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“If you want to be perfect…”

A commentary on the gospel passage for the 12th Sunday from Matthew 19:16-26.
(Reading the passage before reading the commentary is recommended.)1

An exchange. A sharp exchange. Two views, diametrically opposed: the world’s and God’s. One anthropocentric, the other theocentric. One looking down, the other looking up. The first one reveals a life of contentment and satisfaction; the other a life of continuous struggle. They measure each other up. It’s a contest. Man against God.

A human existence, incapable of tracing either the vast world around it or the dark depths of its heart, stands before the omniscient Demiurge, who reads man’s heart as a book and sees as in a panorama human history unfolded. It may not be so obvious, but as the story itself unfolds, and as it reaches its climax, it becomes clearer. It is a duel. Who is going to be the victor?

This young man, like us, felt that he was ok. He felt that he was a good guy—without scruples, without reservations. The Lord, however, “who searches mind and heart” (Rev. 2:23), reveals his illusion, his shortcomings, his interior emptiness.

Is it a bold or an insolent statement?: “All these I have observed.” Is it a confession of mature spirituality, or an egotistical stretching of one’s height and hollow self? This insignificant creature dares to project itself as a perfect exemplar. And in so doing, it appropriates what is Christ’s own claim and identity. No reservations, no excuses. No trace of humility, of self-knowledge. Absolute in his self-praise. He does not accompany his declaration with a caution. He expresses himself as if he had never failed, never slipped.

This young man, like us, felt that he was ok. He felt that he was a good guy—without scruples, without reservations. The Lord, however, “who searches mind and heart” (Rev. 2:23), reveals his illusion, his shortcomings, his interior emptiness: “If you want to be perfect…” All of a sudden the strong tower of boastfulness he had erected in his mind collapses. His spiritual nakedness becomes at once apparent. He freezes. He was ready for applause, not for insult.

The Lord with one phrase alone reveals the youthful deception, the arrogant mask of false perfection. Then, if you are so perfect, “sell everything, and follow me.” If you are so absolute as to claim to have observed all the commandments, then be willing to be as absolute in “selling them all.” All for all. Because you cannot follow all of God’s commandments, without at the same time reneging on everything that is not God or God’s!

“Sure, Lord, we want to follow you, but be reasonable, will you? Be serious, be practical. Ask me to share. Ask me to help the poor. That I do, and I always will. But to give it all away is asking way too much.” You see, these could be our own words. Deep down we side with the young man. We justify perfectly his reaction of walking away at the hearing of the high demand placed on him. Who among us would not have done the same?

However, as we said, the talk is not about riches. It is about making that radical decision in our life. Do we give our life, and everything in it, back to God, our Creator and Lord of it, or do we keep it selfishly for ourselves? It’s all or nothing. Gamblers know the rules. The Lord wants us to toss the dice, and risk it all, or gain it all. Actually the good Lord knows that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for His sake will find it.” (Mt. 16:25) So, you see, giving it all for Him is not a gamble at all: the losers are the true winners!

Yet these things are not clear to us. So we hold tight to our possessions, as if they were a treasure to take with us. We feel that the religious demands placed on us are overbearing. In this game we play we want religion to serve us, not the other way around. Deep down we need a religion that will make us feel good, comfortable (and the charlatans of religion are too eager to accommodate us and supply us with generous doses of complacency). We embrace a religion cut down to our measure. Beware if our lives were to be challenged by the pastor, if we were made to feel uncomfortable. “When I go to church I want to find peace,” we hear. “I don’t want to get upset. I get enough of that at home and at work.” Thus the pastors are led by their spiritual sheep to the putrid waters of comfort, satisfaction, contentment, and even enjoyment and happiness.

The other day I was passing in front of a Protestant church downtown. The billboard advertised that a live band would be playing at the morning service. Here is a way, an attempt, anyhow, to attract the young people, and give them what they want, not what they need. The Lord, however, speaks of a steep, narrow path:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt. 7:13-14).

Indeed the road of renunciation, of spiritual struggle, of perfection, is not for everyone. “Lord, if you were an employer of a big company, and you set Your standards that high, no one would qualify. You tell me, ‘If you wish to be perfect…’ [Mt. 19:21]. Actually, come to think of it, Lord, no: I’m not looking for perfection, and I know that You are not either: or else You are in for a big surprise.”

Someone is. But not God. God wants us to pledge allegiance to Him and Him alone. No other pacts and alliances are tolerated. Look at His prophets. They appear to us wild, terrifying, uncompromising, extremists. Look at the examples of His Saints: they gave not only their possessions, but their very lives. Why such a high demand? Is our God cruel, unreasonable? Of course not. The episode with the young rich man reveals to us the superficiality of our religious beliefs. But you see at some point in our lives we must make up our minds, we must reach that decision which will mark our lives as belonging to Him alone. Are we ready? Are we His at any cost?

My dear Christians, we have today and always the examples of those who are alive in Christ. They are the ascetics. By ascetics we mean all Christians who struggle for “the life which is life indeed”—monastics and not. Whether in a onastery or in “the world” we all need to abandon everything, and detach ourselves from every desire of earthly pleasures and embrace, if not the ascetical life, at least the ascetical spirit—not for the sake of asceticism, but because of our love for Christ:

“I reckon everything as complete loss for the sake of what is so much more valuable, the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have thrown everything away; I consider it all as mere garbage, so that I may gain Christ and be completely united with Him” (Phil. 3:8-9).

There is our goal! Time and again the holy scripture reminds us that our common call is to live in union with Christ: “Since you have accepted Christ Jesus as Lord”, writes St. Paul, “live in union with Him” (Col. 2:6).

Fr. E.H./01

  1. Matthew 19:16-26

    At that time, a young man came up to Jesus, kneeling and saying, “Good Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you call me good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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.” When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis

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