Today’s gospel is a familiar one: “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus answers him, citing familiar words from the Commandments. “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus responds: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor,…” And the young rich man goes away sad as he had many possessions.
If you wish to be “perfect” – something that echos Matthew 5:48: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The underlying word translated as “perfect” is the Greek teleios. I am not sure that is the best translation for modern-day English. I would suggest a better understanding would be to use the word “complete.”
In our spoken English we take “perfect” to be mean without mistake, without blemish, spot or stain. The challenge comes in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount when we have just been told how to live and understand the commandments, how to live more deeply and more fully. But even if we accept the challenge, we know there are limits to our humanity. We are going to fall short. We will not be perfect.
It is like the old story of being challenged to gain a price beyond all measure and all one has to do is walk a short distance from here to there. There is one catch. Each movement towards the prize can only move half the distance remaining and you can only make one movement a year. If the prize was 100 yards away in the beginning, the first movement can be 50 yards on day zero. A year later you can take the next part of the quest and move to the 25 yards mark, and so as the years pass until you reach…. well, actually you’ll never reach it. And probably along the way times runs out, you reach the end of days.
The hardcore realist understands this and recognizes there is no point in the effort because who knows how many days we are given and even if we enjoy long life, in the end the prize will never be gained. The realist never takes the journey choosing to spend his efforts on more obtainable things.
The believer takes the journey knowing that it just that, a journey and there is something to be gained in the effort. Yes, the years pass but the prize looms closer each year. Progress has been made – and that has its own reward – and so the quest continues. Perhaps the believer is also part-dreamer. Even while acknowledging he may never quite get there, perhaps he will get close enough that he can just reach out…
The journey of the believer is the meaning of teleios. The aim, the goal, the prize is always ahead. There is a future dimension. At the conclusion there is a wholeness, a completeness, fully coming into being what was always intended. The perfection appropriate to the nature of the believer, the perfection of humanity. What God intended for us.
“His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature…” (2 Peter 1:3-4)
Come to share in the divine nature. Amazing, mysterious, teleios.
The rich young man has just discovered what keeps him from the journey with Jesus – his possessions. But he is young. Part of the experience of life is to encounter the moments in life when lack of possessions and money is a barrier for moving forward in life. At that time of life, possessions/money are primary in importance for many. Later in life, when they assess what is important they look around and see family, children, friends, the call to do good in the world – and possessions/money no longer have a place in the list of things important. They possess the wisdom of experience about riches and what is truly valuable.
Blessed are the young who possess that wisdom in their youth. Blessed are those who make the journey and eventually reach that wisdom.