The doctor I go to takes a very commonsense approach to healthcare. Often, he directs his patients to read a small sign hanging on the wall of his waiting room; the sign says, “Nothing the doctor does can make up for what the patient won’t do.”
I appreciate both his wisdom and his sense of humor. When a patient ignores a doctor’s instructions about a medical condition, the patient can’t complain when the medical condition doesn’t improve. This is true about both one’s spiritual health as well as one’s physical health. Today’s Gospel reading provides a commonsense approach to maintaining a healthy spiritual life.
Today’s selection from Matthew’s Gospel describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. After the death of John the Baptist, Jesus continued to preach the message of repentance and began to gather a group of disciples who would assist in his work. The disciples whom he called were not wealthy or powerful, but it would be a mistake to underestimate their value to Jesus.
Peter, Andrew, James, and John made a living at the rather humble trade of fishing, but they were astute businessmen. They chose to locate their fishing enterprise in Capernaum, a city that lay along a popular trade route. The location they chose for their business guaranteed a constant flow of customers and merchants who would buy the fish they caught.
It’s worthwhile to look at the character of those men whom Jesus chose as his first disciples. They were not educated or influential, but they were clever and industrious. Jesus chose men who did not have high status in their society. They were, however, responsible and energetic.
Jesus’ choice of followers and collaborators provides insight into what constitutes faithful religion. Jesus didn’t look for extraordinary talent or a high public profile. Rather, he looked for people who were diligent and trustworthy. For the most part, the disciples lived up to those expectations. After his death, Jesus’s disciples spread the Gospel message throughout the Roman Empire and even beyond the Empire’s borders.
The requirements of faithful religion remain unchanged. It is the obligation of all the baptized to be responsible and diligent in spreading the Gospel message. In fact, I’d go so far as to apply the message in my doctor’s waiting room to religion: nothing God can do will make up for what God’s People won’t do.
There has always been a tendency among some Catholics to approach religious practice as an exercise in minimalism, that is, making the least possible effort to learn and practice the Faith. Just as with one’s physical health, however, making the minimum effort to maintain one’s religious life will result in the minimum degree of spiritual health. The symptoms of inadequate care of one’s faith are easy to recognize. Here are a few examples:
- If Sunday Mass seems dry, boring, uninteresting, or difficult to concentrate on, this is a sign of an inadequate prayer life. Participation in congregational prayer at Sunday Mass depends on having a habit of daily prayer with the Scriptures.
- If you come to Sunday Mass to pray privately, this is also a sign of an inadequate prayer life. Sunday Mass is communal worship; personal prayer is accomplished alone. Both are necessary for an adult’s faith. Praying privately at Mass amounts to starving yourself spiritually by denying yourself both communal and private prayer.
- If you struggle with prayer, or if you think other people need to change their behavior, it’s probably a sign that there are relationships in your life that need to be reconciled.
God desires us to hear Jesus’ voice, respond to his call to discipleship, and share the good news of salvation with everyone we meet. God cannot, however, make this happen unless we participate willingly and actively. Jesus chose clever and industrious men as his first disciples because the Gospel he preached cannot be lived passively; it is a lifelong endeavor that often requires significant effort.
If you’re struggling with your life, if you’re angry at God, a person, or the world, if you can’t forgive injuries from the past, God is ready to help you if you are ready to help yourself. Having a healthy and happy spiritual life requires just a little common sense: do what God calls you to do, namely, learn Jesus’ teachings and put them into practice with all your strength.