I’ve just finished reading Veritatis splendor by Pope St. John Paul II (encyclical letter issued in 1993). It’s great. I remember trying to read it when it first came out and finding it hard going. Funny how we change.
Anyway, he writes,
“The dialogue of Jesus with the rich young man, related in the nineteenth chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, can serve as a useful guide for listening once more in a lively and direct way to his moral teaching: “Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘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 19:16-21).
Of course I’ve encountered this passage before, but something new struck me, which is probably obvious to others: The first thing Jesus names which he must do to have eternal life, is keep the commandments: No murder, no adultery, no stealing, etc. It’s only after this, when the young man keeps pressing him, that he says, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.”
It seems to me that Jesus places these things in order: First he says, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Then later, “If you wish to be perfect, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.” First you enter into life by keeping the commandments, then you seek perfection through works of charity. The commandments come first and are the bare minimum.
If the rich young man hadn’t said, “I’ve kept all these,” I imagine the conversation would have ended right there. Jesus would have said, “Well, go and start keeping them, and when you’ve done that, we’ll talk more.”