The passage in Mathew’s gospel about the rich young man who approached Jesus has often been cited as illustrating what a vocation, especially a religious vocation, involves.  According to that interpretation the message conveyed is  that some people are called to do more than just keep the commandments.  That some people are called to follow Jesus in a special way, to follow him more closely.  But there is more to the passage than that.

What is suggested by that passage can be summed up in a remark by a spiritual writer, George McDonald.  He said: “God is easy to please but hard to satisfy.” God loves us and is pleased with our efforts, but always seems to be asking more.  Dag Hammerskjold reflected this idea on a purely natural level when he wrote: “Whatever distance I have covered does not give me the right to halt.”

When the young man recited the commandments and said he had kept them from his youth Jesus was more that pleased with him.  Mark, in his version of this episode says: “Jesus looked steadily at him and he was filled with love for him.”  But then he asked for something more of the young man.  Christ always invites us to come closer to him.
Akin to that idea is an important truth about the spiritual life.   It is this.  It may well happen that as we make progress in prayer, actually draw closer to God, we become more conscious of our sinfulness.  That can be very discouraging, even frightening, but it is not necessarily bad.

St. John of the Cross said that one of the surest signs of interior growth, of true progress in prayer, is a growing awareness of our sinfulness.  This is illustrated in the lives of many saints, who spoke of themselves as the world’s greatest sinners.  That seems strange since the Church by canonization gives special recognition to their holiness.  Their remarks become understandable when we realize they were not comparing themselves to others.  Rather they were thinking of themselves in relation to the holiness of God.

St Gregory, the Great has a helpful analogy in this regard.  “The sun turns brown him whom it touches most closely; so the Lord when he comes, darkens him whom he most touches by his grace; for the closer we come to grace, the more we recognize that we are sinners.” Recognizing our sinfulness needs to be coupled with recognition of God’s merciful love and forgiveness.  We are sinners but sinners washed in the blood of Christ.