The Greatest Challenge

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Sometimes we ask the right questions, but we are not ready for their answers. This is what happens to the young man in this passage. And he is us.

ʺA young man approached Jesus and said, ‘Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?’ He answered him, ‘WHy do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He asked him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus replied, ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother; and you shall love your neighbor as ourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.ʺ (Mt. 19: 16-22)

The young man in this passage has the right desire. ‘Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life? As he reveals in his dialogue with Jesus, he is a good man, already mature in his moral character, for he already keeps the commandments willingly. The problem is in the question he ultimately asks Jesus. ‘What do I still lack?’ Jesus’ response to this earnest young man’s profoundly important question, proves to be too much for him at that moment.

The first hint from Jesus that the young man has asked a deeper question than he is aware of, is when Jesus says to him, ʺWhy do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good.’ Every Christian shares and understands this young man’s sincerity and his desire to gain eternal life. Each of us, just as sincerely, wants to be good enough to one day enter into eternal life. But Jesus is responding to the deeper meaning of the question the young man was asking, the meaning of ʺperfection.ʺ What is it that we are asking when we say, ‘What good must I do to gain eternal life?’ The answer lies in the relationship between the word ‘good’ and the words ‘eternal life.’ Eternal life implies perfection. We, as human beings are not capable of this perfection, only God is. But Jesus is telling the young man that if he wants to enter eternal life, he must willingly and happily live in accord with the commandments as he is doing, but if he wants to be perfect, he needs to let go of the things that distract him from living this life in the manner proper to eternal life. He is showing the young man the perfect answer to his profound question. As much as we do not want to hear it, the truth is that attachment to things, the things of the material world, is an impediment to our gaining the life that we most desire. We are being challenged by Jesus here, as was the young man in this passage, to understand the deeper meaning and of the good life. The perfect ʺgood lifeʺ is the one that is lived in the manner Christ, that is, completely and entirely for others, not the self.

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When he hears, ʺIf you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,ʺ the young man goes away saddened, for he had many possessions. How many of us are challenged by this passage in the same way? We have been raised up in a world, like that of the young man in this passage, that believes that material wealth and comfort are gifts from God, that they are evidence of God’s grace toward us. But Jesus has a very different take on the matter. He recognize that it is the treasure of heaven that we really desire, and he is simply getting us to see how the treasures of this world are often in competition for our hearts with those of heaven.

ʺCome follow me.ʺ Jesus is the One who is good. He is the one we are to follow if we want eternal life. He was the embodiment of this answer, for he, ʺWho, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found in human appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2: 6-8) How can we follow Jesus if much, or all, of our time and attention is given to gaining and maintaining our material well-being, or our status in society? We must become poor/humble enough to understand the meaning of the good that leads to eternal life. Whatever keeps us away from the perfect love that Christ calls us too, we must sell. If it is material wealth, sell it and give it to the poor. If it our ‘wealth’ is in the form of some earthly social status, sell it for the grace of humility and for the treasures of heaven. Only then will we be able to perfectly follow Jesus in the manner he prescribes for us.

We have to ask ourselves the same question that the young man is challenged with internally? Are we really ready for the answer that Jesus gives us here? The young man was not. He went away sad because he had many possessions. And this message still troubles us today. Unfortunately, we are never told if that young man finally understood and accepted that challenge. But we can believe that if he remained open to God’s challenge, he might very well have succeeded, with God’s grace, in answering it with all that he had. The same is true for us. We must let go of our own answers to this question and struggle with the challenge of the answer Jesus gave to the young man and continues to give to us. What would the world be like if a critical mass of us began to take this gospel message seriously? Now there’s a question!

Lord, give us the grace of courage and of understanding as we struggle to discern our response to the holy challenge of this passage in our own lives today. Amen.


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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.