ONE OF THE SAYING OF THE LORD JESUS which puzzled His hearers and still puzzles people today is, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24). It flies in the face of the “prosperity gospel” preached in many mega-churches as it did in Israel. Wealth is a blessing, it is said, and so the wealthy have been blessed by God. This must be a sign of God’s favor to them. The Lord’s words make no sense in the face of this ‘logic.” When questioned how this could be Jesus replied, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (v. 27).
A few verses later in Luke we read the story of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Christ in which a rich man enters the kingdom of God. This happens when Zacchaeus, a leading tax collector – and, therefore, a man in whose position greed and extortion would be a way of life – is so drawn to the Lord Jesus that his riches cease to matter. He gives half his wealth to the poor and restored fourfold anything gained by fraud. Zacchaeus is therefore the opposite of the rich young man in Luke 18 who chose keeping his wealth over following Jesus.
Zacchaeus’ life-changing decision is clearly spelled out, but the dynamics of his encounter with Christ are not. What brought Zacchaeus to such a decision? What did he see in Jesus? We are not told because it is Zacchaeus’ decision rather than how he experienced Christ which is of importance to us.
Later events in the life of the Church have shown that there are two principal ways to experience God. The first way is more dramatic, but less common. Here God reveals himself to a person directly, as he did to St. Paul, or perhaps through reading the Scriptures or through an icon. When such an encounter takes place the person meeting the Lord reacts much as did Zacchaeus. He puts aside his “wealth” to follow Christ.
While a person’s riches might be monetary like Zacchaeus, it may be other things as well. Paul – Saul as he was then – was not a wealthy man monetarily speaking but he had riches, which he described in Philippians 3:5-8. Paul’s “wealth” was his status as “a Hebrew of the Hebrews,” one who credentials as a practitioner of Judaism was unmatched. He was an observant Pharisee, blameless in his observance of the Law. But after encountering Christ he says, “What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ” (v. 7).
Throughout the centuries people have put aside their “wealth” for Christ. They gave up lands and possessions like St. Anthony the Great, but also high rank like St Arsenius the Great, scholarly repute like Evagrius, or political convictions like Dorothy Day. They chose to give up their “wealth” for something greater.
The second way of experiencing God in the Tradition is through asceticism: struggling to change the focus of our life.
Most people today follow the lead of our secular culture in pursuing whatever gives us pleasure or material security while ignoring the continual presence of God on whom we all depend. Like teenagers focused on their iPhones or MP3 players, they are oblivious to the real world around them, in this case the presence of God.
When people embrace the ascetic life they work to refocus their lives away from the values of this age. They strive to break away from the compulsions or fixations that enslave so many, from a full-time pursuit of the attractions of the world.
They cease relying on their own minds to determine what is good for them and begin looking to God. In their innermost being they hear the Lord’s words, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). In this way they prepare themselves to recognize God “everywhere present and filling all things.”
The Lord Jesus describer the choice they and countless others have faced like this:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46).
The “treasure hidden in a field” is the unique relationship with God in Christ which Zaccaeus, Paul and all the saints had found and which St Paul described as “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
Each of us can attain this treasure because:
- While all creation reflects something of God, the Source of its being, we were created with something more of God in us: made “in Our image, after Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26)
- The Word of God has become one of us in Jesus Christ, completely sharing our humanity so that we might share in His divine life: “God became man so that man might become godlike” (St Athanasius the Great)
- Christ has lived His human life in perfect communion with His Father: “I am not alone, but I am with the Father who sent me” (John 8:16)
- Christ has promised to dwell in those who keep His word: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23)
- When we maintain this communion with God by keeping His word we come to share by grace in His divine nature: “His divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of Him… that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4).
What are you willing to put aside or to take up to attain this treasure?