“The Journal of Mundane Behavior” is a professional publication of Cal State, Fullerton. It features scholarly articles that study the ordinary and routine things that people do. Early issues explored the significance of shaving, running errands, the table arrangement and background noise of a neighborhood café, and the making of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The sociologist who created this journal did so because he was concerned that his professional colleagues virtually ignored the study of the everyday behavior that fills most people’s lives.
The same might be said of many people’s attitudes about the practice of religion. They give much attention to what they think are the “big issues’, while they write off the seemingly small, trivial, and routine things as being insignificant or unimportant. Jesus, however, suggests otherwise. In today’s gospel parable, servants were praised and blessed precisely because they had been faithful in “small matters.” In other words, Jesus stresses that when it comes to our journey of faith, it’s the little things that can mean a lot. Small, unnoticed acts of faith, kindness, service and generosity, and fidelity to our daily routines and duties, are essential for our spiritual growth and are important in the eyes of our Lord. Yet this is a truth that is tempting to forget, immersed as we are in a culture which esteems public recognition and the grand gesture.
Sometimes we’re tempted to think that since God is so “big,” so to speak, and we are so insignificant in comparison, God can’t really be bothered to pay attention to many of the things we do. This was the case with David, a young social worker who served at a homeless shelter in San Francisco. As a Roman Catholic, he was deeply committed to the social justice teachings of the church, and he was quite generous, at some cost to himself, in helping the poor. However, he attended Mass only occasionally, had basically no private prayer life, and he openly flaunted the church’s teachings on sex and marriage.
One day he asked a priest: “Do you really think that God (cares) whether you say your prayers, whether you hold a grudge against someone who’s hurt you, and whether you share a bed with someone you aren’t married to? We Christians are always so hung up on these little private things that we neglect the big picture- the fact that half the world goes to bed hungry every night and nobody cares.”
The priest responded that while God does care very deeply about the “big picture,” he also cares about our private prayer, our private grudges, and our private morals. These things make a big difference for God because they make a big difference for us- they reflect who we are as individuals and the state of our relationship with God. Doing these things shapes our character, and they can show God how much we love him. And whether or not we do them always involves a choice between virtue and vice. (1)
For other people, it’s not a question of God not wanting to be bothered with little things, it’s that they themselves can’t be bothered- often because they think that they’re just too busy. One Christian author recalls how he was annoyed when a friend, temporarily without a car, asked him for a ride so he could do a few essential errands. He agreed to do it, but inwardly he grumbled, because he had some things that he himself had wanted to do. However, as he ran out the door, he grabbed a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a prominent German Christian who was executed by the Nazis during the final hours of World War II.
He picked up his friend, and through each errand he fretted and fumed about the loss of his precious time. Finally, while waiting at a supermarket, he picked up the book by Bonhoeffer, and read these words: “The service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means, initially, assistance in trifling, external matters. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time is usually taking his own importance too seriously.” (2)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is right. We often avoid doing “small things” because we think that we’re just too important. Yet the example of Jesus tells us otherwise. As Rick Warren says in The Purpose Driven Life, “Jesus specialized in menial tasks that everyone else tried to avoid: washing feet, helping children, fixing breakfast, and serving lepers. Nothing was beneath him, because he came to serve. It wasn’t in spite of his greatness that he did these things, but because of it, and he expects us to follow his example.”
Archbishop Timothy Dolan recalls how as a teenager he was thrilled to go on afternoon rounds with his pastor. This priest was a monsignor- a highly respected man with a great deal of responsibility. When they stopped at a nursing home to see an elderly parishioner, they discovered her lying on the floor in a pool of her own urine. Yet without missing a beat the priest took off his coat, grabbed a mop, cleaned up the mess, dressed the woman in some clean clothes, kissed her on the head, and gave her a little bottle of lotion as a Christmas present. To this day, Archbishop Dolan continues to be inspired by this example of humble love. (3)
And indeed it is love that Jesus calls us to when he tells us to be faithful in small matters. True love doesn’t ask if something we need to do is important or not. True love simply does it. Because no act is too small in the service of God. As St. Francis de Sales once wrote, “Great opportunities to serve God rarely present themselves, little ones are frequent. And you will profit greatly in God’s sight by doing all these things, because God wants you to do them.”
(1) From Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing
(2) From A Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
(3) From Priests for the Third Millennium by Archbishop Timothy Dolan