Mystical Word | A Weekly Reflection

Mystical Word is a weekly reflection by L.J. Milone, Director of Faith Formation at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.

October 2, 2022

"Unprofitable Servants," Us

L.J. shares the following reflection on Sunday's reading from the Gospel according to Luke:

Jesus subverts our culture’s preoccupation with a good reputation and with looking good by reminding us to think of ourselves as “unprofitable servants.”  He wants us to focus on God and not on ourselves.

As I wait in line at a grocery store, I cannot help but see the covers of all sorts of magazines.  I notice Esquire, Vogue, Men’s Health, Cosmopolitan, People, and even the National Enquirer.  They tend to have one thing in common: a focus on appearance.  Typically, every person on the covers of these magazines is stunning.  Each is a near-perfect physical specimen.  There are other covers highlighting an “ugly” person, but that is usually because it is a shock how much some random celebrity or political figure has “let themselves go.”  It only reinforces our near-fanatical focus on how we appear to others.

At its root, a preoccupation with our appearance and its maintenance may betray a strong investment in what other people think of us.  Reputation ranks high on a list of things people cherish.  We do so many things for approval.  We refrain from doing so many things because of what people might think of us.  The approval of others is a strong drug.  Perhaps one reason we get so caught up in seeking approval is that people fear disapproval or even fear being unloved.  If we give up this preoccupation with what other people think of us, we could be spared a great amount of anxiety, sadness, and depression.  It is so easy for us to give away control of our lives to the whims of popular opinion, even if the popular opinion for us is a small group of people and not the celebrities plastered on magazine covers and movie posters.  To let this go is no small victory for true freedom, real happiness, and tangible holiness.

Jesus does the reverse of our culture.  He reminds us to think of ourselves as "unprofitable servants."  This may seem harsh coming from Jesus, the gentle and compassionate Son of the God who is mercy.  We are unprofitable servants who do not seek honor and praise for doing what God calls us to do.  Not trusting in our own merits, we surrender to divine grace.  Instead of focusing on what people think of us, we simply do what God gives us to do.  We serve.  We pray.  We love without worrying about how we come across or whether people will like us.  Jesus is saying our identities are not found in what others think of us but in the Holy Mystery of God.  To see this our egos have to be humbled, brought low, and annihilated.  The wisdom here is to let it happen, that is, to let ourselves become nothing in other peoples’ eyes, in popular opinion or in what a particular group thinks of us, as long as we are centered in God.

This is a hard and humbling teaching.  At different times in life, we desperately seek approval.  Jesus seems to be reframing this desire by reminding us we serve the Holy Mystery.  God does the work.  God does the service, and not us.  We are “unprofitable” because we don’t add to what God is doing.  We are only instruments.  This is not a put-down but a realistic appraisal of any time we let go of ego and allow God to be God in us.  When that happens, grace enters and miracles appear.  True humility does not force us into self-deprecation, but is about the truth.  The truth not only sets us free; it also humbles us.  Often the truth is we would rather get the credit for the things we do.  In the service we perform and the love we show there always remains a bit of ego, craving the attention and approval of others.  Jesus undercuts this attitude by telling us to think of ourselves as unprofitable servants.  This is a necessary diminishment of ego, a much needed annihilation of our craving for the drug of approval.

Of course, we need to take this in stride with the equally compelling and core of Jesus’ message: God lovingly delights in each one of us just as we are.  This very Mystery gives us all the approval we will ever need.  When we know this, the approval of others makes little difference.  Thus, there is a great need to know we are God’s beloved, and we receive this knowing only in moments of communion with God.  Only as we descend into our spiritual depths and wait in silence do we discover the gratuitous love the Holy Mystery shows to each and every person regardless of what they have done or how bad they think they are.  In whatever way we appear to the world, divine love reminds us of our true dignity.  Though we may be “unprofitable servants,” we are not worthless.  Rather, our souls are at one and the same time God’s happiness and God’s instrument for the salvation of the world.