Sunday, October 6, 2019


Why would Jesus want us to remember that we are useless, doing only what we are supposed to do? To put us in our place? Yes. I think so, but not to make us feel bad but because he wants company down there. He reminds us that our place is down there with him, in the lowest place where he has gone before us. And where else would we want to be? Jesus has come to serve not to be served. And this morning he is speaking to us about life in the kingdom not giving us protocols for the workplace. We follow not a way but the Way, Jesus. He is our Master not our boss. We are his disciples, learning that life in the kingdom is never about accomplishment but about doing what God wants; in the kingdom, I am not what I do, but what I am – the beloved of the Father with and in Christ Jesus. And what do I have that I have not received from him? What could I possibly do without his grace? Nothing at all. I’m useless without him.

So being told that we are unworthy and unprofitable might not be so bad, you know, for it unburdens us of all expectations. And as the disciples ask Jesus this morning to increase their faith, his response points to the reality that a little faith goes a long way, in the end perhaps their faith doesn’t need to be increased but simply activated. “If you only had faith the size of a teeny mustard seed,” he says. We learn to trust that the little we have is enough, trust that we are enough, that the little we do is enough, even as we acknowledge our total inadequacy.

We have come here to be transformed, emptied of ourselves. And in our service, we are constantly exposed, diminished, vulnerable as we discover over and over again, if we’re honest, in our work as well as at prayer, our total incapacity. To change, to be open to be conformed to Christ, does not mean that we will necessarily get better or holier or nicer but that we will be opened to the harrowing wonder of disequilibrium and our desperate need for him.Then our failures, our worthlessness may become gateways to intimacy with the poor Christ.

We are slaves of Christ Jesus, and we need to be where he is. Serving with Jesus does not allow for illusions of self-merit or entitlement but only humility,2 a humility that can lead to joy and confidence and real freedom. I am only a servant, after all, doing what the Father desires, with Jesus. The One who says again and again, “I have not come to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” The Father’s desire drove him, it was his food. And assuredly Jesus’ single-hearted focus on the Father’s will was more about the loving self-abandonment of eros rather than any dogged jaw-clenching drudgery. Jesus wants to draw us into that same loving freedom. Why resist? We follow One who leads by falling down, being spat upon, shoved, tortured and crucified. That’s what Primal Leadership is like in the kingdom, self-forgetful love. But who can manage it?

We labor with him, for him, and he alone is our reward.3 All we do and endure  is, after all, only our duty, an inestimably privileged way for us to be with Jesus, the Suffering Servant who for the joy that lay before him, endured the cross, heedless of its shame. We rejoice to be identified as useless because he was thought to be so, despised and ridiculed as a blasphemer by those who should have known better. Our only joy and worth are in gaining Christ and being found in him; life without him would be intolerable. As Saint Paul will put it, “I have suffered the loss of all things, that I may gain Christ - indeed, I regard them all as dung…” So driven is Paul by his love and conviction that he can express it only by using the most vulgar term for filth or dung in Greek skubalon, because it connotes total worthlessness and revulsion.4

In the monastery we live in two worlds. All day long, we try to be efficient at work, whatever it is - cleaning, cooking, making jam or beer or chasubles. But we know that all that efficiency is not going to be of much use when we go to pray. There we need a very different set of tools - we must be satisfied to be helpless, worthless and inefficient; totally dependent on Christ’s kind favor, his gracious mercy and loving-kindness, ready to listen, confident in our emptiness and uselessness. And this is work too, a very different kind of work - the discipline of being at home with loss of control, at home with wonder and unknowing. It is in this lowest place, that contemplation can happen. For finally, perhaps, we are worthless enough in our own eyes to realize we have nothing to be proud of.5 This is our ultimate credential in a life dedicated to incessant prayer.

My profitability is only in my availability, my obedience, my emptying out for him. In a life that is ordinary, obscure and laborious with its promise of hidden fruitfulness, it’s all about allowing ourselves to be used continually by Christ for purposes we cannot possibly imagine.6 Jesus has gone down to the lowest place, because he wants to wash our feet. And not only that; even though he has just come in from a very hard day, he invites us to sit down; he wants to wait on us and serve us at table. Let us, in all humility, allow him this joy.

Photograph of the Holy Thursday Mandatum by Brother Brian. 
1Sister Miriam Pollard?, 2 James Edwards, Pillar Commentary on Luke. 3 St. Ignatius Loyola, 4 Daniel B. Wallace, 5 Michael Casey, 6 Fr. Simeon Leiva.