Today I’m continuing to unpack the first chapter of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II’s encyclical letter on the moral life.
“Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” (Mt 19:16)
8. The question which the rich young man puts to Jesus of Nazareth is one which rises from the depths of his heart. It is an essential and unavoidable question for the life of every man, for it is about the moral good which must be done, and about eternal life. The young man senses that there is a connection between moral good and the fulfilment of his own destiny. He is a devout Israelite, raised as it were in the shadow of the Law of the Lord. If he asks Jesus this question, we can presume that it is not because he is ignorant of the answer contained in the Law. It is more likely that the attractiveness of the person of Jesus had prompted within him new questions about moral good. He feels the need to draw near to the One who had begun his preaching with this new and decisive proclamation: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).
People today need to turn to Christ once again in order to receive from him the answer to their questions about what is good and what is evil. Christ is the Teacher, the Risen One who has life in himself and who is always present in his Church and in the world. It is he who opens up to the faithful the book of the Scriptures and, by fully revealing the Father’s will, teaches the truth about moral action. At the source and summit of the economy of salvation, as the Alpha and the Omega of human history (cf. Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), Christ sheds light on man’s condition and his integral vocation. Consequently, “the man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly — and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being — must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter him with all his own self; he must ‘appropriate’ and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deeper wonder at himself.”16
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.
The Pope’s vision of the moral life is a radical one — meaning that it goes to the root of the situation. It involves examining our inmost being — our heart — under the light of Christ. The quote from Redemptoris Hominis says it with lyrical force:
…the man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly… must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter him with all his own self; he must ‘appropriate’ and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself.
Like a good surgeon, the Pope is not satisfied with band-aid solutions or mere pain killers. Open-heart surgery is the only satisfactory solution in the case of the heart of fallen man. In matters of life and death, glossing over the problem is a fatal mistake. Instead, we have to summon up all of our courage and trust, and lay everything bare before the divine physician. We have to face the truth about ourselves and our condition, and it is a confrontation that can stimulate panic in us if we do not entrust ourselves to the mercy of God.
Notice that the moral life begins by engaging our freedom. Christ isn’t going to force Himself upon us. We have to draw near to Christ, to willingly lay our lives before Him. Only then does He reveal us to ourselves and lead us into the paschal mystery of His dying and rising.
Given the fallen state which we have inherited, a mere self-evaluation of our moral life will never suffice. A simple checklist of our own weaknesses and failures, considered from a merely human point-of-view, will not give us an accurate picture of the situation, or provide the strength to overcome our failings. Instead, we must place ourselves before Christ, who reveals the Father’s will, offers us authentic self-knowledge, and extends to us a participation in the saving grace of His own death and resurrection. It’s not an easy process, but it is a simple one, and it is the only one that saves.
In my next post, I’ll begin reflecting on Christ’s response to the young man: “There is only one who is good.”