The gospel story of the rich young man easily makes it into my top five wisdom teachings of Jesus and offers us insights into how Jesus encourages us to live lives of radical love by practicing the Spirituality of Subtraction.
The story revolves around a great question of a young man who is looking for a mentor in Jesus.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Fr. Robert Barron in his homily for this Sunday points out that good questions deserve straight-forward answers, and that is exactly what Jesus provides his student when he says:
You know the commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.”
Jesus establishes the foundational building blocks of living a life of love with these instructions.
The man quickly responds, and you can sense the excitement in his voice when he says:
“Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”
Everyone listening to this exchange would have been expecting Jesus to embrace the young man and say to him something like- “Well done good and faithful servant- eternal life is yours.”
What makes the response of Jesus to the young man so shocking is that during our Lord’s time, the Jews believed that wealth was a sign from God. A person who was rich, and his family were blessed and sure to inherit eternal life.
The young man had it all going his way- he lived by the commandments and had been favoured by God with riches.
You can imagine the disappointment on his face when Jesus, looked at him, loved him and said:
“You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
And for the only time in the New Testament, a person rejects Jesus’ call:
At that statement, his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
This was a difficult teaching 2000 years ago. It is perhaps even more demanding today.
The Art of Letting Go is an audio program by Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr. In it, Fr. Rohr talks about the Spirituality of Subtraction.
To illustrate the concept of this type of living he uses the life of arguably the greatest saint of all time, Francis from the town of Assisi.
When you read the accounts of Francis’ life, you get the sense that Assisi of the late 12th century had much in common with modern-day Markham. It was prosperous and Francis was from a wealthy family.
If Francis was born in modern times, his father would be a successful local merchant, and Francis would be one of the most popular young men at his high school. He would have all the toys that mark affluence, the top brands and likely a small BMW.
When he is in his early 20s, he goes off to war with a neighboring town, like Unionville, and he is captured. During his time in prison, he has time to ask himself a very important question:
What am I doing with my life?
He eventually escapes from his captors, and he slowly comes to the realization that his future is not following in his father’s footsteps. He comes to find that there is no happiness in his things or his current bunch of friends.
The rest of Francis’ life becomes an example of spiritual heroism, to borrow a phrase from Fr. Robert Barron. Unlike the young man in the gospel story, Francis sells all that he has, and some of his Father’s stuff as well, and gives it away to the poor.
When he had freed himself from concerns over worldly things, he was then able to follow Jesus and to live a life of radical love.
Can we possibly follow the command of Jesus and the example of St. Francis as we do our best to pursue eternal life?
Obeying the 10 commandments, coming to Church, being fed by the Eucharist and other sacraments prepare us to act out of this place of radical love.
However, just as the rich young man in the gospel this is not the end of the story it is only the beginning.
It is in our actions that we demonstrate who we are.
Here are some ways we can practice the Spirituality of Subtraction and to live lives based on radical love:
If you are a young person, I can almost guarantee you that there is an opportunity in your school right now to practice radical love. There is a person who would love to have the gift of your friendship. This might well cost you your place with the more popular kids. Do this and you have just practiced the Spirituality of Subtraction and lived a life based on radical love.
Here is another suggestion. Christmas is approaching. You may already be planning your wish list. You could decide to make this Christmas different by going to everyone who usually gives you a present and tell them you want cash! You could then go into the office here at the Church and get some information about the Chalice program. You could adopt a brother or sister and help them by giving them your Christmas cash. Do this and you have just practiced the Spirituality of Subtraction and lived a life based on radical love.
If you are a young person on the cusp of making choices on what you are going to do for a living- choose wisely. There are any number of jobs that help those in need. The catch is that they pay almost nothing, and your success/career oriented friends will think you are crazy. Do this and you have just practiced the Spirituality of Subtraction and lived a life based on radical love.
If you have a young family beware of the trap of loading up your life with commitments that rob you of the needed time to be a family. Resist the urge of giving your kids everything you never had. In reality, they likely don’t need it either! Do this and you have just practiced the Spirituality of Subtraction and lived a life based on radical love.
For the folks, like me, who are entering the final turn, now is the time to become masters of the Spirituality of Subtraction. Forgive everyone in your life who has ever hurt you. Ask for forgiveness where you have been in the wrong. This will free up space in your heart to help those who are on the margins.
Look at everything you own and ask yourself- can someone use this more than I can especially since it has been in the basement or garage for years.
The invitation today from our Lord to all of us, regardless of our age and economic standing is to free ourselves from our stuff by practicing the Spirituality of Subtraction and then to come and follow him by leading lives of Radical Love.