Sunday, October 12, 2003

The Rich Young Man: A Spiritual Minimalist

(Twenty-eighth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 12, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 10: 17-30.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-eighth Sunday 2003]

Imagine Pedro Martinez saying this at the beginning of a baseball season: “I think I’ll go out this year and try to win 10 games. I don’t need any more victories than that. If I win 10 games, the Red Sox will definitely keep me on the team, and I’ll get to keep my multi-million dollar contract.”

Imagine a parent saying this: “I think I’ll feed my children only one meal today. They should be able to survive on that.”

Imagine a student saying this on his first day of medical school: “It doesn’t matter how much homework they give me during the next 4 years: I intend to study only one hour per day. That will have to suffice. I have too many other activities that I’m involved in. Besides, I’m pretty smart, so I should be able to pass all the courses.”

My brothers and sisters, those are 3 examples of what might be called “minimalistic thinking.” And they’re all hard to imagine, aren’t they? Pedro Martinez setting out to win only ten games a year; a parent thinking it’s acceptable to feed his children one meal per day; a medical student who believes an hour a day is enough for his studies—“Fr. Ray, I don’t think so!”


And that’s precisely the point I’m trying to make! In most areas of life (such as education, family responsibilities, and even athletics), we do not advocate—nor do we tolerate—minimalism. For example, if Pedro Martinez told the management of the Red Sox that his goal was to win only 10 games next year, you can be sure that he’d be put on the “trading block” immediately! Bye, bye, Pedro! If a parent intentionally fed his children only one meal per day, those children would be taken away from him by the state—and rightly so! And I don’t know about you, but I’d never want to go to a doctor who had been so casual and irresponsible about his studies in med school! I’d be worried that he’d kill me instead of curing me!

But I ask you this morning: If minimalism is so unacceptable when it comes to education, sports, family life, etc., why is it tolerated so often in the area of spirituality?

Let’s be honest about it, when it comes to spiritual and moral matters—i.e., to matters of the soul—many people today are quite content to be minimalists!!! As they go through this life, the crucial questions are not: How can I be the person God wants me to be? How can I be holier and more virtuous? How can I be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect?

The key questions for them are: How much can I get away with and still not go to hell? What’s the absolute minimum I need to do as a Catholic? What are my obligations to God and others?

Cardinal John Henry Newman once put it this way: he said that the key issue for many people is not, “How can I please God in my life?”—rather it’s “How can I please myself without displeasing the Lord?”

This is the ever-present temptation to be a “spiritual minimalist!”—and we all face it, constantly (whether we realize it or not).

Which brings us to the rich young man who met Jesus in this Gospel scene from Mark 10.

Do you know what’s very interesting about this story? It’s the fact that we don’t understand the exact nature of the young man’s question until his interaction with Jesus is over and he walks away.

The Bible tells us that he came up to our Lord one day, knelt down, and said to him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now at first glance, it appears that this boy had the right attitude. With his simple question, he seemed to be asking Jesus all the right things: “Good teacher, how can I be the person God wants me to be? How can I be holier and more virtuous? How can I be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect?”

But when our Lord challenged him to go the extra mile by selling his possessions, giving to the poor and becoming a disciple, the truth suddenly became clear: at heart, the young man was a minimalist! Thus, when he said to the Lord, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” what he really meant was, “Jesus, have I done enough yet? I’ve been a great guy—Moses would be proud of me—I’ve kept the rules throughout my life! Is that sufficient for entry into your kingdom? Or do I need to jump through a few more hoops beforehand?”

He was obviously hoping that Jesus would pat him on the back and say, “No more hoops for you, my friend. Sit back and relax. You’re in! Congratulations!”

How appropriate it is that I give this homily today—because within a week, Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be beatified! (Beatification, of course, is the second step in the three-step process of canonization in the Church.)

Mother Teresa was who she was—and is where she is—simply because she was NOT a minimalist when it came to matters of the soul, when it came to serving Jesus Christ and living for him.

By the grace of God, may her attitude become ours—and always be ours—so that we will someday be where she now is.