We have in this Sunday’s Gospel (Mt. 19:16-26) an account that is familiar to us, that of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man. But we ought not let our familiarity with it make us think we already know its message sufficiently so that we don’t have to go deeper into its meaning. Preachers are the ones who agonize most over the word of God, for we are always trying to present the Scriptures in such a way as to continually explore the riches of the mystery of God, and not just give you a tired, warmed-over homily but really communicate an anointing of the Holy Spirit.Since I myself am not adequate to the task, I decided to take a look at what was said on this Gospel by one of the giants of the faith in these latter days, Pope John Paul II. He reflects on this mystery in the opening chapter of what is often considered the most profound and important of his encyclicals, Veritatis Splendor, that is, The Splendor of Truth. The Pope’s thought will form the background for my own reflections on this Gospel.The young man in this Gospel account is anonymous, so immediately the evangelist takes this encounter out of the particularities of a specific individual in that time and place. He is a symbol of all who approach Christ seeking the full meaning of life. Even though he asked the Lord, “What must I do…” he was not interested in merely learning some new rules. His goal was eternal life, and so his question has the character of “How do I get there?” This is the ultimate question of every human life, even though many are unaware that they have an eternal destiny, and even though many don’t explicitly ask the question. Every time people seek in some way—even obscurely or in misguided ways—to transcend themselves, to seek something beyond their present temporal experiences, they are implicitly asking about eternal life, they are beginning to turn toward God.
If the rich young man had only desired further instruction in the law, he could have asked the Pharisees or any other qualified teacher. But he came to Jesus. Why? Perhaps, as the Pope suggests, he had heard Jesus preaching on another occasion: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel!” The scribes and the Pharisees never spoke like that, so perhaps the young man was encouraged to find God in Christ in a way he’d never found Him through the law.
The young man knows, at least, that he has to do good if he is to receive eternal life. That is why he asks Jesus what good he must do. Jesus seems to stop him short with his immediate reply: “Why do you ask Me about what is good?” The young man might have spluttered: “Well, I thought that if anyone would know, you would!” But Jesus isn’t merely an authority on the law, not even the best of authorities. Christ, as the Son of God, is Goodness incarnate, but the young man was not aware of that. Jesus, knowing it was premature to reveal himself as such to the youth, simply directed him to God: “There is only One who is good.” This means, for everyone who has ears to hear, that we must turn to God if we are to know what is good. God is the source of goodness and He alone can define it. There is no good outside of God, even though some people can do good things without explicit reference to God. God is quietly at work in those who do good, and He tries to open their minds to turn consciously and freely to Him, that they may begin truly to know and love Him.
The good things that we do are not ways of getting God’s attention or of convincing Him that He ought to grant us eternal happiness in Heaven. They are responses to Him who loved us first. Man cannot truly know God unless God reveals Himself. Man as such will always try to seek God, and the various religions of the world are so many attempts to reach out to God, but most are simply products of the innate human longing for God. But beginning with Judaism and ending with Christianity, God Himself has spoken to man; He has taken the initiative. Further, in Christ God has offered us the fullness of truth and love, the forgiveness of our sins and the only key to Paradise and everlasting life. So the young man really went to the right place when He asked Jesus how to gain eternal life!
Jesus led him slowly and carefully to the full truth. The first thing to do, in view of God’s revelation to man, is to keep the commandments God has given. That is our basic response to God’s initiative. To ask Christ about the good presupposes that one wishes to avoid the evil. So the commandments give us clear outlines of what is good and what is evil. This has to come from God, for it is not arbitrary or subject to changing ideas in different times and cultures. This is what Pope John Paul laments concerning much of modern thought on moral issues. Man has suddenly decided that he alone will define what is good and what is evil. Thus, without the grounding of divine and natural law, good and evil become fluid concepts and can be adapted according to the perspectives and agendas of any given society. The Pope says that God has already answered man about what is good, “by creating him and ordering him with wisdom and love to his final end, through the law which is inscribed in his heart, the ‘natural law.’”
Jesus gave the young man an incomplete list of commandments. What is interesting here is that He gave half of the Ten Commandments, and half of the Two Great Commandments. By giving a sampling of both the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandments, He is referring to them as a whole. This is significant because when the man asks about salvation, he is given more than a moral code. He is given also the double imperative that underlies all morality: Love God and love your neighbor. The Pope writes: “Both the Old and New Testaments explicitly affirm that without love of neighbor, made concrete in keeping the commandments, genuine love for God is not possible.”
The rich young man thought he was already doing OK with all this, and he said so; yet he felt there was still something missing, and he said so. Now it was time for Jesus to invite him to take him a step further, a step which the young man suddenly decided he could not take: “If you wish to be perfect, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me.”
Suddenly all the commandments took flesh, as it were, in Jesus. They were no longer a matter of a more or less impersonal fidelity to rules given from Above. In a moment, it was revealed that the true meaning of all the commandments is the complete and personal following of Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul explains: “Jesus brings God’s commandments to fulfillment, particularly the commandment of love of neighbor, by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning. Love of neighbor springs from a loving heart which, precisely because it loves, is ready to live out the loftiest challenges. Jesus shows that the commandments must not be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather as a path involving a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, at the heart of which is love.”
Jesus offered an invitation, requiring a choice: “If you would be perfect…” Now perfection does not mean in this case flawlessness and utter impeccability; it means completeness, the full attainment of the goal for which we were created. The Pope says: “Perfection demands that maturity in self-giving to which human freedom is called.” So perfection also means full spiritual maturity. He mentioned freedom here, and that is an important point. By saying to the rich young man, “If you would be perfect, sell what you have and follow Me,” Jesus was asking him to use his freedom to choose the ultimate and indispensable good: a saving relationship with Himself.
Some people seem to think that “If you would be perfect” is an invitation made only to a select few, while the rest of us follow Jesus more or less imperfectly. But this is not so. To choose truly to follow Jesus is to choose the perfect way, the way of wholehearted discipleship, true fulfillment, and spiritual maturity; choosing a different way is simply not following Jesus at all. And here is where the rich young man failed. He wasn’t prepared to discover that the good he was seeking—the thing he still lacked even though his moral life was blameless—would cost him so dearly. He didn’t realize that lesser goods would have to be sacrificed in order to obtain the Greatest Good. And frankly, he was hoping that he could somehow attain eternal life without disturbing the luxurious earthly life he was living. He didn’t realize that the living word of God cuts like a two-edged sword and calls us out of our comfort zones, shows us the Cross, and asks: Is eternal life worth it to you? Will you take up your cross and follow Jesus? Will you trust Him with your whole life, to give you what He wishes to give—and to take away from you what He wishes to take?
The young man walked away sad. At least he was honest enough to realize that he was too enamored of this present life and its comforts to leave it all and follow Jesus. Better that than to say you are a follower of Christ but retain the same worldly mentality. But that’s still not enough. Jesus asks us daily to use our freedom to choose the way of perfection, that is, to choose to follow Him, loving God and loving neighbor. He knows we’re not yet perfect in a moral sense. He still invites us, for with God all things are possible. Let us not go away sad but free ourselves from all that weighs us down, our negative attitudes and petty selfishness or ingrained faults. Give them up, don’t cling to them, or they will cling to you when you least want them to. Seek treasure in Heaven, for He who alone is good has eternal riches for those who are willing to give up everything to follow Him.
Abbot Joseph Homick is the Abbot of Mt Tabor Monastery (officially called Holy Transfiguration Monastery) in Redwood Valley, California.
Permission is granted to copy or quote from his posts for use elsewhere under two conditions: you don’t alter the text and you acknowledge the source.
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