28th Sunday of the Year
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This question, which a young man asks Jesus, is the most fundamental question of every person’s life: what must I to do in this world in order to find a happiness that is complete and Everlasting. Jesus had been preaching about just such a life, a Heavenly eternal life, the life of unending and totally fulfilling happiness with God, and obviously this young man becomes interested. St. Luke tells us that the young man was a rich young man, and that means that the young man already had what most people would call a good life in this world. But, he was obviously not completely happy, completely satisfied with the life that his riches provided him. There was still a certain emptiness in his soul, and a feeling of being not completely fulfilled, an emptiness and incompleteness which even the happiness his money could buy could not overcome. The rich young man’s reply reveals his feeling of emptiness – he has kept the commandments, but he knows he is not yet perfectly happy, and so, according to St. Luke’s account, he asks what more must I do? How do I attain this life Jesus speaks about.
The rich young man’s experience of emptiness is a universal experience of all men and women. There is an emptiness in the human soul, that nothing in this world can fill, no matter how rich we might be in this world’s goods. This is true because the human person has a deep desire for a kind of happiness that nothing in this world, no matter how much we have of this good, can satisfy. Money can’t buy it, and not even the greatest good in this world, which is human love. Indeed, no matter how much we have of this great good, no matter how “rich” we are in terms of human love, it alone cannot fully satisfy our hunger for a happiness that is pure happiness, that is, a happiness with no admixture of unhappiness, a happiness that is totally fulfilling and unending. Even the happiest human relationships are not pure happiness, they always involve an admixture of sorrow, for every human being is subject to suffering and to death, and love itself causes the true lover great unhappiness, for instance when the beloved suffers, and most of all when the beloved dies. So not even human love, let alone the goods that riches can buy, can give to us the happiness we truly long for, and the lack of which causes this profound emptiness in the human heart that can never be filled, at least in this world.
Jesus, having created man, knows this truth about man, and he clearly teaches that this emptiness, this longing for happiness can be fulfilled, but not by any thing in this world. He teaches us that we, all mankind, have been created for a greater happiness than anything found in this world. In truth, the happiness we do find here is meant to be but a foretaste and promise of that greater, supernatural happiness for which we have been created. Jesus teaches that every person has been created by God to enjoy the happiness that only God can provide, because it is God’s own happiness. Only God possesses a happiness that is pure unadulterated happiness, with no admixture of unhappiness, a happiness that is absolute and without end.
Every human person, I repeat, is created for this happiness, and the emptiness we experience in ourselves, even in the very midst of great happiness, is a witness to this final destiny for which we have been made, and without which we cannot ultimately be happy at all. We either gain Heaven, or we eventually lose every form of happiness we know, for the things that make us partially happy in this world are passing away like us, and in the end we either share God’s happiness forever, or we end up forever unhappy, separated from God. How sad to see so many people futilely searching for this happiness in the multiplication of the goods and pleasures of this life.
The question the young man asks then is of supreme importance, and Jesus treats it with great seriousness. How do we find this happiness we were made for by God? He tells the young man that first he must keep the commandments, this is the most basic requirement for attaining Heaven. Jesus has made this point many times, especially at the end of His sermon on the mount: “it is not those who are crying our Lord, Lord who will enter the Kingdom, but only those who do my Father’s will.” The will of God is expressed in the moral law. One can only share God’s happiness by being united with God – but one cannot be united with God unless one is determined to do God’s will. Surely, there is mercy for the sinner, but even the sinner keeps God’s commandments ultimately, by his repentance and reform,
But the Gospel shows us that keeping the commandments is not, by itself, enough to gain us Heaven. The rich young man recognizes that when he asks what more he must do? In the end, what is absolutely required is that we love God above all things, including our own will, our own earthly happiness perhaps, and this greater love of God is expressed first of all in our determination to keep God’s commandments and in actually keeping the commandments. But keeping the commandments does not necessarily mean we love God more than self. It might well be that simply our own self-love and self-interest motivates our keeping the commandments, that we keep them strictly like a business deal, to gain a reward, but not because we love the author of those laws.
At any rate, God will sooner or later put us to the test, to see if we love Him above all, or love God just as a means to our own happiness. We may well be obeying God like the elder brother of the prodigal son obeys his Father, not out of love, but just to get the farm! Thus Jesus gives a test to the rich young man, in this case a great vocational call to be perhaps an Apostle, and his response will determine what his true motivations are. He calls him to manifest his love for God, by leaving everything he has in this world, and give it to the poor, and show that he truly loves God enough to trust that he will not be outdone in generosity. You will have treasure in heaven, and I want you to follow me – like the Apostles who left everything and followed him. It was a great sacrifice but also a great calling!
This call of Jesus is a straightforward call, motivated by His love, to a vocation to follow Christ in all the radicalness of his own love for the Father. Like the Apostles, he has been called directly by God to a special vocation, and if he loves Jesus and loves God, this will be seen by him as the will of God for his life, like Peter and John and Matthew and the others. He heard this call from the lips of Christ himself, and for the true lover, the slightest wish of the beloved, let alone a calling such as this, is a command, a demand of love. But the young man goes away sad, and Our Lord’s next words in the passage, about the difficulty of the rich entering the Kingdom, surely implies that this sadness is devastating – he goes away sad, not happy, and his refusal may well leave him sad for all eternity.
The incident is used by Jesus to teach his disciples another lesson – the great danger to salvation from the possessing of riches, that much is clear in our Lord’s saying about the Camel, for the suggestion is clearly that only a miracle of grace will save most rich people from the loss of Eternal life. Riches tempt us to love this world more than God, to limit our desire to the happiness that money can buy, and Jesus has warned emphatically, elsewhere in the Gospels, that we cannot love both God and money. For many people, and it might well have been the case with the rich young man, religion can become simply a case of hedging our bets, to try to have it both ways, to have the good life in this world, and live for that happiness for the most part, but also to keep a hand in religion, and get Heaven as well.
But this inevitably leads the person hedging his bet to live mainly for this world, as if it were the only world, and to reduce religion to a secondary concern, a deal made to gain the happiness of Heaven as well. Thus gradually money comes to distort if not displace our love of God, and God, becomes like money, a simple means to our own happiness. We do not obey him out of love, but simply for the desire for a reward. We do not love God above all, but what God offers us above all.
Christianity is certainly a radical call from God to love Him more than all else, even ourselves, even perhaps our own happiness in this world. Jesus warns us that the call to be his disciples demands detachment from all earthly goods, for the sake of the Supreme Good who is God. Whatever the cost, our reward will be great, in Heaven, beyond all our reckoning and imagination. Love of God is the way to Eternal Life, everlasting happiness, and there is no other way, no matter what the cost.