If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments (Matt 19:17). This is what Jesus says to a rich young man today asking how to live forever. The commandments are the way to life. To which the rich young man responds, “Which ones?”
This is quite a question really. Our Jewish friends may tell us that there are 613 Commandments in the Torah. Some people might observe they these are all worth keeping – seeing as how they all come from God.
God is good and altogether good. Jesus has just pointed this out to the rich man saying, “There is only one who is good” (19:17). To keep God’s commandments cannot but be good. Perhaps we could look at his commandments at being a recipe for goodness.
But Jesus does not say, “All of them!” Nor does he list 613 commandments. Surely, Jesus knows all the commandments. He is the commander! But he seems quite willing to entertain the rich man’s question at first.
Others might have observed that the commandments that we do not even understand are just as important as those we do. For example, there is the commandment about not wearing cloth made of two kinds of stuff (Deut 22:11). We might ask, what purpose does this serve? Surely this commandment cannot be on equal par with “thou shalt not kill,” for example. Yet, someone might point out to us that God is totally beyond our comprehension and so it only stands to reason that some of his commandments will also be. And if we love God, don’t we trust him and follow him even when we do not understand?
Some children are like this and some are not. Almost from infancy, some children seem to trust their mother and father no matter what and they are compliant with their parents’ commands, even if they do not understand. Other children, again almost from infancy, tend to go their own way and pay little mind to the instructions their parents give. If a child has good parents, the compliant children have an easier life. The headstrong ones get hurt a lot.
Now, on the human level of course, not all parents are good. And in such situations, the compliant children may get hurt even more. God, however, is good and all good and the only good one. So those of us who comply to him, like trusting children, will have a better life. Because he knows us even better than we know ourselves. So, even if we do not understand, if we trust him and follow him, it will make our lives better and it will lead us into everlasting life in union with him.
Some of us, however, almost from infancy, are not so compliant but are headstrong and intent on going our own way. As a result, we have harder lives when it comes to our relationships with God. Still, he will not abandon us.
Yet, despite all of this, Jesus entertains the rich young man’s question and he gives a short list of easily understandable commandments that lead to life.
It is interesting what is on this list and it is interesting what is missing. He gives only six commandments, first of all, not 10, and certainly not 613. And, of the six, only five are from the 10. He does not even include in this list the commandment that elsewhere he calls the greatest commandment! What is the greatest commandment? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). Surely this is a Commandment that leads to life!
Now, after identifying the greatest commandment, Jesus does go on to say, “A second is like it, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (22:39). And this latter half or addendum to the greatest commandment, he does now here include in his list of commandments that lead to life.
He includes here the human rather than the divine side of this commandment. That is fascinating! One might presume the divine side to be the more essential of the two sides. And yet here he includes the human but not the divine side.
Noting this, we can then look at the other five commandments in his list, each of which is part of the Ten Commandments, and we can now notice that these five also all deal with the human side of God’s commandments. He does not include the first three or four of the ten commandments, (depending on how you enumerate them).
“I am the Lord your God…. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image… you shall not bow down to them and serve them…. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…. Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:2-8)
None of these commandments, which have to do with our relationship with God, appear in Jesus’ list of commandments that lead to life. I don’t know about you, but I am flabbergasted by that.
When Jesus elsewhere describes the greatest commandments, he says, “On these two commandments depend the whole law” (Matt 22:40). Similarly, I would suggest that first five commandments Jesus gives the rich man today depend on the final commandment he gives: “love your neighbor as yourself.”
If you love others, you surely will not kill them, nor commit adultery with them, (which is not loving despite popular sentiment to the contrary – let us not call that “love”), nor steal from them, nor bear false witness against them, and, of course, you will honor your father and your mother if you love them. The sixth, you see, contains the first five.
It is striking that these commandments regarding love for one another are apparently all that is needed to enter into life. The whole law is seamlessly interwoven. When we love one another, we are in fact loving God, just as, if we love God, we will of course love one another as fellow creatures and images of God.
Do you know how good it feels when someone praises your work? When they look at what you have done and they love what you have made, it can feel like love for you. Even more so, when someone admires our children, sometimes we take it as a compliment to ourselves. And it is, in a way. Our children are made out of the stuff that we are made out of. And they have been deeply shaped by how we have reared them. Loving my child is loving me, to some extent. At least it can feel this way.
This is so much more true of God. When we truly love his creation (not idolatrously – but truly), we love him. He made us in His image and his likeness. To love one another and to love ourselves is to love the image of God. Because we are finite creatures, we cannot love God without loving his image. Without the icon, we cannot reach the prototype. We must love God through his image – that is, through each other. And, furthermore, we cannot love his image, that is each other, without growing in our love for God. If we really love each other, this love will lead us to the love of God. If we really and truly love each other, that will be enough. It will be the seed that grows into a great tree. Without the seed there will be no tree and the seed already contains the tree in potentiality. The seed, then, is enough. Provided we nurture it and allow it to grow.
Now, growth will be necessary. The rich young man claims to already have the seed – to keep the commandments and to love his neighbor (19:20). Many of us are not there yet. Many of us are unloving in various ways. And therefore we have yet to acquire even the seed that will give us life. But this rich man is loving of others and he keeps the commandments of God regarding other people – or so he thought.
Jesus, I think, reveals that the rich young man is perhaps not so loving as he imagines himself. Because what Jesus proposes to him, when he seeks perfection, is that he sell his possessions and give to the poor (19:21). Now, that would be a loving thing to do. Indeed, that is just the sort of way in which of the rich young man loves himself. He loves himself by allowing himself to have many possessions. If he loved others as he loved himself, he would then give these possessions to them! Furthermore, if he really loved himself, he would give these possessions away because then, as Jesus tells him, he would have treasure in heaven (19:21). The act would be loving of both others and self.
But that was sadly more loving than the rich young man was willing to be. If we think we are loving, Jesus will show us a way to deepen our love. Our love must grow if it is to be alive. The way to life is a love that grows, a love that deepens, a living love, not a static artifice of love. The way to life is living growing love. If we want to live, we will follow Jesus, and he will show us the way to grow our love. And then to grow it again and again. Eternal life is eternal growth. That which does not grow is dead. That which is living is growing.