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There is a motto that presides over and guides our souls and our society: “You have value according to what you produce.” What created this reductive and in some ways unhealthy vision of life was the culture of efficiency, which now pervades every sphere of society. The motto can also take other forms: you are someone if you are always up to date; you only really live if you start to drive this moving train, which wants you to visit as many places as possible; you can really receive esteem if you produce more and more. In short: your value depends on how efficient you are. There’s no room for reflection, silence, a pause, or fragility. Run, and bear fruit!
This is a criterion that, to a lesser or greater degree, risks polluting our spirit, reducing human space, producing generations of over-stimulated people, who are never in contact with themselves, and who are trapped in a frenzy. Pope Francis said, “We must also think about the healthy culture of idleness, of knowing how to rest.”
This imperative that impels us to produce and always obtain optimal results also affects and compromises our faith, to the point of generating the image of a God of efficiency. It’s a God who demands perfect performance and uninterrupted production of good works, and who judges us according to the results we bring home at the end of the day. Whoever has this image of God goes above and beyond in doing worthy activities, but this obsession is excessive. The zeal for this or that activity is nourished by the idea that “this is how you do God’s will” or that “you must carry your own cross.” Deep down, it’s about doing good, but doing good without measure or balance.
There are people who, for this reason, always come to work, striving to commit themselves to the maximum, never to “unplug” themselves, without ever managing to integrate the idea of rest into their lives. This has been reflected, sometimes, in the doctrine of atonement and in the idea that God “gives to each one as he or she deserves.” According to the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, this can be inculcated from childhood, for example when a parenting style based on bartering is established: you can receive an acknowledgment, a compliment, a prize, or a toy, but “only if you’ve done your duty.”
People who develop an image of the “God of efficiency” are, or can become, exhausted; they focus excessively on their work, their success, and their image, desperately seeking confirmation of their work as they exaggeratedly throw themselves into things to do. Their need to continually prove their efficiency is, according to Henri Nouwen, a path of exhaustion, a turbid stream that drains the energies of life.
Generally, these people also experience the pressure of expectations, the fear of competition from others, and the need to keep everything under control—even their emotions—so that there are no blemishes on the final result. Sometimes, such an idea generates a form of altruism which, instead of being good and true Christian charity, becomes an unbridled race of activism: do much, do it better, do everything!
Many times this image is reinforced by a sacrificial reading of Jesus’ redemption: “He sacrificed so much for you, and yet you do nothing for him.”
The younger son of the parable of the Merciful Father evaluates his relationship with the Father using the criterion of efficiency. On the way home, he “reckons”: “I’ll tell him that I was wrong and that, if anything, I could at least be a servant if I no longer deserve to be his son.” But the Father of the parable does not wait for the son to justify himself and to give an account of his failed results. He doesn’t even let him speak, and instead, runs to embrace him.
With this parable, Jesus destroys the image of a God-boss, who severely weighs our demerits on the scales and measures out His love for us. Instead, Jesus invites us to listen to the inner voice that urges us, even in the midst of activities and failures, to return to Him with all our heart and enjoy, first of all, the joy of home and love, and only then everything else.
At many moments, Jesus challenges the myth of efficiency. When He wants to feed the crowd, and the Apostles “do the math,” He asks them to have faith in the five loaves and two fishes of a child. What is little, when it is spent, given and shared with love, bears many times more fruit than exhausting work carried out with scruples, rigidity, and anxiety. One of Jesus’ most beautiful parables teaches us that God, looking at a tree that has not borne fruit for three years, does not look immediately at the results produced, but offers with patience and magnanimity another year, extra time in which He Himself takes care of our soil and fertilizes it.
In Bethany, the sweet reproach that Jesus addresses to Martha is not to despise the value of her service and activities, but to remind her—and us—that if we are only concerned and worried about things to do, we miss the best part: that is, the joy of meeting the Lord, and the joy of His words.
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