Every so often, I really bristle at a Gospel story or saying. And I admit it – reading the story Jesus told in yesterday’s gospel raise a few porcupine quills. Here is this unfeeling master not inviting the tired slave/servant to rest after a hard day in the field but instead expecting more labor. Get my meal on the table. No concern, no thanks. This was the contract. But as I read the story, the master became God, who not only demands our service, but takes it for granted. Jesus seems to approve, and adding insult to injustice, tells his disciples that their response to their call is, “We are only unprofitable servants.” Frankly, I’ve put too much time and effort into living my vocation to settle for that. And that brought this story to mind.
A friend of mine, a Sister, has kept up with two dear friends from high school, both now grandmothers. Recently, they were all in the same city, and had a wonderful reunion. In the course of their storytelling, Sister pulled up a memory of one Saturday a few years into her teaching life, when she came home from teaching catechism class and had to scrub the communal bathroom before sitting down to ever-looming lesson plans. She had put down newspaper, and noticed a classmate’s wedding photo: a lovely bride on the arm of a handsome soldier under an arch of swords held high by an honor guard. And our Sister-scrubber, plagued by problems in class discipline and doubting her competence as a teacher, feeling ever so bleak and burdened, gazed at that photo and sighed, “Gosh, I really blew it.”
This triggered a story from one of the others. About five years into her married life, she was at home all day with four active toddlers. Her husband had lost his job. There were unpaid bills and unwashed diapers, the house was never tidy, and she was overwhelmed with worry. At a parish dinner, she looked into a side room where the Sisters who taught in the school were dining together, talking and laughing as if they hadn’t a care in the world. And she said to herself, “Honey, you really blew it.”
The friends had a good laugh together. None of them had packed their suitcases and fled. They stayed. The years passed, and this love they had pledged continued in all its twists and turns and doubts and delights. And they’d learned that “blowing it” happened all the time.
“We are only unprofitable servants.” Jesus wants his disciples to make this their daily mantra. And as would any of us, striving to live our lives well, they bristle at that. Aren’t we committed friends and followers? Aren’t we sincerely trying to love and serve? Aren’t we out there laboring in our particular vineyards? “Unprofitable?!”
The old friends knew better. They had learned a pattern of faithfulness that participated in the life of Christ, and they knew in that was a guarantee that every now and then you will stumble over, under, or into God’s grace. Not much soaring in bliss, not many banquets given in your honor. You go through the motions and mouth the prayers, and leave unfinished tasks and regrets behind you.
Take a deep breath, now, and say what Jesus suggested. “I am an unprofitable servant.”
Now remember what St. Paul realized about his life – that God’s power does its best work in human weakness, and that “When I am weak, it is then that I am strong” (II Corinthians 12). Facing mistakes, living with doubts, bumbling and grumbling along is the way of every Christian. And God so loves to grab those moments to shine through you and in you. You: weak and needy. God: just waiting for a chance to enfold you and uphold you, and light the world with you.
So: “unprofitable servant” – in God’s eyes, hardly an insult, but a name you can wear in true freedom with all the saints. God, not “Master” but in Jesus the eager servant, ready to help you and save you.
How about this for your own morning mantra? “I am only an unprofitable servant.” And you might tag this on: “And God couldn’t be more delighted.”