It is easy for us to identify with the rich young man in today’s gospel because most of us are so much like him. The young man asks Jesus, “Teacher, what good must I do to possess everlasting life?” The question speaks to us because we too want to know how we must live today if we are to reach the most complete fulfillment of our lives that is found in unending communion with God. If we are not to end up with a life that was tragically misguided, what must we love and aspire to every day?
Jesus answers the young man’s question in two stages. First, Jesus tells him, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Jesus’ counsel confirms that the commandments comprise the attitudes and actions that lead to life. But notice that Jesus distinguishes between entering into life and possessing fullness of life. Obeying the commandments, which the young man has always done, puts us on the path of life; however, it is not enough to lead us into everlasting life. That is why in the second part of his answer Jesus says that if the young man truly seeks “perfection,” he must rid himself of his possessions and “give to the poor.” In other words, if the rich young man will ever cross the threshold into fullness of life by becoming the person God created him to be and that God’s grace, love, and goodness enable him to be, he must strip himself of anything that prevents that from happening. Because he cannot yet let go of a lesser good for the sake of a much greater good, the rich young man “went away sad.” His attachment to wealth and possessions kept him from the wholehearted commitment to Christ that leads to fullness of life.
In the rich young man we meet ourselves because like him we are afraid to relinquish whatever we love and trust and care for more than God. Until that changes, we will spend our lives walking away sad.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the extended Passionist family.