In this post, I’ll begin unpacking the first chapter of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II’s encyclical letter on the moral life. The letter begins with an extended meditation on the story of the rich young man who approaches Jesus with a question.
CHAPTER I –
“TEACHER, WHAT GOOD MUST I DO…? ” (Mt 19:16) –
Christ and the answer to the question about morality
“Someone came to him…” (Mt 19:16)
6. 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; 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’ ” (Mt 19:16-21).13
7. “Then someone came to him…”. In the young man, whom Matthew’s Gospel does not name, we can recognize every person who, consciously or not, approaches Christ the Redeemer of man and questions him about morality. 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. Precisely in this perspective the Second Vatican Council called for a renewal of moral theology, so that its teaching would display the lofty vocation which the faithful have received in Christ,14 the only response fully capable of satisfying the desire of the human heart.
In order to make this “encounter” with Christ possible, God willed his Church. Indeed, the Church “wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life.”15
Notice that the Pope selects a Gospel passage about an encounter with Jesus. The question of morality — “what must I do?” — is not a matter of balancing precepts, but is, first and foremost, an encounter with a person: the person of Jesus Christ. The Pope invites us to this encounter as well, to “listening in a lively and direct way” to Christ Himself.
Who is it that comes to Jesus? Who is this unnamed “someone”? The Pope invites us to recognize ourselves, and every searching human being, in the person of the rich young man approaching Jesus with questions. The questions reveal a single question: the question of the meaning of life… a question that has ultimate importance… and a question, that, when answered, will direct the way we exercise our freedom. We approach Christ with our questions because we are attracted to Goodness in person and our heart desires intimate knowledge of the Good… not just to name the Good, but to identify ourselves with the Good, to participate in it, to be one with it… to make goodness our own by union with Goodness Himself. We long for union and communion.
In my next post, I’ll examine the insights the Pope gains by meditating on the request of the rich young man: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?”