There is something about the human condition that craves recognition. The politician wants to not simply perform a duty but to enter the pantheon of great public figures. A great parent, giving all of oneself to the child out of love, still longs for a note of thanks at the child’s graduation or wedding.
This desire for recognition rubs against Jesus’ words in the Gospel. Today’s text from the Gospel of Luke begins with a discussion of faith. The apostles ask Jesus for an increase in faith.
There is no particular reason that the apostles make this request. But, Jesus’ words suggest that he does not entirely approve of their request: “‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would” (Lk 17:6).
We often think about Jesus’ word as comforting: If we only had faith as small as a mustard seed, then we could do anything. But, Jesus is chastening the apostles, who perhaps imagine that they want a bit more faith on top of their already massive commitment to the reign of God.
Imagine Jesus saying, “If you had the tiniest bit of faith, even the smallest, do you not realize what you would be able to do? You might not be able to move mountains, but you could at least tip over this very large bush replanting it in the midst of the sea. Right now, you don’t even have that.”
Understanding the difficulty of Jesus’ words helps to make sense of the rest of the Gospel. Jesus asks the apostles to consider their identity as servant or slave to the kingdom of God.
What servant or slave would expect to be given the highest place at the table? The vocation of the servant is to serve, not to receive recognition for one’s excellence.
This is a hard teaching. Discipleship is not fundamentally a competition relative to the quantity or quality of one’s faith. It is instead about the practice of showing up, the delight of duty. It is the concrete commitment to love God and neighbor in everything that one does. And to expect no recognition for this gift of self, because one is simply joyfully following the footsteps of the beloved Son.
When we preach the Gospel in public, we should not expect recognition for the sweetness of our speech. When we speak out against injustice, we should not expect letters of commendation for our work. When we raise our children in self-giving love within the hiddenness of family life, we should not expect the world to notice us. After all, we’re just doing our duty.
This kind of commitment to the hidden work of love is difficult. Because we abide in a world in which recognition is key, such hiddenness can be an act of ascesis or discipline.
For this reason, we must constantly stand before God in prayer. The words of Psalm 95 must function as a mirror for us: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95:1).
Have I heard the voice of God this week in the Scriptures? In the poor? Have I responded with the duty of love appropriate to discipleship?
These questions must be ever before us. Through this concrete act of discernment, we may discover that we no longer crave the kind of recognition that makes discipleship difficult.
Instead, we carry out the delight of duty with love. The irony of this, of course, is that through delight of duty, we may even become a saint.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.