The young man says that he has kept all these commandments from his youth and presses the Lord to tell him what more he should do. The Lord Jesus then attempts to lead him from a stage of merely being obedient to God’s commandments, to one of being in a relationship of love with God.
Christ tells the young man what must happen “If you want to be perfect” (v. 21): he must give his wealth to the poor and follow Jesus as He went from place to place proclaiming the kingdom of God. The Lord offered this inquirer the chance to join the company of His disciples, to show that he preferred life with Christ to enjoying his possessions. The young man declined.
What Does It Mean to Be Perfect?The Lord has held out this goal of “perfection” before, in the Sermon on the Mount. Being “perfect” seems an impossible task if we think it means absolute perfection without any fault or stain. In the Greek of the New Testament (and our Liturgy), however, to be “perfect” or to be “complete” might best be translated “to be all that we were meant to be:” living in the light of the Lord, walking in His way. Jesus pushed His hearers to go beyond the commandments to arrive at a more godly way of life.
The Lord then contrasted regard for God with attachment to one’s belongings. They will ever be competing for a person’s devotion; as Christ tells His listeners, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
The path to perfection, as Christ teaches, begins with making a choice between following Him and devoting oneself to enjoying the things of the world. As He said so clearly, “No one can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).
Do I Serve Mammon?Most of us do not think that we are “serving mammon.” We may even look down on the obviously greedy or on people driven by addictions. Yes, there are people who “serve” money, drugs or sex. They may be slaves to alcohol or tobacco. We don’t believe that we are controlled like that.
We may not be overly driven to making inordinate amounts of money, but we should consider that dependency on mammon takes many forms. We should become more conscious of how many of this world’s riches we feel that we “need,” that we “can’t do without,” from our morning coffee to the latest smart phone. We don’t physically need these things; it is our ego that requires them. Is this not another form of serving mammon?
To reflect on just how our ego may be tied to the things of this world, consider how difficult it is to fast for any length of time: how much we feel the loss of a favorite food and to what lengths we go to find a pleasing substitute… and how happy we are when the Fast is over.
In addition, “mammon” can also include the non-material wealth of this world: power, prestige or social position. How do we feel when another is promoted over us, receives a bigger bonus or a more lucrative assignment. Serving mammon takes many forms and they all interfere in some way with our relationship to God.
The Fathers on the Power of MammonWhen St John Chrysostom commented on this Gospel passage, he noted that being devoted to the things of this world did not make you free. “The rich man is a slave, being subject to loss, and in the power of everyone wishing to do him harm” (Homily 46 on Matthew). Serving mammon is a form of slavery.
In another place, Chrysostom said, “If you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money. Be accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind, not by the substance of his possessions. Serving mammon is a kind of poverty. As some people today phrase it, “What you own, owns you.”
A century before and on another continent, St Cyprian of Carthage had said much the same thing. “The property of the wealthy holds them in chains… which shackle their courage and choke their faith and hamper their judgment and throttle their souls. They think of themselves as owners, whereas it is they rather who are owned: enslaved as they are to their own property, they are not the masters of their money, but its slaves.”
Asceticism and the Pursuit of PerfectionThe choice between serving God and mammon is at the heart of Christian asceticism, where making that choice is lived and experienced on a daily basis. It is most intensely observed by monastics, but also by Christians living in this world, married or single. A person living an ascetic life tries to distance himself or herself from being tied to the passing pleasures of the world so as to be more open to following Christ and living the life of God.
People often consider life with God as something of the world to come It is clear to most people, even in the wider society, that our earthly attachments have no place in heaven. A recent installment in Dan Piraro’s widely syndicated cartoon strip, Bizarro! makes this point. Two long-time residents of heaven are observing two younger ones. “Most of the new arrivals seem incapable of conversation,” the eldest notes. “They just stare at their hands in despair,” trying to text, but there are no electronic devices in heaven!
Yes, there are no cigarettes, no movies, no alcohol in heaven. To be without them would surely frustrate someone who has made enjoying these things the focus of life. Thus some Christian thinkers have observed that to be in heaven without the object of one’s passions would actually be to dwell in hell.
But the differences between this age and the age to come are not really the point. Life with God, transformation into the image of God, begins now, with baptism. That life is meant to be experienced in ever deeper ways as we mature in the Christian life here, as well as in the life of the age to come. The Christian seeks to avoid anything which can captivate our minds and, at best, distract us from that relationship to God. Following Christ is meant to be the real source of our joy here on earth, as well as in the world to come. Serving Christ in worship and ministering to Him in the needy should be our joys, rather than obligations to be gotten through as quickly as possible. The Christian life, to paraphrase St Catherine of Siena, is meant to be “heaven all the way to heaven.”