In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Today, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, we read about the rich young ruler. This is a very important story, because it is in all three synoptic gospels, and is has a very important question: What good thing shall I do that I might have eternal life.
It is a very serious question by a very serious young man, and it demands a very serious answer. Our Lord does not disappoint him in this regard. He actually gave an answer in three steps, because our Christian life is gradually acquired; we struggle for virtue, but we do not obtain it from the very moment we leave the baptismal font.
The young man comes to him and asks, “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” He made a mistake in asking this question, even though he was a serious young man, and some of the holy fathers say he was sincere in his desire for salvation. St. John Chrysostom goes so far as to say that he was good rich soil, although there was a problem with this soil, as we will see in a moment. The question was wrong, because he said, What good thing, what one thing can I do? Christ basically said, do everything. Keep the commandments. But the man had a compartmentalized attitude, and idea of putting everything in its place. So he says, “Which?”
So our Lord tells him. Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honor thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
Our Lord is being more specific now; He is focusing in more on the specifics of living the Christian life. Later on, he tells him what the epitome of the Christian life is, and this does not mean that one goes out into the desert and lives in a tree. This is not the intention that he has when he says, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.
The young man asked the wrong question because he has the wrong attitude. He wants to follow God; he has a desire to follow God. He is keeping the commandments, as he knows them, but he is thinking in a small way, and God is big. He is thinking in little boxes, and the Christian life does not fit in boxes. The man says, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? The Lord tells him. He has asked for it; he is going to receive it. If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.
And the young man went away very sorrowful, because he was very rich. The giving of his God provided wealth back to God did not fit in one of his boxes. This was a terrible tragedy. This was a man who was sincere; this was a man who wanted to be saved. This was a man who was doing things that few people even try to do, whether they are in the church or not, and he was still not saved. His failure was all because of money, possessions. What a terrible tragedy that he walked away; He did so much, and yet, he gained so little.
There is something emphasized here, isn’t there? Money. Money is something that is emphasized a lot in the scriptures. It is also emphasized an extreme amount in our own lives, by us, and that is why it is addressed so often in the scriptures. The love of money, love of possessions, love of comfort that comes from money, love of “security”, and the so-called “building” for old age strangles most Christians. It must strangle most Christians, because most churches are small, and have very few funds. It should not be this way. We as Christians must fulfill a higher law than was fulfilled in the Old Testament!
I tell you, it was a law in the Old Testament to tithe. We must fulfill this law, and moreso, as Christ instructed the young ruler—“Sell all that thou hadst, and distribute unto the poor.” St Luke uses the word “distribute”, which means to disperse funds with care, intelligence and Christian discernment, and not haphazardly. Don’t just sell some things that you have, give the proceeds to the first beggar and say, “Okay, I have fulfilled my obligation.” NO. You have an obligation to use your substance, which God has given you, wisely.
Blessed Theophylact makes a distinction between a “steward” and a “rich man”. A rich man is one who has funds, and properties, and lands, and houses, and he gives to no one. He steals; He is a thief, because he is stealing from the poor. A steward is a person who has substance also. He has money; He might have land and houses, but he also has mercy and distributes to the poor. Then he is a good steward of his wealth.
The church has never looked at wealth as inherently evil. It is the holding on to wealth that is evil. I tell you, most Christians have a difficulty with this concept. We appreciate the things that our money can give us, and this love of things may blind us to spiritual things. We live better than ancient kings now; the poorest of the poor live better than kings. We can have any kind of food, anytime we want. We can live in comfort, no matter if the sun is scorching the earth, or cruel winds are howling against our house. It doesn’t matter, because we have the technology and the money to give ourselves comfort. And we forget about God.
It is usual that the scripture readings, especially on Sunday, are chosen to give us, shall we say, a “gut” check. Look inside, and see—is there something you are lacking? Last week, we looked, and saw if we are lacking mercy. We saw what happens to a man who is not merciful. This week we can see several things. First of all, we must examine if we even keep the commandments. But then, after you have made a firm resolve to keep the commandments, there is a higher law: to be perfect! This is the reason for our life—to be perfect. We are to be like Christ, to become like Him in virtue and morality. This is why we were given life. As we grow to know Him, we become like Him, and we will know Him intimately and be called “friends”.
We should look into ourselves and see if there is some way in which we are not perfect. Today what we are to look at is whether we have imperfections in the realm of money matters, in the realm of possessions, in the realm of love of comfort, and unnecessary concentration of security for the future. We are to examine our propensity for acquiring things we don’t need. If you wonder about that, move. You will see how many things you don’t need, because you will see much stuff that you throw away because you are so tired of packing. It is a terrible sin to have these things that that we don’t need. We stole from the poor when we acquired things we don’t need. In this culture, we have a lust for diversion and entertainment. All one needs to do is pay a dollar and he can have a recording to amuse himself for an hour; or I suppose, if it is the “latest release”, more money must be paid. But what does it matter, to the blinded soul? You have the money, why not pay it, and enjoy yourself? This is not the Christian life. We are stealing from the poor when we indulge ourselves and do not give to others. Too many dinners, too many movies, too much planning for our future, with security; all these things we do, and we try to defraud God. We cannot defraud God, because He knows all, and we cannot really defraud the poor, because He is their advocate. We only defraud ourselves.
St Cosmas of Aitola, a great martyr and preacher in Asia Minor, once said, “I have need of one hundred grams of bread a day, and God blesses it. He blesses those hundred grams, but not one gram more. So if I take 110 grams, I have stolen 10 grams from the poor.” That is rather mighty talk there! If we apply this to ourselves with care, we will see that we fail the test again and again and again. Now, I tell you, most of us are not able to cut off our lust for diversion and fine meals, and entertainment, and all those sort of things. We don’t have enough faith. We don’t trust in God enough.
We can start with something basic. I talk to you about basics all the time, don’t I? I have told you to keep the fasts, come to church (including the vigils), confess frequently, commune frequently, and say your morning and evening prayers. If you cannot do these things, you cannot make a beginning in the Christian life. And as those of you who have followed my advice have seen, you still have trouble with sin, but now you have something to support you, something to hold you up. It is not something that you can point at and say, “Look what I have done”, but God protects us when we are living in the Christian life.
As much a part of this life as all these things, (and it has been to my discredit that I have not told you more), is to give of our substance to God. It is as important as our prayer. It is as important as our fasting, because it is ordered by our Savior. If you do not tithe, you are not even fulfilling the minimum. It is the same as fasting, as saying your morning and evening prayers—they are minimums. If you are not doing this, you are cheating yourself, and are in danger. You must tithe. You should give of your substance FREELY to the church. If you cannot give freely, then give with difficulty! It’s all right. If you cannot pray with great attention, then pray, struggling to pay attention. If your mind wanders, then pray anyway! If you are bored with church, or fancy yourself to be too tired or stressed, then come anyway, because you know that this is important for your soul! It is the same way with tithing. You can either give with an open hand, or maybe a little bit of a clenched fist, but give! Eventually the Holy Spirit will help you to unclench that fist and you will have the joy given to you that follows obedience. Cast thy bread upon the waters, it says. It will return to you. It will not return empty to you.
People cheat themselves because they are so miserly. They don’t see themselves as miserly however, because after all, we are working for a living, and things are kinda hard, and the car breaks down, and we need to go into debt, and this that and the other thing. Don’t allow these things to become “excuses, with excuses in sins”. We must give to God what is already His. You make a terrible mistake, if at the end of the month, you say, “I must pay for my car, and my … boat”; (nobody here has a boat, and so I am not offending anyone); “I must pay for my boat. And I must pay for all these other things.” And at the bottom of the list is the church. Do you say, “I can’t afford it! I can barely make my credit card payments”? Well then, I will tell you, pay the minimum and give to the church. This is what you should do. First is God. Second is the boat, and the car, and the house, and everything else.
Where is our faith? Where is our compassion and love? Where is our consideration for others? Where is our obedience? You know our giving of our substance is for the community; it is for the family. It is not merely for ourselves; it is not just a rule that we follow, or because we think that we are going to go to hell or something. It is the same as in fasting, and everything else. We are building up virtue for the community. Fr. Michael Pomazansky once wrote a short but incredibly insightful essay about fasting, and it applies also to alms giving, because he mentions it, and any good work. We don’t fast only because it is a rule and a law. We do not give alms only because it is a rule and a law. We do these things because it a PRIVILEGE to be participators in holiness! It is a privilege to be participating in the work of the church, to be part of the body.
This is why we fast. This is why we give alms. This is why we pray for one-another. This is why we come to church, and when the church will be empty of most people, we come, because it is a necessity to participate in the life of holiness. And this is why we give alms. You should give MORE than your tithe, but if you are not at least giving a tithe, then you must begin now. There is much at stake, for your soul, and for everyone else’s soul.
I will tell you honestly, it is a tragedy, that when I mention our church to someone in the city, they say “I have never heard of you”. What a terrible thing! The fields are white for harvest, and people barely know where we are. We have so little, and yet, we worship the King who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. It is our own depravity that keeps us where we are, both in this church, and everywhere else.
All over, Orthodox are in small communities, where only a few are really struggling to live the Christian life. There is so much that people need to know, both in our community, and outside of our community. It is a necessity to have funds to do this work. It is an absolute necessity, and it was spoken of in the Old Testament, and spoken of by the Apostles. They spent a lot of their time distributing to the poor and making arrangements – it is even in the letters, where they made arrangements to send here or there, and even arranged for their own sustenance, so that they could minister the gospel. A man who is starving does not have enough breath to preach. You do not muzzle the ox when he threshes the grain. Now we see in our day people who are abusing this idea, and are saying outlandish things, like “I will die if you do not give me three million dollars to build my new hospital”, or something of that nature, but those are all charlatans. They are all fakes and frauds, but within the church, we must recognize the difference.
Tithing is just a matter of obedience. The Lord says it, so YOU DO IT! He didn’t tell you to buy that boat. He tells you to tithe. If you can tithe and have a boat, then enjoy, because God will bless you with it. If you rob from the poor, and if you rob from your brother and sister in order to have your boat, or your security, or whatever, then you are sinning grievously. This is one of those “quiet” sins, that is not mentioned enough, and is not really visible to others, or even to ourselves.
Mentioning this subject often gets people mad. Our church is not like this. I can say these things to you, and no one is going to think that I am pointing a finger, because we are a family. No one is going to think that I am picking on him, because you know me. That’s not the way I am. There are churches though, that if I were to say something like this in, people would walk out in the middle of the sermon. What a tragedy! Too many people are not willing to hear the words of the gospel. As long as the words are easy, they will hear them. Well, thanks be to God, you listen to me about fasting; you listen to me about prayer. You listen to me about coming to church for the most part, and confession, and receiving the Mysteries. Listen to me now, about the giving of your substance.
Don’t be like this rich man. The scary thing about this man was that he had virtues. He was zealous, he adhered to the law, and he even had a desire to know more—and yet, he was not saved, because of his adherence to riches. Don’t think yourself immune to this. Now if you can look into your life, and think that you follow everything even better that the rich man, then I suppose that you can have a little bit of comfort; but there is no one in this room that can say they follow the commandments. There is no one in this room that can say that they could stand before God without shame. We still have work to do, not only to follow the commandments, but also to tithe, and give of our substance.
I am going to talk you to more about this in the future as well; in fact I am going to send a letter out this coming week. I have thought about this, and I have wrung my hands over it and prayed to God, and I decided to do it. I am going to send a letter to every household. It is going to have a very good article about tithing, explaining that in the Old Testament, it was a requirement, and that is has carried over into the New Testament. It is a necessity for your life. I will give you a letter, and I am going to ask you to consider in your heart—are you giving to God what He deserves? Are you giving to God what is his? If you are, then, glory be to God, and this admonition does not apply to you. If you are not giving to God what is His, and then you are in danger, and as a Christian you must always deal with what is taught you. If the Holy Spirit convicts, you are responsible for action based upon that conviction. May God help you to have all things in your life in order—fasting, prayer, struggling against your sins, a regular lifestyle of prayer and coming to church, confession and communing regularly, and along with all of this, the giving of your substance to God.
The Christian life is a totality. The great mistake of this man was that he saw salvation as a limited set of things that he could do—“1, 2, 3, a, b, c”, and God said, “All of it”. What should I do? All of it. This is a very large proposition for us because of our sins, so the church in its wisdom says, to work a little bit at a time. You cannot become holy and have the prayer of the heart tonight, but if you struggle, it may occur in your lifetime, and if not in your lifetime, God will save you and there will be a room reserved for you in the mansions. Don’t allow yourself to be condemned because of something as foolish as an attachment to money, and all the things that it entails. God bless you and help you.