The Rich Fool and His Attachments


Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, November 19, 2023

Ephesians 2:14-22; Luke 12:16-21

In his seminal work, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton once wrote that

“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God… this little point of nothingness,” he states “… is the pure glory of God in us… it is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.”

One day after Merton wrote this moving depiction of his own awakening within, he recorded the following: “Yesterday, in Louisville,” he states, “at the corner of 4th and Walnut, I suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were or could be totally alien to me.”

What Merton describes for us in these beautiful reflections is the goal of all Orthodox Christians — and this goal is our union with God. And when we speak of our union with God, we are referring our theosis; our salvation in other words. And part of our journey toward being united to God requires that we truly learn to love all people. But part of getting to this specific stage also requires that we adopt the divine way of dispassion. St Maximus puts it like this:

“God, who is by nature good and dispassionate, loves all men equally as His handiwork… Similarly, a man of good and dispassionate judgment also loves all men equally.” To truly love all people, then, requires that we abandon any need of satisfying our own egos. As the Apostle Paul teaches: Do nothing “according to vainglory, but rather in humility [esteem] one another as far better than your own selves… Be of that disposition in yourselves that was also in [Christ Jesus]…who subsisting in god’s form… emptied himself…”  All of our passions, all of our drives, all of our boasting in ourselves, all of our attachments — all of these remains but a spiritual roadblock to discovering this “point of nothingness” that Merton describes, which blazes within “with the light of heaven.”

A spiritual master once was asked the question, “What have you gained from mediation. Nothing,” he replied. “However, let me tell you what I have lost: anger, anxiety, depression, insecurity, fear of old age and depression.” (end quote). Such is the way of becoming dispassionate, and such is the way of awakening the divine image within ourselves.

Today’s Epistle reading likewise expounds upon this divine indwelling by likening the human body to that of a “holy temple,” through which each of us has become “a dwelling place of God in the [Holy Spirit].” Because each of us is a Temple of the Holy Spirit, it is important that we nourish our souls on the things of the Spirit. God is pure love, and for this reason it is important that each of us learns how to love purely! The way to uncovering divine love within, as Thomas Merton exemplified, is to learn how to detach ourselves from worldly, ego-driven passions.

The rich man in today’s Gospel lesson is the antithesis of this. For he had formed a bond between his earthly possessions and the very essence of his soul. This is noted in how he addresses himself at the end of his life by saying “Soul … look at all we’ve acquired… eat, drink and be merry!” God, by contrast, tells him that this night his soul is required of him and is about to be laid bare before Him. It’s safe to say that the man over indulged in his passion for more — in his greed, or avarice — rather than learning to adopt a practice of divine, unselfish love. St. Maximus again describes this type of ego-driven self-love as “the first sin,” or the sin inherited from Eden. And for this reason it is therefore “the mother of the passions that come after it. He to whom it is granted to be worthy of God through love, does away with it…” (Andrew Louth, ed. and trans. Maximus the Confessor, (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996). 88.)

It is important to understand that the attachments we make in this life, like the rich man in the parable, have a notable effect on our bodies. And what affects the body also affects our very souls. We, therefore, must learn how to detach from our dependencies in this life, for we cannot take them with us into the hereafter, which is one of the points of today’s Gospel lesson. This is the critical mistake of the rich man. Picture an alcoholic or a drug-addicted individual who is suddenly put into a room with no access to those same drugs. it doesn’t go well for them. So it is with each one of us when it comes to our worldly passions and attachments, when we pass from this life to the next. The lusts, the avarice, the greed, the anger we carry with us in this life, will need to be purified when we come into the presence of the pure, uncreated, divine love of God in the next life.

But herein lies one of the gifts of our church when it comes to our participation in the divine life. Today we stand at the beginning of a great fasting period. And fasting itself is a form of purifying. The purpose of fasting is to train ourselves to control our temperaments and our passions. One may have difficulty controlling their anger, or controlling their impulses, but we can control what we put in our mouths. By practicing this form of temperament with one of the body’s most basic desires — food and drink — we can extend this practice in tempering the other passions of the body. We, of course, can miss the point by taking this practice too far — by making fasting our end goal instead of using the fast as a tool to help us toward our detachment, that we might find our union with God. We do not need to fast “perfectly” in order to find God. We simply need to let go.

A pilgrim to the Holy Mountain of Athos [once] asked an old hermit, “Father, how can I attain my salvation?” The venerated holy man replied, “Every day at dusk go to the cemetery and for an hour hurl insults to the dead. Do that for a month and pay attention to everything that happens around you. Then come and report to me.” After a month the pilgrim returned. “Father, I have done what you told me but nothing happened!” The hermit then said, “Go to the cemetery again for another month and sing praises to the dead. Then come and tell me what happened.” After a month the pilgrim returned. “Father, I did what you told me but nothing happened!” The holy father then said, “My son, if you wish to attain your salvation, be like the dead, indifferent to insults and indifferent to praise.”