The problem with the rich young man | National Catholic Registry
The story of the rich young man whom Jesus sends away sad is without doubt the most striking example of the limits of simple moralism. Relevant details can be found in each of the three synoptic authors – Matthew, Mark and Luke – thus showing a similarity so striking that only the Holy Spirit could have arranged it.
Take Mark 10:17, for example, as representative of the other two. Here we are told that just as Jesus is about to leave Judea, where he blessed and taught the crowds, “a man ran and knelt down before him, and asked him, ‘Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” That was the icebreaker. Ten words of deceptive simplicity, which Jesus seems to dismiss by asking his own question: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (10:18). Jesus goes on to remind him of a number of commandments necessary for the moral life: “Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not carry of false witness, do not deceive, honor your father and your mother” (10:19).
This is immediately followed by the astonishing admission that the young man has observed these things before. All the commandments, indeed, from the earliest days of his youth have been the constant refrain of his life. At this moment, the Evangelist reveals how Jesus, looking at him, “loved him and said to him: ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (10:20-21).
What comes next, of course, is nothing less than the Great Refusal, which makes the young man go away sad, because of so many possessions he could not bring himself to part with.
Extraordinary, isn’t it? But wait a moment. Has he really not done enough to meet the requirements of the law? What more must he do to earn that approval from God that allows him not to leave sad, but to be filled with joy and contentment for all the good he has accomplished? Let’s count the roads, as they say. To begin with, he showed the greatest possible interest in going to heaven. What else would explain such an exemplary ethical performance? He was not the least bit careless, in other words, in keeping the books, in polishing the tablets, so to speak, of Mosaic law.
And, certainly, by calling Jesus good teacher, he rightly grabbed the perfect source for what needs to be done. Who else has cornered this particular market? So what’s the problem here? Why should he be sad at all?
Because, in his search for salvation, for that perfect realization of the good he aspires to possess, keeping the commandments will not suffice. It will never be enough. Not unless it becomes part of a much larger issue, which is a relationship issue, to actually entrust your life to an Other. And so it’s not really about the Law after all, as if a person’s life is tied to a series of precepts. But to the Legislator, who in the context of history bears a unique and irreplaceable name, namely, Jesus the Christ, who came among us in search of all the lost. That includes, by the way, the Rich Young Man, who doesn’t really know he’s lost yet.
What the episode tells us, and without any kind of subtlety to soften the blow, is that until the Rich Young Man finds himself drawn to the Good Master himself, indeed, falling head over heels in love with Jesus Christ, his life has no moral meaning. at all. Not only will he not be able to support those noble ideals around which he has so admirably organized his life; he will find himself increasingly bogged down in a kind of moralism that equates doing good with being good. He will have lost the true greatness of the moral life, which is the constant challenge to give of oneself, even as we receive this far greater gift which is the Person of Jesus Christ.
The problem with moralism, of course, is that it turns so easily into self-righteousness, in which one is always tempted to think oneself better than others when in fact we are all in the gutter, we have all an equal and urgent need of a Savior to stoop down and bring us out. To not know is self-duplicity – an outright lie – since it refuses to recognize the commonality of human corruption, that in Adam’s fall we all sinned. It is no less destructive for others, insofar as, lacking this self-awareness, we tend to approach them without humility or justice, seeing their faults with a little more smugness and contempt.
For my life to become truly authentic, it must therefore be seen in terms of a vocation, of a response to a call which is inevitably addressed to me. And that my whole life must be this response, which I return to the One who first gave himself for me. Unless I see my life as being galvanically charged with this awareness, that always and everywhere my life belongs to God, I really cannot go on. Who else qualifies to be the pillar of my life but the One who made himself small for me? Who, in the gift of his incarnate Son, encamps over my life with unimaginable intimacy and love. “With him”, as Father Julian Carron recalls, “the Mystery entered history, becoming the companion of humanity, offering itself as a response to the human need for happiness: whoever follows him will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life”.
This last line, by the way, was the postscript of the conversation started by the Rich Young Man. Too bad he didn’t stay to hear it. It might have saved him a lot of heartache.