In an Orthodox Funeral for a departed loved one, there is a very pointed and direct verse that is said by the priest, that always sticks with me, even after I move on to the next few verses. As he is swinging the censer and singing about the soul of the departed servant of God, the priest says:
Let us go forth and gaze into the graves, for man is naked bones, food for the worms, and stench. Only then will we learn of what are true riches, and comeliness, beauty, and strength!
Why does that verse hit so hard those who hear it? Because it is a pure dose of truth that so many in the world, especially living in our material driven society, do not want to admit: The desire to gain money, power, and wealth, those things which the world holds so dear, are meaningless to the existence of mankind.
Our Lord, throughout His ministry on earth, made this point over and over in His words to us. “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20). “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15). “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, but lay up for yourself treasures in heaven, for where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” (Matthew 6:19)
In the Gospel today, perhaps one of the more potent reminders is given, one that often causes each of us living in this country (where even those considered in poverty would be considered among the wealthy in other parts of the world) a bit of a pause: “O how hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24)
The “eye of the needle” our Lord is speaking about (although this is the subject of some debate) is sometimes referred to as the small opening in walls surrounding Jerusalem. To fit an entire camel through it is certainly possible, but it would require the camel to rid itself of all the baggage it was carrying to get through!
What an image for us brothers and sisters! What kind of baggage do riches put on the backs of mankind, making it hard for us to “enter into the narrow gate!” Riches are a cause for us to forget about God. The more things we have, the more comfortable our lives are, the more we become distracted by what our true purpose is in life. We begin to forget about God, which inevitably leads to disaster.
Look at the example of the nation of Israel in scripture. After years of being slaves to Pharoah, God delivers His people out of bondage. They march through the dessert, enduring more hardships until they come into the promise land and were given power, wealth, and victories! They had everything, which led them to forget about God, even going so far as to worship pagan gods! With a few exceptions, their history was then filled with bad kings, an exile to Babylon, and utter darkness for centuries before Christ came!
Today, the world sees wealth and power as a blessing, and poverty is a curse. Yet here is God, and thousands of years of proof that it is the opposite that is true!
If we want further proof of what distractions like wealth and power do to our spiritual life, we need only to look at the past two years of our lives (during the COVID pandemic), and how they changed when we were denied so many of life’s little distractions. When society closed down, our day to day lives came to a grinding halt. It caused us to spend more time with our families and to slow down our hurried pace through the day. There was even a short period where we were taken away from the lifeblood of being in the Church. It was like being thrust into exile like the Israel of old, with so many of us thinking about that beautiful verse from the psalms: “How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (The “strange land” being in front of our computer screens and livestreaming services!)
Fast forward to now, when life has returned to a “semi-normal” state, and we can now attend Church and receive the sacraments on a regular basis. Do we yearn for the Eucharist like we did on that first day back? Do we approach the Holy Body and Blood of God with tears being shed? We have had the ability to come back to the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, the very Church itself, yet how much have our secular lives and the things of the world, distracted us to that reality?!
How can we get back to the shedding of tears at the chalice? How do we learn what are true riches, and comeliness, beauty, and strength? How do we get back to the point where all of this means so much, all the time? Our Lord gave us the answer in the Gospel when he told the rich man to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and come follow Him!
Sometimes we think that this was advice just meant for that rich man, but we would be foolish to think so. This is a commandment given to all of us today, yet with a few exceptions throughout history, we are too weak to live up to this kind of calling. This doesn’t mean that we ignore our Lord, but rather we begin to build up our spiritual strength, day by day, until we can reach the point of the spiritual giants like St. Anthony, who heard that commandment and went from the Church selling everything and going to the dessert. We give a little bit more of our wealth, every time the opportunity presents itself.
Did you receive bad service at a restaurant? Give the server a bigger tip. Thinking of giving that homeless person a few dollars on the side of the road? Give them whatever bill you pull out of your pocket first. Thinking of bypassing a Liturgy for something other than a sickness? What event or gathering in the world can give you more wealth of Grace than what you are receiving right here and right now?
May our Lord allow us to see through the façade that the devil has pulled over the eyes of the world and give us the clarity which we so desperately seek as we draw nearer to the Kingdom!