plotting foe.5” Christ is therefore the one who pleads for us and the one who gives victory over the foe.
Turning now to the general application from the specific example, Jesus states that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The Fathers warn us not to just accept it as a foregone conclusion that if we are rich then we can’t enter the kingdom of God. St. Clement of Alexandria compares this whole concept to an athletic competition. First don’t give up if you are wealthy and then he continues,
nor let him, on the other hand, expect to grasp the crowns of immortality without struggle and effort, continuing untrained, and without contest. But let him go and put himself under the Word as his trainer, and Christ the President of the contest; and for his prescribed food and drink let him have the New Testament of the Lord; and for exercises, the commandments; and for elegance and ornament, the fair dispositions, love, faith, hope, knowledge of the truth, gentleness, meekness, pity, gravity: so that, when by the last trumpet the signal shall be given for the race and departure hence, as from the stadium of life, he may with a good conscience present himself victorious before the Judge who confers the rewards, confessedly worthy of the Fatherland on high, to which he returns with crowns and the acclamations of angels.6
Whether we are rich or poor, it will take effort on our part to pursue the way of life. Caesarius of Arles, warns us that if we are poor we can’t be at ease either and have confidence that our poverty will save us. “And you had best listen even more intently if you glory in your poverty. Beware of Pride, lest the humble rich surpass you. Beware of wickedness, lest the pious rich confound you. Beware of drunkenness lest the sober excel you.7” St. Clement of Alexandria also commented on this point and I am paraphrasing that if poverty were the goal then beggars would be the most righteous.
The point is that whether we have poverty or wealth, we must submit ourselves to the commandments of God and prefer them to the temporal things of this life. In one sense this is like the sword that we read about in Hebrews. Jesus did not come to bring peace, but a sword and his sayings and instructions are going to cause division. We see that the Rich Young Ruler, decided to take another path. We have before ourselves each day a similar choice, will we follow what Christ calls us to or go our own way?
While God does not compel us, he does give us assistance to follow the way that he has laid out before us. He has given us a high priest who sympathises with our weaknesses. He sympathises, “first, because he is great and mighty, being the Son of God and very God himself, and, second, because he also as very man suffered and endured the testing of afflictions and weakness of the flesh. For both these reasons he is in every respect made a partaker of our weakness.8”
In the prophecy of Psalm 22, we see some of how he shared in our weaknesses, while he was with us. Let us take another look at the first two verses:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.
Is Jesus, in this cry of anguish, claiming the Trinity, the Godhead has somehow split apart so that God the Son was forsaken by God the Father? The Fathers are emphatic. This did not, this could not happen. What is happening then?
St. Ambrose tells us that as Jesus took on a soul, he also took on the affections or the feelings of a soul. He continues, “As being man, therefore, he speaks, bearing with him my terrors, for when we are in the midst of dangers we think ourself abandoned by God. As man, therefore, he is distressed, as man he weeps, as man he is crucified.9”
St. Gregory of Nazianus puts it this way, “he was in his own person representing us. For we were the forsaken and the despised, but now by the sufferings of him who could not suffer, we have been taken up and saved.10”
Theodoret of Cyr comments, “Just as the one who was a fount of righteousness assumed our sin, and the one was an ocean of blessing accepted a curse lying on us accepting and scorning shame endured a cross, so too he uttered the words on our behalf.11”
God, in the person of the Son, chose to experience the deepest feelings of abandonment humanly possible. He chose to experience our weaknesses and our pains. Jesus became everything that a human is, sin excepted in order to save fallen Adam and give incorruption for those who believe in his name. He took our weaknesses for our sakes.
We see that our fathers trusted in the Lord and were not disappointed, in Psalm 22. In Hebrews 4, we are exhorted to confidently approach the throne of grace. St. Chrysostom poses the question, “How is it that we should ‘approach boldly’?” Remember for this week our theme is the Divine Courtroom. Then he answers his question. “Because now it is a throne of grace and not judgement. Therefore, boldly, ‘that we may obtain mercy,’ even such as we are seeking. For the affair is [one of] munificence, a royal largess.12”
We began this morning with a presentation of righteousness through law, but something was missing. The law was unable to give life. Jesus was able to show him compassion because he is our high priest who sympathises with our every weakness even the deepest feelings of abandonment. Jesus presented him with a choice of life or to continue as he was. After this he warned the disciples the dangers of riches.
What does this mean for us? We have a choice each day are we going to follow the way Christ before us or are we going to go our own way. Are we going to follow the example of our Saviour and look with compassion on those who are seeking life?
The Fathers have explained that the issue is not really about wealth or poverty but how we view them. Are we smug because of our poverty, let us take heed lest we fall and repent if necessary. Are we holding onto the riches entrusted to us, or are we using them to make the most impact in the kingdom of God.
Finally, if the things presented here seem to hard or harsh, we can appeal to our high priest who sympathises with us and will come to our aid? God will not compel us to follow, but he will aid us in following.
~ Dn. Fr. Matthew
1 Christopher A. Hall and Thomas C. Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament II (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 132
3 Alexander Roberts, D.D., and James Donaldson, LL.D Editors, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2, Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria, originally published in the United States by the Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickoson Publishing Marketing, LLC), 593
4 Christopher A. Hall and Thomas C. Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament II (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 135
5 Manlio Simonetti and Thomas C. Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament VI (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 125
6 Alexander Roberts, D.D., and James Donaldson, LL.D Editors, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2, Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria, originally published in the United States by the Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickoson Publishing Marketing, LLC), 592
7 Christopher A. Hall and Thomas C. Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament II (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 138
8 Erik M. Heen, Philip D. W. Krey, and Thomas C. Oden Editors, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament X (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 67-68
9 Craig A. Blaising, Carmen S. Hardin and Thomas C. Oden Editors, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament VII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 169
11 Craig A. Blaising, Carmen S. Hardin and Thomas C. Oden Editors, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament VII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 170
12 Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D Editor, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series Volume 14, Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Hebrews, originally published in the United States by the Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1889 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickoson Publishing Marketing, LLC), 400
Hofmann, Heinrich (Johann Michael Ferdinand Heinrich), 1824-1911. Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56649 [retrieved October 15, 2018]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler.jpg.
Angelico, fra, ca. 1400-1455. Crucifixion, detail, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=47682 [retrieved October 15, 2018]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.