“If you wish to be perfect” (Mt 19:21)
16. The answer he receives about the commandments does not satisfy the young man, who asks Jesus a further question. “I have kept all these; what do I still lack? ” (Mt 19:20). It is not easy to say with a clear conscience “I have kept all these”, if one has any understanding of the real meaning of the demands contained in God’s Law. And yet, even though he is able to make this reply, even though he has followed the moral ideal seriously and generously from childhood, the rich young man knows that he is still far from the goal: before the person of Jesus he realizes that he is still lacking something. It is his awareness of this insufficiency that Jesus addresses in his final answer. Conscious of the young man’s yearning for something greater, which would transcend a legalistic interpretation of the commandments, the Good Teacher invites him to enter upon the path of perfection: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21).
Like the earlier part of Jesus’ answer, this part too must be read and interpreted in the context of the whole moral message of the Gospel, and in particular in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:3-12), the first of which is precisely the Beatitude of the poor, the “poor in spirit” as Saint Matthew makes clear (Mt 5:3), the humble. In this sense it can be said that the Beatitudes are also relevant to the answer given by Jesus to the young man’s question: “What good must I do to have eternal life? “. Indeed, each of the Beatitudes promises, from a particular viewpoint, that very “good” which opens man up to eternal life, and indeed is eternal life.
The Beatitudes are not specifically concerned with certain particular rules of behaviour. Rather, they speak of basic attitudes and dispositions in life and therefore they do not coincide exactly with the commandments. On the other hand, there is no separation or opposition between the Beatitudes and the commandments: both refer to the good, to eternal life. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of the Beatitudes, but also refers to the commandments (cf. Mt 5:20-48). At the same time, the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the openness of the commandments and their orientation towards the horizon of the perfection proper to the Beatitudes. These latter are above all promises, from which there also indirectly flow normative indications for the moral life. In their originality and profundity they are a sort of self- portrait of Christ, and for this very reason are invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ.26
17. We do not know how clearly the young man in the Gospel understood the profound and challenging import of Jesus’ first reply: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments”. But it is certain that the young man’s commitment to respect all the moral demands of the commandments represents the absolutely essential ground in which the desire for perfection can take root and mature, the desire, that is, for the meaning of the commandments to be completely fulfilled in following Christ. Jesus’ conversation with the young man helps us to grasp the conditions for the moral growth of man, who has been called to perfection: the young man, having observed all the commandments, shows that he is incapable of taking the next step by himself alone. To do so requires mature human freedom (“If you wish to be perfect”) and God’s gift of grace (“Come, follow me”).
Perfection demands that maturity in self-giving to which human freedom is called. Jesus points out to the young man that the commandments are the first and indispensable condition for having eternal life; on the other hand, for the young man to give up all he possesses and to follow the Lord is presented as an invitation: “If you wish…”. These words of Jesus reveal the particular dynamic of freedom’s growth towards maturity, and at the same time they bear witness to the fundamental relationship between freedom and divine law. Human freedom and God’s law are not in opposition; on the contrary, they appeal one to the other. The follower of Christ knows that his vocation is to freedom. “You were called to freedom, brethren” (Gal 5:13), proclaims the Apostle Paul with joy and pride. But he immediately adds: “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (ibid.). The firmness with which the Apostle opposes those who believe that they are justified by the Law has nothing to do with man’s “liberation” from precepts. On the contrary, the latter are at the service of the practice of love: “For he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ ” (Rom 13:8-9). Saint Augustine, after speaking of the observance of the commandments as being a kind of incipient, imperfect freedom, goes on to say: “Why, someone will ask, is it not yet perfect? Because ‘I see in my members another law at war with the law of my reason’… In part freedom, in part slavery: not yet complete freedom, not yet pure, not yet whole, because we are not yet in eternity. In part we retain our weakness and in part we have attained freedom. All our sins were destroyed in Baptism, but does it follow that no weakness remained after iniquity was destroyed? Had none remained, we would live without sin in this life. But who would dare to say this except someone who is proud, someone unworthy of the mercy of our deliverer?… Therefore, since some weakness has remained in us, I dare to say that to the extent to which we serve God we are free, while to the extent that we follow the law of sin, we are still slaves”.27
18. Those who live “by the flesh” experience God’s law as a burden, and indeed as a denial or at least a restriction of their own freedom. On the other hand, those who are impelled by love and “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16), and who desire to serve others, find in God’s Law the fundamental and necessary way in which to practise love as something freely chosen and freely lived out. Indeed, they feel an interior urge — a genuine “necessity” and no longer a form of coercion — not to stop at the minimum demands of the Law, but to live them in their “fullness”. This is a still uncertain and fragile journey as long as we are on earth, but it is one made possible by grace, which enables us to possess the full freedom of the children of God (cf. Rom 8:21) and thus to live our moral life in a way worthy of our sublime vocation as “sons in the Son”.
This vocation to perfect love is not restricted to a small group of individuals. The invitation, “go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor”, and the promise “you will have treasure in heaven”, are meant for everyone, because they bring out the full meaning of the commandment of love for neighbour, just as the invitation which follows, “Come, follow me”, is the new, specific form of the commandment of love of God. Both the commandments and Jesus’ invitation to the rich young man stand at the service of a single and indivisible charity, which spontaneously tends towards that perfection whose measure is God alone: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus makes even clearer the meaning of this perfection: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).