27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (What Motivates Us to Serve)

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks to his apostles about their duty as disciples, using the analogy of a servant or a worker, doing his/her assigned labor. A good servant did what he/she was told, and there was no expectation that the master had to offer a special reward or thanks. With this in mind, Jesus said in his analogy that if we do the work God asks of us, “We are unprofitable servants…”; we are servants who are due no special credit because, “…we have done what we were obliged to do.'"

 Perhaps part of Jesus’ point is to have us consider our motivations for why we do what our Lord, our faith, asks of us—why we are good servants. So, to the extent we respond and follow is it….

  • …that we fear of hell?

  • …that we do it so that others will think highly of us?

  • …so that we can fit in with others who’ve followed his call?

The fact is, even in doing what our faith calls us to we often have a mixture of motives, some purer than others.

As Christians, as his servants, we’re asked—to serve the poor; to comfort the afflicted and sorrowful; to love our enemies; to make God the center of our lives; to purify our hearts of tendencies towards being judgmental, towards harboring anger and worry; to temper our sexual and bodily impulses; to make our lives a sacrificial gift for others; to bear our sufferings and unite them to his suffering; and more. All these things are part of Jesus’ invitation to follow him to be his servants.

But again, in our human freedom, what compels us to respond to his invitation, to do all these things? What’s our motive? Perhaps we would say that we simply want what he wants, that doing these things gradually conforms us to Jesus himself, and believing that it’s there that we will ultimately find happiness.

I once heard the Jesuit priest, Fr. Robert Spitzer, speak of what are called the 4 Levels of Happiness. They come from teachings of the great philosopher, Aristotle (D. 322). [i]

  • Level I is simple sensual gratification. Things that give us momentary happiness, such as attending a sporting event, or purchasing a new gadget—things that bring momentary pleasure or serve as an escape. It’s fairly shallow and absolutely doesn’t endure.

  • Level II of happiness can be described as ego gratification. It’s the satisfaction of being admired for a talent or personal quality. It’s also the happiness we seek in comparing ourselves to others, when we find we measure up. It motivates us to develop and expand our abilities, but is limited because in so many ways it’s merely self-focused.

  • Level III of happiness is focused beyond one’s self toward others—friends, children, spouse. It’s found in our care and compassion for them and in receiving their care. It’s beautiful, but is still limited to the things that are immediately before us, things that are finite, and thus even the best of these things can never be our ‘everything’, nor we can we be ‘everything’ for anyone else. No person can satisfy our deepest human longing. For example, we or they, will die and if our happiness is contingent upon them, it dies with them. We’re left considering, “There must be more than this”.

  • But Level IV of happiness is focused on transcendence, perfection, the pursuit of experiencing goodness, truth and beauty–things that endure. No mere human experience can provide it. Level IV happiness is experienced in perfect and unconditional love, something which cannot be found in created things, merely in and of themselves—not in one’s self or in others, not in circumstances, nor material things.

For one thing, this raises the question for us to consider: What are things in which I find my happiness? Good as they may be, is there more? But also we go back to the earlier question: Why do we do what our Lord commands us? Why do we say yes to discipleship to aspiring to be good servants? What compels us to our daily acts of kindness, and simple courtesies?

We are unprofitable servants, with nothing ultimately to gain from this world. We aspire to be good servants because our soul thirsts for something beyond this world—despite all the ways we settle for things that never satisfy. It is Him we seek and nothing else will do—the One who awaits us from this altar. Under the appearance of mere bread, within is the mystery of perfection, the transcendent and perfect love for which the deepest part of us aches.

[i] https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/apologetics/the-four-levels-of-happiness.html