The young man said to him: “I have kept all these things. What am I still lacking?”
Matthew 19: 20
As occurs many times throughout the public ministry of Jesus, the encounter between Jesus and the young man in today’s gospel exemplifies Jesus’ attentiveness and response to the uniqueness and the inner stirrings of a person’s spirit. Jesus’ response to the young man’s initial question concerning what he must do to enter into eternal life is that he must keep the commandments. It is only when the young man expresses that he has always done this that he hears from Jesus that what is missing for him is to sell his possessions, give them to the poor, and then come and follow Jesus without reservation. The call of Jesus to sell everything and to follow him single-mindedly is a response to the actual inner experience of the young man.
The dialogue between the two is a deeply personal one. It begins with a general question to which Jesus gives a universal answer. “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The young man then deepens the encounter by asking what commandments specifically. Perhaps this is a sign of his desire and good will, that he is “checking out” with Jesus to see if there are commandments that he is ignoring or avoiding in his practice. He is inviting Jesus to expand his own limits of habit and consciousness. Yet he seems able to respond to Jesus’ delineation of the key commandments that he has observed them throughout his life.
It is at this point in the interchange that the young man opens his heart to Jesus. He is still searching because he has done what has been commanded and yet still experiences lack: “What am I still lacking?” Is this perhaps one of the most significant questions we can ever ask? Having done all we can, we still experience want and lack. What is it that my heart seeks that I am unable to find and attain? For all our attempts to find satisfaction and fulfillment, at our core we experience lack, a desire for more. Mark’s gospel adds that at this moment Jesus looks on the young man “with love.” Although Matthew’s account lacks this detail, we can appreciate how the young man’s profound self-expression moves Jesus. This sense of lack and the vulnerability it entails is the core of our common humanity. It is the manifestation of our deepest selves as spirit, as unable to be satisfied by any physical, emotional,or even spiritual effort (such as keeping the commandments) on our own part.
Jesus’ answer is a difficult one to receive. In effect, he tells the young man that the longing and lack he experiences is for Jesus himself. If he would “be perfect,” that is live even now the life of Jesus’s communion with the Father, he must abandon all else and follow Him. This is not a universal requisite to “be saved,” but it is the response to the lack at the core of his being.
Once we “put our hand to the plow” and attempt to live a life doing God’s work on earth, we are bound to experience the lack of which the young man speaks. There is always a measure of futility to our work. At whatever engagement or level, no matter how hard we try and how fully we give ourselves to our work, we shall never “accomplish” that to which we aspire. The writer Hanif Kureishi says that some level of human contentment rests in continuing “to work however futile it might feel.” The recognition, remuneration, admiration that may come at times with our efforts is not our work’s end or purpose. Only Jesus, only God’s will is the end. And, in this life, we shall always fall short of that purpose.
So, as the young man, we ordinarily find it too difficult and painful to let go of the intermediate gratifications that human life affords. As we settle for them, to some degree or other, the life of spirit in us will continue to suffer their inadequacy, the sense of emptiness and lack at our core. We can, however, know a sense of human fulfillment and contentment as we, moment to moment, make the choice to continue our work despite all feelings of futility and inadequacy.
The making of art represents the crossroads where the good things collide, where duty, magic and creativity fruitfully run into one another. Being an artist is a way of being interested in other people without having to sleep with them. . . . Making a swift survey, I see that friends who have endured with most contentment, if not happiness, are the artists or craftsmen, the ones who continue to work however futile it might feel. They go on: . . . to make something for others, enduring the frustration of turning day-dreaming into meaning. All work is productive, a greeting, a wave across the abyss, as the audience overhears what the artist is going through.
Hanif Kureishi, Love and Hate, pp. 84-5