We disciples are not orphans and not employees.
Would you believe me if I told you that the following story is true? Or perhaps it’s better to ask—can you accept that this deserves to be true? Or, more simply—can we agree that this story is plausible?
The story goes like this: The rector of a famous cathedral opened up the cathedral to get ready for the morning Mass. He’s astounded to see Jesus sitting in the bishop’s chair—the cathedra. The rector silently slips out of the sanctuary back into the sacristy. He sends a text message to the bishop: I’m in the cathedral. Jesus is sitting in your chair! What should I do?
A few minutes later the rector receives this text from the bishop: Unprecedented! Will text the Apostolic Nuncio and ask for guidance. Stand by.
Half an hour later, the rector receives this text from the nuncio: Consulting now with the Vatican. Await further orders.
After an anxious hour, the rector receives this text message from an unknown number: LOOK BUSY!
How can we best understand this obviously apocryphal story? We would do well to look at it in light of the 12th chapter of the Gospel of Luke:
Jesus said to his disciples: “Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour
when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” Then Peter said,
“Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?”And the Lord replied, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so. Truly, I say to you, he will put him in charge of all his property.”
I fear that we might draw the wrong conclusion, along these lines: “Keeping busy will make Jesus like us, and then he’ll give us prizes!” On that view, Christian service is really a form of self-service. That can’t be right.
Union and intimacy
St. Ignatius Loyola, in his writings on the formation of Jesuits, said that he wanted to form men seeking to “distinguish themselves in the service of Christ the King”; he wanted Jesuits who desired “to be with Christ as one who labors.”
In the Jesuit novitiate, we were told, “The generous man always wants to give more.” Before leaving for a mission, we were told, “Come back tired. Men who don’t come back tired from a mission don’t persevere.” The wisdom that St. Ignatius (and my formators) hoped to inculcate was that imitating Christ as a generous servant was a path to union and intimacy with Christ. In other words, laboring with Christ, loving as he loves (that is, sacrificially), draws us closer to him, helps us to know and love him better, and to become more and more like him. Such a life is a path to holiness and to joy.
If we understand (and then live) Christian discipleship that way, then some misunderstandings can fall by the wayside. The “Let’s work hard and then Christ will have to like us!” attitude, on this view, is ridiculous. Moreover, the “Let’s work hard and then Christ will owe us!” attitude will be conclusively revealed for the absurdity that it is. Perhaps most importantly, the “Let’s work hard because you never know when the boss is coming back, and we don’t want to be caught snoozing!” can finally be put aside once and for all.
Here’s the great mystery of Christian discipleship: Christ our crucified and risen king is our returning king, who will come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire; at the same time we must insist the Christ the king is reigning even now—at every moment he offers to yoke himself to us, to give dignity, purpose and salvific value to all of our service. We disciples are not orphans and not employees. We do not toil as people unprovided for or unloved.
Consequently, it’s not enough to say, “Get to work!” or “Look busy!” Rather, at each moment we can ask, “What is Christ asking me to do with him right now?”
That change of mind and heart, which I believe we all need, can free us from servile fear, from self-seeking, and even from loneliness. We can perform our daily duties with a glad heart, knowing that Christ labors with us, and, over time, our very laboring can help us to become like him, and to unite us to him.
When I write next, I will speak of a way of cultivating gratitude. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.