In 1993, Pope St. John Paul II wrote a letter to all the faithful about the moral life of the Christian, which is lived in freedom in accord with the Truth of Jesus. He uses this scene of the rich young man who approaches Jesus to ask how he is “to inherit eternal life.” The man is sincere, I think; he really wants to do what is right so as to find the blessedness that Jesus has been teaching about. Therefore, he addresses Jesus as a ”good teacher,” acknowledging that He has some authority on this matter. If anyone was going to be able to help him find eternal life it was Jesus.
Jesus points the man to what he, presumably, already knows: the Commandments. However, notice which commandments Jesus actually speaks of: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother." Jesus, the Son of God, does not begin at number one: “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods besides me.” In fact, He also leaves out the one about honoring the Lord’s name and the Lord’s Sabbath day. Jesus, quite simply, offers the man the commandments that deal with our relationships with one another – here on earth. Sometimes, this is referred to as the “second tablet” of the Commandments. They govern the way that we live in community with the human family.
These seven commandments are not necessarily religious in nature. In fact, even people who do not subscribe to any particular religious tradition would say that these commands are world living one’s life by. That is because they stem from what philosophers and theologians would call “Natural Law.” This is an unwritten law that dwells in the hearts of all people and is discoverable by the use of our reason. We simply know that we are wrong if we break one of these. I liken it to my parents’ first cat, Cassidy. Dad loved that cat and she could do no wrong. Mom, however, had her doubts. If Cassidy jumped up on the dining room table, mom would clap her hands angrily and chase her off.
One day, they were coming home from being out somewhere, and as mom came through he door, she heard the light but unmistakable sound of paws thumping to the floor – from the dining room. As she looked as Cassidy there, the cat had a look on her face that can only be described as “guilt.” It might have been cat-guilt, but it was certainly guilt. She knew she wasn’t supposed to be there. And so do we when we lie, or lust after someone who isn’t our husband, or when we treat our parents with disrespect. This is part of being human.
The young man that Jesus is speaking with understood that. In fact, he proudly announces that he has done this from his youth. However, there is the sense that he desires more – more from life, and more from Jesus. Christ knows this. Therefore, Jesus turns to a higher level of perfection – a perfection that stems from the Divine Law reflected in the first three commandments. “Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor; then you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Jesus’ words are meant to draw the young man, who is a good person, deeper into the relationship with God that he seems to desire. It is why he posed the question to Jesus in the first place. It was part of his quest for meaning in his life. He had been
seeking it all his life, and in so doing he has amassed a great deal of possessions. In fact, it is precise for that reason that he “went away sad,” since he had attached so much of himself to those possessions.
Jesus’ words are an invitation to the young man and to us to enter into a deeper, more perfect path of discipleship. It requires total commitment and a detachment from material things that can possess us. This path starts with the keeping of the commandments, but it finds its fulfillment in the serious choice to follow Christ as closely as possible. As St. John Paul II said,
[I]t is certain that the young man's commitment to respect all the moral demands of the commandments represents the absolutely essential ground in which the desire for perfection can take root and mature, the desire, that is, for the meaning of the commandments to be completely fulfilled in following Christ. Jesus' conversation with the young man helps us to grasp the conditions for the moral growth of man, who has been called to perfection: the young man, having observed all the commandments, shows that he is incapable of taking the next step by himself alone. To do so requires mature human freedom ("If you wish to be perfect") and God's gift of grace ("Come, follow me").
Therefore, our path to discipleship is always one in which we first respond to our inner longing for meaning in our life. We recognize that this can be found only in approaching Jesus sincerely. The Good Teacher calls us to keep God’s law by loving our neighbors as ourselves; and when we do that, we are called to deeper discipleship by committing everything to the Lord. We don’t necessarily have to sell all we have – that was the path for this particular young man, and the path that many consecrated religious follow even to this day. However, we are called to let go of the claim that possessions and the pursuit of possessions can have on us, and to commit ourselves to a total self-
gift of our lives to service of the Lord and one another. The Eucharist teaches us what this gift looks like, and it also enables us to make that gift of our lives.