In the Gospel of Luke, the Rich Young Man went to Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus quoted to him the commandments, which the young man said he kept since he was a boy. When the young man asked what else, Christ told him to give away all his possessions and follow Him. And he went away sad because he had many possessions.
Most people focus the materialism of the young man, and rightly so. But for today, I think there is another insight that Scripture is giving us as to why the man was sad. Notice that he says that he kept the commandments and yet he did not experience that fulfilling life that Christ brought. Pope Benedict XVI made clear in his book Jesus of Nazareth, that what Christ meant by “eternal life” is not primarily life after death, but a life of spiritual fulfillment, a life of joy. And this is what the young man was lacking. And I believe there is ultimately a reason why he could go any further.
It is because he made a classic mistake when thinking about the moral life:
He thought morality was about following the moral law.
To be sure, the moral law is important. That is why it is the first thing that Jesus points to when asked how to inherit eternal life. But that is as far as the rich man went. And sadly that is as far as many of us go.
When we approach the moral life, do we pat ourselves on the back for following the laws? Are we proud of ourselves for going to Church on Sundays, not stealing, not lying, etc.? Those are all good things and they are commendable. But they are not enough.
St. Thomas Aquinas made the point that the type of ethics the Catholic Church follows are “virtue ethics.” Much of the philosophical content comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, but it is completely in harmony with the teachings of Christ.
In virtue ethics, the end or purpose of a moral action is not the completion of the moral action. Instead the purpose of the moral action is to shape the person you are.
We can see this in a very common way with parents who teach their children to say “please” and “thank you” when they are fed. The parent does not need the thanks and they won’t starve the child if they refuse to say “please.” The “please” and “thank you” has nothing to do with the parent’s need. Instead, it is about shaping the character of the child into someone thoughtful and polite.
Aristotle makes an important distinction between the continent and the virtuous. And this is where I believe the rich young man stumbles.
A continent person is someone who knows what is right and does it. This is a good thing, but it is not enough to be virtuous.
To illustrate, I use this example with the young ladies in my class (I tried this with the guys and it doesn’t work):
I say, “Ladies, I want you to imagine that it is several years from now and you are married. Your husband tells you that a woman (here I insert the name of whichever celebrity is popular at the time, e.g. Kate Upton), propositioned him for sex but he turned her down. How would feel about that?”
The ladies in my class say they would be happy. But then I tell them that they press their husband for details for what he said. The husband told Kate Upton “Man, I would love to. You are so much hotter than my wife! But, darn it, I’m married. If I wasn’t married I would be all over that! But I’m sorry, I can’t break the rules of marriage.”
When I tell them this, the ladies in my class are outraged. I say, “But he followed the rules of marriage, didn’t he? He didn’t do anything wrong. He was faithful.”
This is continence. The rules are followed.
But the ladies are still insistent that something is wrong. (As I said, I tried this with the guys, but too often, all I hear is, “Sounds good to me.”). I then ask them what the “correct” answer should be that the husband should give to Kate Upton. It ends up something like this: “No, Kate Upton, I would never even think of being unfaithful to my wife. I love her too much and would never consider ever being with another woman.”
That is virtue.
The difference between continence and virtue is that the virtuous person not only does the good thing, but they enjoy doing the good thing. A continent person wants to cheat on his wife (or yell at their coworker, or steal that money, etc.) but wills himself not to. A virtuous person doesn’t even think about cheating because they are so in love with their spouse.
CS Lewis once stated, “If there is an itch one does want to scratch; but it is much nicer to have neither the itch nor the scratch.” In other words, it is a more blessed state to no longer be drawn to falling into a certain temptation because we have molded our character to the point where that thing no longer attracts us. And we get to this place by the long acquisition of habit, where we continually do the right thing and open our hearts to the goodness and joy that goes with it. Like Daniel-san building up muscle memory when he goes “wax on, wax off,” we build up spiritual muscle memory by constantly doing what is good and seeking to enjoy it.
And this is where virtue shifts our souls into high gear.
Think about George Bailey’s transformation in It’s a Wonderful Life. He was continent throughout most of the movie. He did what was right, even though he desperately wanted to leave Bedford Falls. But only when he came to realize how wonderful his life was did he become of a man of virtue. He was filled with love for his town, his good actions, and his life. Nothing about his circumstances changed. All that changed was the internal shift of hating virtue to loving virtue.
And that is what is lacking in the rich young man who speaks with Jesus. He follows the rules but is missing that inner fulfillment. Christ asks the young man to follow Him. Letting go of the material possessions was just incidental to the radical commitment. But he couldn’t let go because he valued the possessions and not the supreme treasure of Jesus. Notice the difference between the young man and St. Paul who wrote, “More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil 3:8)
And that is the challenge for us. We can follow the rules, which is a good thing.
Or we can go farther, go deeper. We can reach out and experience that “eternal life” that Christ brought, not in the next world but in this world.
And we can do that by loving virtue.
Copyright 2015, W.L.Grayson