28th Sunday of the Year
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
This question the young man puts to Jesus is in fact the most fundamental question for every person’s life, even if it is phrased a bit differently at times. Everyone wonders what they must do in this world in order to find a happiness that is as full as possible, and every person wishes that such happiness would never end. Whether such a happiness is possible is an honest question, and if it is possible the next question would be could it last forever? Everyone seeks happiness in this life, and everyone at least wishes that happiness would never end. Such desires would seem to be built into our souls.
Now, Jesus often preached about just such a happy life, but it is a heavenly, eternal life, and unending and totally fulfilling happiness with God. Obviously this young man, like many other listeners, is very interested in this teaching, even though, as St. Luke tells us, this particular young man was in fact quite rich, which means that the young man already had what most people in any age would call a “happy life” in this world. Nonetheless, he obviously was not completely happy and completely satisfied with the life that his riches provided him. His question to Jesus reveals that there was still a certain emptiness in his soul, a sense perhaps that there had to be something more to happiness, because he did not himself feel completely fulfilled. He knew that in spite of the happiness that his money could buy him, he still felt a certain emptiness and incompleteness that even his wealth could still not overcome.
Now, the rich young man is told by Jesus that if he wishes to have Eternal Life, that is, a share in that greater happiness Jesus preaches, he must keep the commandments. And the young man honestly replies that he has in fact kept the commandments all his life. Nonetheless, he still has this sense of emptiness which indicates that his happiness is not yet complete. He is still thinking in very earthly terms of happiness, that is, feeling good, feeling happy, and he wants that kind of feeling to be perfect. But Jesus is speaking about another kind of perfect happiness, a kind that can only be slightly tasted in this world and possessed perfectly only in Heaven. The young man does not understand this, and he will eventually go away sad.
We know, as St. Augustine teaches, that this human experience of emptiness is in fact a universal experience of all men and women. There is an emptiness in the human soul, that nothing in this world can perfectly fill, no matter how rich we might be in this world’s goods. Why is this is so? Because this happiness we long for is in fact something totally supernatural. And yet we naturally desire this supernatural form of happiness, whether we understand it or not, simply because God creates every human person for no other final purpose than their sharing His joy, His life, His happiness.
This being our true destiny, obviously nothing in this world, no matter how much we have of any earthly good, can satisfy this mysterious desire; thus our inevitable feeling of a certain emptiness. Money can’t buy it, power can’t secure it, and not even the greatest good in this world, human love itself, can provide it. Indeed, no matter how much we have even of this greatest human good of love, no matter how “rich” we are in terms of human love, this purely human good simply cannot fully satisfy our hunger or desire for that supernatural happiness that alone is truly an unalloyed happiness, that is, a happiness with no admixture of unhappiness, a happiness that is totally fulfilling and unending, precisely because it is God’s own happiness. Even the happiest of relationships of human love are still quite limited forms of happiness. They inevitably involve an admixture of sorrow, for every human being is subject to suffering and to death, and that means such happiness, like human life itself, is not immortal, no matter what the poets say.
In fact, experience teaches us that human love itself inevitably causes the true lover great unhappiness, for instance when the lover sees the beloved suffer, or above of all when the beloved dies. Indeed, the greater and more perfect this human love, the greater and more intense is the suffering. So not even the great good of human love, let alone the goods that riches can buy, can provide us with the happiness we truly long for, and the lack of which causes this profound emptiness in the human heart that can never be filled in this world.
Jesus, having created man, knows this truth about every human person, and he clearly teaches that this emptiness, this longing for happiness, actually can be fulfilled, but not by any thing in this world. He teaches us that in truth we all have been created for a far greater good of happiness than anything found in this world. Moreover, the happiness we actually do experience here is meant to be but a foretaste and promise of that far, far greater, supernatural happiness for which we have been created. Thus Jesus teaches that every person has been created by God to enjoy a happiness that only God can provide, since it is in fact a share in His own happiness. Only God possesses a happiness that is pure unadulterated happiness with no admixture of unhappiness, and 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 at times in the very midst of great happiness here in this life, is a mysterious witness to our true final destiny, happiness in God. We either gain Heaven, or we eventually lose even every form of happiness we know on earth, 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 it is, then, to witness so many people futilely searching for this happiness in the multiplication of the goods and pleasures of this life.
So this divine happiness actually can be experienced in this world, but only partially, only as a foretaste of its fullness in Heaven, a foretaste which encourages us and keeps us from seeking it in earthly goods. The way we experience this happiness here and now is by loving and serving God, beginning with our keeping His commandments. Jesus has made this point many times, especially at the end of His Sermon on the Mount where he declares. “it is not those who are crying our Lord, Lord who will enter the Kingdom, but only those who do my Father’s will.”
But the Gospel also teaches us that keeping the commandments is not, by itself, enough to gain us the full happiness of Heaven. The rich young man is required by Jesus to do more if he wants to be happy with Him in this world and perfectly happy in Heaven. He must leave everything else behind that could drag him back into this world as the source of his happiness. In the end, the gradual perfection of this happiness is determined by one thing, the love of God above all else and our neighbor as our self. This love, which is source of whatever supernatural happiness we experience here in this world, and perfectly experience in Heaven, is determined by our willingness to do whatever God asks of us, that is, by the degree of love by which we align our human will with God’s will, whatever may be the cost, including the surrender of our own earthly happiness perhaps, and even our very lives. Jesus lived this truth and taught it when he said that He had come for one thing, to do the will of His Father. That is perfect love; that is perfect happiness in heaven.
So experiencing God’s happiness only begins with our willingness to keep his commandments, that is, by aligning our wills with His. But perfect happiness can only be had by perfectly aligning our wills with His, which goes way beyond simply keeping his law. For keeping the commandments in fact does not necessarily result in our loving God more than self, above all else, because it does not necessarily derive from supernatural love. It might well be the case that simply our own self-love and self-interest motivates our keeping the commandments and that we keep them strictly like a business deal, to gain a reward, but not because we love the author of those laws above all else including our selves.
At any rate, God will sooner or later put each of us to the test, to see if we truly 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 here gives a test to the rich young man, in this case a great vocational call, perhaps even to be an Apostle, and his response will determine what his true motivations are. Jesus calls him to manifest his love for God, by leaving everything he has in this world, and giving it to the poor, and then join his disciples. To be an Apostle, he must show that he truly loves God enough to trust that God will not be outdone in generosity. Jesus absolutely assures him that he will have much greater treasure in heaven, just like the Apostles who left everything and followed him. It was a great sacrifice Jesus was demanding, but also a great calling!
Thus, this call of Jesus is a straightforward invitation motivated by His love, a great vocation to follow Christ in all the radicalness of his own love for the Father. Like the Apostles, that young man was being perhaps called directly by God to a most 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 rich 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 truly profound – he goes away sad, not happy, and his refusal may well leave him sad for all eternity.
Finally, this incident is also 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. Riches tempt us to love and trust this world more than God, to limit this mysterious inward desire to the happiness that money can buy, and Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels has warned emphatically 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, of trying to have it both ways, to have the good life in this world, and to 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 money gradually 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 always a radical call from God to love Him more than all else, even more than ourselves, even more than our own happiness in this world. Jesus warns us that the call to be his close disciple ultimately demands detachment from all earthly goods, for the sake of the one Supreme Good who is God. But he also assures us that whatever the cost, our reward will be great in Heaven, beyond all our reckoning and our imagination. Love of God is the way to Eternal Life, is itself everlasting happiness, and there simply is no other wa