Fr. Robert Barron has an excellent sermon for the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man, which we hear about in today’s Gospel selection. Fr. Barron asserts that Jesus called the young man to heroic virtue. He admits that he is following, in this sermon, the interpretation given by Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor.
The young man aspires to something more than he has known in just obeying every jot and tittle of the Law. As John Paul II wrote, “For the young man, the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life. This is in fact the aspiration at the heart of every human decision and action, the quiet searching and interior prompting which sets freedom in motion. This question is ultimately an appeal to the absolute Good which attracts us and beckons us; it is the echo of a call from God who is the origin and goal of man's life.” Jesus loved him for it, and challenged him to true spiritual heroism. John Paul II believed that the young man’s question and Christ’s answer were critical for us: “If we therefore wish to go to the heart of the Gospel's moral teaching and grasp its profound and unchanging content, we must carefully inquire into the meaning of the question asked by the rich young man in the Gospel and, even more, the meaning of Jesus' reply, allowing ourselves to be guided by him. Jesus, as a patient and sensitive teacher, answers the young man by taking him, as it were, by the hand, and leading him step by step to the full truth.”
Note that Jesus does not dismiss the importance of obeying the Law; rather, he highlights that it does not end there. John Paul II: “Jesus tells the young man: ‘If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments’ (Mt 19:17). In this way, a close connection is made between eternal life and obedience to God's commandments: God's commandments show man the path of life and they lead to it. From the very lips of Jesus, the new Moses, man is once again given the commandments of the Decalogue. Jesus himself definitively confirms them and proposes them to us as the way and condition of salvation.”
Fr. Barron points out that some of the Protestant reformers interpreted this Gospel scene as a “gotcha” moment, in which Jesus points to the futility of obeying the Law. He finds fault with this interpretation, and John Paul II notes that this scene must be interpreted in the context of the rest of the Gospel, especially the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes.
Ultimately, the young man goes away sad, because he is unable to renounce his possessions to follow the way of perfection to which Jesus has called him. Fr. Barron notes that this is the only instance recorded in the Gospel where Jesus’ invitation to follow him is rejected. Even so, the rejection is not in anger or pride, but in sadness. How, we are always invited to ask, does this Gospel apply to me? How do I respond to the invitation of Christ. John Paul II again: “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).”
I don’t want to be the one who, upon receiving the invitation, turns away sadly. Lord, please give me the grace that I need to heed and respond to your call.