The Rich Young Man
“- Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?”
– He answered him: “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
– He asked him: “Which ones?”
– And Jesus replied: ” ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honour your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.'”
– The young man said to him: “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?”
– Jesus said to him: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to (the) poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” (Mt. 19:16-22)
This passage from the Gospel is fundamental. It has already been addressed in the text “Fortitude and Sacred Threshold” for those who wish to take a look. And now, let us continue to go deeper into the subject.
Just why is this text important for us Christians? This is so because it places us at the exact point on the threshold between the “First Covenant”, and the “New Covenant”, between “being Jewish” and “being Christian”, “following Moses” and “following Jesus”. In doing so, it helps us see the exact difference between the two “economies” *. Otherwise, if we do not see the difference, why are we Christians?
Briefly, please note that the word “economy” is a theological expression that denotes the way God deals with us and the means He provides us with when doing so. For instance, we can say: “the Economy of God in the Old Testament”.
This illuminating text helps us to avoid “being Christian” in name only. Indeed, the great risk for us Christians is to become lazy, which means to become technically “Jewish”, by not using Christ’s Salvation, and the Holy Spirit, as will be explained below.
The difference between the two Covenants, the two Economies, is enormous, and in a practical way should also be enormous in our own lives.
In addition, this text of St. Matthew helps us as learn the possible differences between “Christianity” – Christianity really alive – and any other religion. With this difference in mind, then, it is to be hoped that one can live by its tenets, taking advantage of them, and living them to the fullest. Otherwise, what is the point of being a Christian? We might as well adhere to any other religion.
Some people might think that this text, by offering us Christians two ways of “being Christian”, therefore, creates two categories of Christians:
1- the normal simple people, who live by the Commandments of Moses and
2- the people who hear the “call for Perfection” and follow Jesus more closely, such as consecrated people.
This would entail that those in the first category are still following Jesus, but not closely. In fact, for centuries, we have been dividing Christians into two classes: the ones who are called to perfection, to holiness, who follow Jesus closely and “the rest of the crowd”, who follow Jesus, but from a certain distance, people, who at the last minute before dying, manage to hop over into heaven by the skin of their teeth. This then presumes that God is calling some, and not others! It is as if some are born with more muscles, so that they can reach Perfection, and others are doomed right from the start!
Of course, this duality, this dual vision is wrong, and thank God, the Holy Spirit has talked to us, through the Council Vatican II, and has reminded us that the Perfection that Jesus is bringing us, that Holiness, is for everybody. Everybody is invited to Holiness; it is not for an “elite”!
This text of St. Matthew, however, is not the only text that addresses the difference between being Jewish and being Christian, or, if you prefer, the difference between on the one hand being a “lazy Christian”, a Christian who fails to make use of all the goodness of Christianity and the Gift of God, and on the other hand being a real Christian.
The first one is not mystical, by contrast with the second which is definitely mystical.
The Apostles, right from the beginning, felt the urge to clarify the difference, because they saw the richness that Jesus was bringing, and they also saw that many seemed to follow Christ but did not get to experience this variety of richness. An examination of a passage from the book of the Acts will amply exemplify this point, namely, when St. Paul met up with some people who were following Jesus, who had heard of John the Baptist, but who had not received the Holy Spirit. The text reads as follows:
“Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.” (Acts 19:1-6)
Because of this the Apostles felt the need to clarify the huge risk of living a Christian life in name only, and not having the experience of the Holy Spirit.
St. Matthew, for instance, built up his Sermon on the Mount to explain how each Person of the Trinity enters into our life, influences it and changes it, that is, we see the Son in Chapter 5, the Father in Chapter 6 and the Holy Spirit in Chapter 7, (see this Article). If you take the second part of Chapter 5, you will see that it is structured in a way as to show the clear difference between Moses’ Law and Jesus’ Law, namely, when teaching Jesus says: “They said to you”, referring to Moses and “I say to you”, referring to Himself.
The difference between what each one says is simply gigantic: it is the difference between “what is possible to practise with our own strength” (Moses’ Law), and “what is impossible to do with our own strength” (Jesus’ Law). It is clear what “to kill” means, it is possible for us to abide by this commandment. But not to think badly or speak badly about our brothers, requires a total change of attitude, of the soul and heart. This is the reason for the coming of Jesus: to take away the old heart of stone and put a heart of flesh in its place (see Eze. 36:26). Jesus can do this, and this will then allow Perfection to be achieved. We cannot, therefore, separate this Gospel of the rich young man, from the second part of Chapter 5 of Matthew with its five injunctions, each beginning with: “I say to you…”.
St. Paul, similarly, in his letters both to the Romans and to the Galatians, addresses the central issue of the difference between the “Law of Moses” and the “Law of Jesus”. He calls the latter one: Faith. And what is Faith for St. Paul? Opening our hearts to receive what we do not deserve: the love and the salvation of Jesus on the Cross. In other words: the Holy Spirit who can act in us and change us.
In addition, John in his Gospel offers a whole journey of transformation – through six signs as well as the Big one – the Cross – that will allow us to reach union with Jesus, that is, to experience His Resurrection, and receive His Holy Spirit.
Finally, when Matthew (and the other parallel accounts in Mark and Luke) tells us about this encounter between Jesus and this young man, he is not simply relating a minor event. Rather he is addressing a central point that each Christian should study and understand.
Note: This is significantly seen when Jesus in his reply to the young man, does not immediately launch into a discussion of the “great things” He is bringing us like, for example, the Perfection of the Law, and leaving everything to follow Him. He just starts from the beginning: “did you follow what Moses said?” In other words, in order to “start to follow Jesus” one has to be prepared, one has to be ready for it, and has to have fulfilled the initial requirements.
The whole matter can be neatly summed up thus: it is not a question of “either Moses or Jesus”. Rather it is “Moses, then, One greater than Moses – the Perfection of Moses – Jesus”.
Jesus is the one who, in Him, makes everything alive.