“Come, follow me” (Mt 19:21)
19. The way and at the same time the content of this perfection consist in the following of Jesus, sequela Christi, once one has given up one’s own wealth and very self. This is precisely the conclusion of Jesus’ conversation with the young man: “Come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). It is an invitation the marvellous grandeur of which will be fully perceived by the disciples after Christ’s Resurrection, when the Holy Spirit leads them to all truth (cf. Jn 16:13).
It is Jesus himself who takes the initiative and calls people to follow him. His call is addressed first to those to whom he entrusts a particular mission, beginning with the Twelve; but it is also clear that every believer is called to be a follower of Christ (cf. Acts6:1). Following Christ is thus the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality: just as the people of Israel followed God who led them through the desert towards the Promised Land (cf. Ex 13:21), so every disciple must follow Jesus, towards whom he is drawn by the Father himself (cf. Jn 6:44).
This is not a matter only of disposing oneself to hear a teaching and obediently accepting a commandment. More radically, it involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father. By responding in faith and following the one who is Incarnate Wisdom, the disciple of Jesus truly becomes a disciple of God (cf. Jn 6:45). Jesus is indeed the light of the world, the light of life (cf. Jn 8:12). He is the shepherd who leads his sheep and feeds them (cf. Jn 10:11-16); he is the way, and the truth, and the life (cf. Jn 14:6). It is Jesus who leads to the Father, so much so that to see him, the Son, is to see the Father (cf. Jn 14:6-10). And thus to imitate the Son, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), means to imitate the Father.
20. Jesus asks us to follow him and to imitate him along the path of love, a love which gives itself completely to the brethren out of love for God: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). The word “as” requires imitation of Jesus and of his love, of which the washing of feet is a sign: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:14-15). Jesus’ way of acting and his words, his deeds and his precepts constitute the moral rule of Christian life. Indeed, his actions, and in particular his Passion and Death on the Cross, are the living revelation of his love for the Father and for others. This is exactly the love that Jesus wishes to be imitated by all who follow him. It is the “new” commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).
The word “as” also indicates the degree of Jesus’ love, and of the love with which his disciples are called to love one another. After saying: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12), Jesus continues with words which indicate the sacrificial gift of his life on the Cross, as the witness to a love “to the end” (Jn 13:1): “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).
As he calls the young man to follow him along the way of perfection, Jesus asks him to be perfect in the command of love, in “his” commandment: to become part of the unfolding of his complete giving, to imitate and rekindle the very love of the “Good” Teacher, the one who loved “to the end”. This is what Jesus asks of everyone who wishes to follow him: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
21. Following Christ is not an outward imitation, since it touches man at the very depths of his being. Being a follower of Christ means becoming conformed to him who became a servant even to giving himself on the Cross (cf. Phil 2:5-8). Christ dwells by faith in the heart of the believer (cf. Eph 3:17), and thus the disciple is conformed to the Lord. This is the effect of grace, of the active presence of the Holy Spirit in us.
Having become one with Christ, the Christian becomes a member of his Body, which is the Church (cf. Cor 12:13, 27). By the work of the Spirit, Baptism radically configures the faithful to Christ in the Paschal Mystery of death and resurrection; it “clothes him” in Christ (cf. Gal 3:27): “Let us rejoice and give thanks”, exclaims Saint Augustine speaking to the baptized, “for we have become not only Christians, but Christ (…). Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ! “.28 Having died to sin, those who are baptized receive new life (cf. Rom 6:3-11): alive for God in Christ Jesus, they are called to walk by the Spirit and to manifest the Spirit’s fruits in their lives (cf. Gal 5:16-25). Sharing in the Eucharist, the sacrament of the New Covenant (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-29), is the culmination of our assimilation to Christ, the source of “eternal life” (cf. Jn 6:51-58), the source and power of that complete gift of self, which Jesus — according to the testimony handed on by Paul — commands us to commemorate in liturgy and in life: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).
“With God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26)
22. The conclusion of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man is very poignant: “When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions” (Mt 19:22). Not only the rich man but the disciples themselves are taken aback by Jesus’ call to discipleship, the demands of which transcend human aspirations and abilities: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?’ ” (Mt 19:25). But the Master refers them to God’s power: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
In the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (19:3-10), Jesus, interpreting the Mosaic Law on marriage, rejects the right to divorce, appealing to a “beginning” more fundamental and more authoritative than the Law of Moses: God’s original plan for mankind, a plan which man after sin has no longer been able to live up to: “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8). Jesus’ appeal to the “beginning” dismays the disciples, who remark: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry” (Mt 19:10). And Jesus, referring specifically to the charism of celibacy “for the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 19:12), but stating a general rule, indicates the new and surprising possibility opened up to man by God’s grace. “He said to them: ‘Not everyone can accept this saying, but only those to whom it is given’ ” (Mt 19:11).
To imitate and live out the love of Christ is not possible for man by his own strength alone. He becomes capable of this love only by virtue of a gift received. As the Lord Jesus receives the love of his Father, so he in turn freely communicates that love to his disciples: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love” (Jn 15:9). Christ’s gift is his Spirit, whose first “fruit” (cf. Gal 5:22) is charity: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). Saint Augustine asks: “Does love bring about the keeping of the commandments, or does the keeping of the commandments bring about love?” And he answers: “But who can doubt that love comes first? For the one who does not love has no reason for keeping the commandments”.29
23. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). With these words the Apostle Paul invites us to consider in the perspective of the history of salvation, which reaches its fulfilment in Christ, the relationship between the (Old) Law and grace (the New Law). He recognizes the pedagogic function of the Law, which, by enabling sinful man to take stock of his own powerlessness and by stripping him of the presumption of his self-sufficiency, leads him to ask for and to receive “life in the Spirit”. Only in this new life is it possible to carry out God’s commandments. Indeed, it is through faith in Christ that we have been made righteous (cf. Rom 3:28): the “righteousness” which the Law demands, but is unable to give, is found by every believer to be revealed and granted by the Lord Jesus. Once again it is Saint Augustine who admirably sums up this Pauline dialectic of law and grace: “The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given, that the law might be fulfilled”.30
Love and life according to the Gospel cannot be thought of first and foremost as a kind of precept, because what they demand is beyond man’s abilities. They are possible only as the result of a gift of God who heals, restores and transforms the human heart by his grace: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:17). The promise of eternal life is thus linked to the gift of grace, and the gift of the Spirit which we have received is even now the “guarantee of our inheritance” (Eph 1:14).
24. And so we find revealed the authentic and original aspect of the commandment of love and of the perfection to which it is ordered: we are speaking of a possibility opened up to man exclusively by grace, by the gift of God, by his love. On the other hand, precisely the awareness of having received the gift, of possessing in Jesus Christ the love of God, generates and sustains the free response of a full love for God and the brethren, as the Apostle John insistently reminds us in his first Letter: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love… Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another… We love, because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:7-8, 11, 19).
This inseparable connection between the Lord’s grace and human freedom, between gift and task, has been expressed in simple yet profound words by Saint Augustine in his prayer: “Da quod iubes et iube quod vis” (grant what you command and command what you will).31
The gift does not lessen but reinforces the moral demands of love: “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as he has commanded us” (1 Jn 3:32). One can “abide” in love only by keeping the commandments, as Jesus states: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (Jn 15:10).
Going to the heart of the moral message of Jesus and the preaching of the Apostles, and summing up in a remarkable way the great tradition of the Fathers of the East and West, and of Saint Augustine in particular,32 Saint Thomas was able to write thatthe New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given through faith in Christ.33 The external precepts also mentioned in the Gospel dispose one for this grace or produce its effects in one’s life. Indeed, the New Law is not content to say what must be done, but also gives the power to “do what is true” (cf. Jn 3:21). Saint John Chrysostom likewise observed that the New Law was promulgated at the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven on the day of Pentecost, and that the Apostles “did not come down from the mountain carrying, like Moses, tablets of stone in their hands; but they came down carrying the Holy Spirit in their hearts… having become by his grace a living law, a living book”.34