Upon waking up to the reality that self-serving does not bring joy, the seeker after comfort tends to a superficial sampling of religious wisdom. The sophisticated teacher needs to avoid becoming involved in blame-shifting for the seeker’s miserable state. In the traditions of Abraham, that begins with a vow of submission, formulated in Christianity as “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” In Islam, it is stated as the Shahada:
There is no god but God alone; he has no partner with him; Muhammad is his prophet.
The dissatisfied acolyte is then made responsible for his own condition, in that all wisdom is found in direct relation with the godhead.
Lacking a divine center for its practice, Buddhism takes a different approach, epitomized by the Zen koan. A koan is a cryptic one-liner that organizes an inward meditative journey. The most notorious is:
What is the sound of one hand clapping?
The obvious answer is “nothing,” but that certainly doesn’t point the way to wisdom. The student still needs to grasp that the “hand” being referred to is themselves, and that in seeking after spiritual glory, they earn no lauds.
The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-22 shows Jesus ministering to the problematical seeker. The poor fellow grasps at eternal life as a guarantee that joy can be secured. Calling Jesus “Master,” he then asks what good he must perform to earn that grace.
Presciently, in Matthew 7:21, Jesus had pre-empted the Christian vow of submission:
Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my father.
Consistent with this warning, Jesus immediately deflects the proffered authority:
Why do you ask me what is good? There is one alone who is good.
No man needing anything but faith to draw upon the strength and wisdom of the Father.
But the teaching does not end with the Zen master’s edict to seek inwardly. Jesus lists the six commandments of human relation: edicts against murder, adultery, theft, and lying; and encouragements to honor our parents and love our neighbors. The latter build intimacy with those closest to us; the former prevent those bonds from sundering. Through this practice, Jesus suggests that his protégé will “enter into life.” In avoiding the drama of struggle, adherence to the commandments allows to blossom those quiet moments in which we gain the subtle and sublime assurance of security in our knowledge of the compassion that embraces us.
We are no longer a hand trying to clap alone.
But the seeker is not just young; he suffers another handicap, one known in Islam as Allah’s greatest test of character. He is rich. Thus, while meaning well, others see him as a potential source of material security. They seek a bond with his money, not his heart. And so Jesus offers him this final advice: give your wealth to the poor and follow!
The young man departs saddened. We can only guess at the cause: was he responsible for managing money that ensured the well-being of the community, wealth that he could not trust others to manage responsibly? Was he simply unable to imagine survival without the perks of wealth: the daily bath, the satisfying meals? Or did he arrogantly perceive his wealth as a sign of divine approval, and so Jesus’ pronouncement as proof that hope had been invested with just another false prophet?
Whichever it may have been, we as readers should recognize the advice not as some generic one-size-fits-all formulation, but a direct response to the needs of this troubled young man. It is the mark of the greatness of his compassion that Jesus does this again and again throughout his ministry: offering just the words that the listener needs to hear to bring solace and healing, even to the point on the cross of:
Father: forgive them. They know not what they do. [Luke 23:34]
Jesus was not concerned with self-preservation – he was devoted to his ministry to the lost. Thus, while his teaching encapsulates the wisdom of the Zen and Christian teacher, it then surpasses it. None can doubt that he does the best that he can for them, although they might not be able to respond fully. Yes, it is this I believe that gives the young man sadness: his realization that salvation was offered him, and he was unable to grasp it. It foreshadows Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane:
The spirit is willing; but the flesh is weak. [Matt. 26:41]
My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. [NIV Matt. 26:38]