Monday, September 11, 2006

If You Would be Perfect....

In Matthew 19:16-26, Jesus offers immeasurable treasure to a young man who knows all about wealth, yet who refused the offer. The discussion did not begin with treasure, however, but with good deeds and eternal life. The rich young man already had a comfortable earthly life, so now he wanted to secure for himself a comfortable afterlife—but he had no idea that he would be unwilling to pay the price of it, for he never suspected that the attainment of heavenly treasure would require the sacrifice of earthly treasure. He had, either through shrewd business practice or through an inheritance, amassed many temporal goods. Why should he not now be able, he thought, through certain virtuous deeds, to achieve eternal ones?

So he came to Jesus and asked what good deed he had to do in order to have eternal life. First Jesus tested him to see what he had done up to then, and told him the basics that all must do even to have a chance at eternal life: keep the commandments. Here a question may arise for Christians. The man sought eternal life and asked what he could do to attain it. Jesus said, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” At this point, we see nothing more than fidelity to the Old Testament law being enjoined. Jesus said nothing about faith, only about works, as what is required for salvation.

Discussions on faith and works have been endless since the advent of Protestantism. In one sense, it is somewhat unfortunate for Christians that St Paul had to deal with Jewish converts who insisted on observance of the Mosaic law as integral to Christianity. He had to spend a lot of time correcting an aberration instead of simply giving us the teachings of Christ. So misunderstandings naturally resulted. When St Paul writes about justification by faith apart from works of the law (especially in Romans and Galatians), he is not opposing faith to good works, as some seem to think. “Works of the law” is a technical expression that refers to specific Jewish practices or rituals which were considered to be necessary for righteousness before God, and hence for salvation, for example, circumcision and the Sabbath observance, as well as other prescribed practices required of Jews. The whole thrust of Paul’s argument on justification (and the teaching of the Church from the beginning) is that you don’t have to become a Jew first before you can become a disciple of Christ. Faith, not Jewish practices or rituals, is what is needed to enter into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. But in no way does this faith negate the need to obey the Ten Commandments. That is why in this Gospel account Jesus declares that obedience to the commandments is necessary for salvation.

But there is more to this Gospel than that, and here I’m not yet talking about selling all and giving to the poor. It’s what Jesus said after that, and here is where the essence of Christian faith comes in. Once Jesus said, sell all, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, He said: “Follow Me.” Those two words are a summary of the whole teaching, the whole balance of faith and works unto salvation. Following Jesus presupposes faith in Him. No one would follow Him if they didn’t believe in Him, or at least thought they believed in Him. So the “Me” in “Follow Me” is about faith. Christ is the center, the goal, the personal object of our faith. In today’s colloquialism, we would say: It’s all about Him. But faith isn’t something abstract, an idea, a wish, an empty affirmation. That is why the “follow” in “Follow Me” is necessary. Faith has to be expressed in works. Just ask St James, who wrote about that in detail; and even St Paul said that faith has to work through love. To follow the One in whom we put our faith is to keep the commandments. He said in another place: If you love me, keep my commandments. So, to follow Jesus is to believe in Him, and to believe in Him is to express our profession of faith through love, which means obedience to the commandments of God.

Now we come to another point. Our faith, and its application through love and obedience, is impossible if God has not loved us first and thus created the very possibility of a response. So we learn from St Mark’s Gospel that when the man asked what more he should do, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and then gave him the hard saying which was at the same time the open door to salvation. Here in Matthew’s Gospel He says: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

This is sometimes misinterpreted as a call to perfection that is given to some and not to others. Most people tend to hear those words and say: “Who can be perfect? Nobody’s perfect, and nobody can be perfect, so why even try to do the impossible?” Aside from the important fact that Jesus almost immediately says that with God all things are possible, this reaction to Jesus’ words to the rich young man betrays a misunderstanding of the word “perfect.” Jesus is not saying, “If you would be flawless, immaculate, utterly without fault…” The word used is teleios, which connotes fulfillment, completion, the attainment of a goal, the finished product, so to speak. So Jesus is not imposing on the man an injunction to be something he cannot possibly be—in fact it’s just the opposite: He is saying to Him, “If you would be what you are meant to be, if you would attain the goal of your life, if you would realize God’s plan for you, if you would be fulfilled, complete, all that God has made you to be, then sell all, have treasure in heaven, and come follow Me.”

So this Gospel is really not about wealth and poverty, or even the so-called evangelical counsels. It is about a vital and decisive meeting with Jesus Christ, hearing Him speak the word that defines and directs our lives, and choosing to accept it or to go away sad—and worse than sad, in despair of our salvation. St Teresa of Avila said, “If we turn our backs on Him and go away sorrowfully like the youth in the Gospel when He tells us what to do to be perfect, what can God do? For He must proportion the reward to our love for Him.” Obviously, if we do not do what He tells us, we have no genuine love for Him, even if we deceive ourselves in our thoughts that we actually do. So St Teresa continues, “This love must not be the fabric of our imagination; we must prove it by our works… by persevering, we shall obtain all for which we strive. But, mark this—it must be on one condition—that we hold ourselves for unprofitable servants.” That is, we rely on grace to save us, even though our works are nonetheless required. This is one of the paradoxes of Christianity. We are not saved by works, but we aren’t saved without them, either. God does for us what is impossible for us to do for ourselves, but He still wants something from us to work with.

The defining, directing word we are to seek from Christ, which opens to us our vocation and destiny, will not be the same for all. For the rich man it was the sacrificing of his wealth that would free him to follow Christ and have his treasure in Heaven. For you and me it may be something different. But for each of us there is a special word from the Lord, a word that addresses what we still lack, a word that goes above and beyond the commandments that apply equally to all.

We have to approach Him, then—as Mark says, the rich man knelt down before Him to ask his question—in a spirit of prayer, of adoration, of humility. We ask not only what good deed must we do—for we already know the commandments—but “What do I lack, what is your word for me that will set me free, that will illumine my path, that will secure treasure in heaven, that will enable me to follow You wholeheartedly? That is, if I would be perfect, attain my goal, fulfill your will, become a whole and complete person before you, what must I do, how must I act, what must my life look like in order to please You?”

Do not fear whatever He might tell you, for, looking upon you, He loves you, and with God it will be possible, whatever that word may be or require. So let us not go away sad, but run to Him rejoicing, with boundless faith and trust, loving Him who first loved us and who calls us to the perfection, that is, the fullness, of Christian life. And, having made the necessary sacrifices here on earth, let us prepare to enjoy forever our treasure in Heaven.