Someone came to Jesus and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed 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; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour 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.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
This was a highly moral young man: he had done everything right, or at least nothing wrong; he had kept all the commandments since his youth. He was even better than that: he had not sunk down into self-satisfaction, he was still searching. “What do I still lack?” Jesus did not give him an additional list of commandments. Instead he said, “Come follow me.” He didn’t say where he was going or what he was going to do; so it was open-ended, very unclear.
Laws and rules are about clarity. Clarity is very reassuring and quite useful when you don’t try to live on it. Most of us know a few people with clear minds who made a total mess of their lives – and of other people’s lives too. Referring to the Law of Moses, St Paul wrote, “No one can be justified by keeping the Law…. If the Law can justify us, there is no point in the death of Christ” (Galatians 2:16, 21). Law is a guide to life, not life itself. It is ‘out there’ – where it should be. But the trouble with it is that it can give me the impression that I can live my life ‘out there’, like a game of chess. And because it is clear and ‘out there’, it gives me the impression that it is alright for me to judge people.
In the same letter Paul wrote, very mysteriously, “Through the Law I am dead to the Law” (2:19). This is one of those hard koan-like sayings that you cannot gloss over. He was an insider to the Law: “as to righteousness under the Law, I was blameless” (Philippians 3:6). It gave him his power, his prestige, his position; it made him a leader, a zealot; it gave him his identity. Then he became free of the Law by coming to the end of it. Unlike the rich young man in today’s reading, he gave up this ‘wealth’ to follow Jesus into the unclear future. Had he been less of an enthusiast for the Law he would probably have stayed with it all his life. It was not by discovering faults in it that he came to the end of it. Jesus too said that he did not come to set aside the Law but to bring it to fulfilment (see Mt 5:18, Lk 16:17). A law is not fulfilled ‘out there’: by external observance, less still on the page. It is fulfilled ‘in’ a life. A Zen Master asked a student if an enlightened person is subject to the law of causality, or free of it. Take your pick, but the truth is that we are ‘one with’ the law of causality. Only if you think it external to you do you have a question about being free of it or subject to it. St Paul says that no law is made for the just person (1 Tim 1:9). Henry Suso (1300-1366) clarified this as follows: “Just persons conduct themselves more submissively than other people because they understand from within, in the ground of the soul, what is proper outwardly for everyone, and they view all things accordingly. The reason that they are unfettered is that they do freely, out of an attitude of detachment, what other people do under compulsion.”
Paul came to a new kind of clarity marked with the paradox of the Gospel. You can imagine him saying, “When I am clear then I am unclear.” He wrote, “I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
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