I once heard a priest give the image of a highway to describe our spiritual journey towards God. All of the moral laws and commandments that we practice as Christians are what makes up the guard rails. Fasting rules, canon laws, the “do nots” are all of the practices we put into our lives that protect us from falling off of the road and down a cliff. They are put there for a reason and are extremely important! But what happens if they become the sole purpose of our life?
We don’t drive our cars on the guard rails to test their strength, because if we did (although we wouldn’t veer off of the road) we would still get dings, dents, and scratches! We drive rather in the center of the road, in between the guardrails, following the path that our Lord has laid out for us through His Church.
The spiritual life for Orthodox Christians is not unlike this image of the highway. How we conduct ourselves on the outside and in public is important, but it is what is in our hearts that really matters. True Life…true Union and Communion with God, is not something that only happens externally. It begins deep in the depths of our souls. Life is about manifesting within ourselves that Love and Grace of God, which literally transfigures us into something greater.
Using that image, we are given in the gospel today the example of the rich young ruler, who asked our Lord: “What good deeds must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus answered him by outlining the highway and giving him the guard rails: “Follow the commandments. Don’t kill. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness. Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The young man probably felt pretty good about himself at this point, as perhaps we are tempted to do from time to time! “I’m a good person (generally). I have stayed in my lane! I haven’t done any of those things…so I must be doing well!” On the outside, the rich young ruler seemed to be ok, but our Lord doesn’t just look upon the external. He knows the hidden depths of our hearts and is able to peer into the eyes of our soul, just as a doctor views the inside of our bodies with an X-Ray. In the very center of this man’s path to God was an enormous pothole that had been covered up like rain by his external good deeds.
Have you ever hit one of those with your car doing 40? They are hard to see! The road seems smooth and then five seconds later, you are fixing a flat on the wet grass! In the rich man’s particular case, he suffered from the pothole of avarice. Jesus, as the Physician of our souls, gave him the prescription…the difficult task that must be completed in order to cure this interior illness: Get rid of all of those temptations in your life that are causing you to stumble and not move forward. Come experience this inner life with Me, who’s joys go beyond the material world. Come follow Me.
This was a prescription the rich man couldn’t swallow, and we read how he left absolutely dejected…with that pothole still intact.
The prescriptions that we are given by God are often very difficult to take, especially when things seem to be going ok in our lives on the surface. If we suffer from gluttony, we know that the prescription is self-control. But, when we are confronted with a second helping of steak, we come up with all kinds of excuses to indulge ourselves.
If we suffer from anger towards someone, we know that the prescription is forgiveness, love, and understanding. Yet it’s so much easier to ignite the flame further by gossiping behind their back, posting comments on their Facebook pages, and thinking ill towards them, rather than seeking forgiveness, and seeing the image of God within them.
If we suffer from greed (as so many do in the richest country in the world) it is easier to ignore it like the rich man, rather than acting like Zacchaeus the tax collector who had the same pothole in his life and fixed it by saying: “Lord, behold, I give half of my possessions to the poor.”
Fixing the interior potholes of our spiritual life is never easy, but anyone who has driven in Michigan would agree, it is absolutely and 100% necessary, if we are to maintain a straight and steady path on the road to holiness.
This week we began the new Orthodox Liturgical year. This week is an opportunity for all of us to have a new beginning…a new renewal of our lives as Christians as we once again re-live the entire History of God’s love for mankind. Let us all challenge ourselves, looking back at all that has happened this past year, which has helped so many examine and uncover the potholes in our own interior lives. May we all start anew today, taking the necessary steps to overcome our spiritual pitfalls, embracing our desire to come into communion with God, and leaving our encounters with Him not dejected like the Rich Man in the Gospel today, but with true Metanoia (re-direction) in our relationship with the Almighty.