Ask Father Tom: Small acts still make a big difference

Jesus reminds us: “Whatever you do for the least, you do for me” (Matthew 25:40).

“Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

By Father Tom Knoblach

In a world with so much hurt and pain, we can often feel powerless to help. Though not Scriptural, the familiar parable of the boy and the starfish is intended to speak to that sense of futility.

A man watches a boy scoop up a starfish stranded on the sandy beach by the receding tide and return it to the ocean. The man is touched but reminds the boy that there are hundreds, thousands of starfish on the beach; his gesture is kind but ultimately futile. “I hate to tell you, but you’ll never make a difference.” To which the boy replied: “It makes a difference to that one.”

Mother Teresa is remembered for that same logic, responding to the same challenge of being unable to eradicate the world’s poverty by focusing on individuals. After all, even Jesus had foretold: “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). Her reply was intended to overcome the inertia that overwhelming need can easily generate: “None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something.”

After all, the same Jesus told us: “Anyone who gives even a cup of water to one of these least disciples of mine will surely not go without reward” (Matthew 10:42); and “Whatever you do for the least, you do for me” (Matthew 25:40).

Even if we realistically surrender our hopes to change global situations of war, hunger, human trafficking, environmental degradation and so many other entries in the catalog of human sorrows, we can still feel overwhelmed by individual situations. Someone we care about receives a terminal diagnosis. A family is involved in a tragic accident. A friend confides being a victim of abuse. A coworker struggles with chemical dependency. A relative lives with crippling bouts of depression.

Getty Images/FredFroese

As the crowds asked Peter even after the Resurrection in Acts 2:37: “What then must we do?”

I have no particular wisdom for such vast questions; but as we honor Mary, the Mother of Jesus and Mother of the Church this month of May, I have found some perspective through her. I suggest two scenes for your own reflection.

First, the well-known scene of the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1-11). Mary has been invited as a guest, and so she is in a position to see the embarrassing situation unfold: no more wine. She quietly intercedes with Jesus, accepts his unclear response (“How does your concern involve me? My hour has not yet come.”) and instructs the servants with words that are the core of discipleship in every age: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Through this chain of Mary’s presence and petition, the water becomes wine. More happens here than simply saving a reception; the episode captures the essence of Jesus’ mission to bring about a union between humanity and divinity, begun in his Incarnation, and extend this marriage bond to all through the hour of his Passion. It foreshadows the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-9) and the new and everlasting covenant of love made present in every Eucharist, celebrating the union of Christ and the Church — bridegroom and bride in St. Paul’s image (Ephesians 5:32).

Mary teaches us to accept the invitation to be present to others in joy and in sorrow. To be compassionate literally means “to suffer with” another, and simply being with those in need is a gesture of grace at work.

Mary also teaches us the power of intercession. She does not tell Jesus what to do or how to act; she is compassionately sensitive to the need she observes and brings it to her son. Though we do not see Christ as she did that day in Cana, our own intercession is no less real and direct in prayer. We, too, do not need to instruct him what to do and when to intervene; we can be confident that “the Lord hears the cry of the poor” (Psalm 34), and no prayer goes unheard or meets with indifference from the divine mercy of God.

And Mary continues to lead us to trust the will of God, which is often obscure and opaque to human reasoning. I believe her advice to “do whatever he tells you” was the fruit of her own “fiat” to Gabriel, “Let it be done according to your word,” and of those hidden years of Nazareth as she understood more and more that God was living in her home as her child, now grown and ready to meet his hour.

The second scene comes from the Stations of the Cross. We prayed it often during Lent, but its lessons echo throughout the Easter season. Consider the fourth, fifth and sixth stations, a beautiful juxtaposition of three examples of compassion for the Body of Christ.

First, Mary meets Jesus bearing the cross. She cannot take it away, cannot relieve the suffering, cannot change the course of that Way. But she loves him and in a way completely beyond our understanding gives him strength by her own faith in the Father’s will. “How can this be?” must have echoed in her mind; but her own advice to the servants was a source of strength for her: “Do whatever he tells you.” Her love and faith were the gifts she gave to Jesus in that moment of unfathomable sorrow.

Then, Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross. He accepts some part of the burden as his own — probably with some annoyance, fear, embarrassment and perhaps resentment. He was a visitor to Jerusalem, a stranger pulled out of the crowd for a shameful task. But he becomes the first to fulfill, literally, the words of Christ: “Whoever wishes to be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Simon physically serves the human needs of the body of Christ.

And, Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. She cannot relieve Simon of the wood; she cannot know Jesus like his mother. But she offers a gesture that humanizes this suffering, wiping away blood and sweat from one who cannot do it himself. It does not alter the path that leads to Calvary; but it brings a moment of human respect and kindness into the darkness.

Mary, Simon, Veronica — and countless others still today — bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ. It may be loving presence; it may be physical service; it may be a gesture of human respect. Though such moments of compassion can seem trivial and do not alter the sweep of history, they always make a difference: “Whatever you do for the least, you do for me.”

Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

Author: The Central Minnesota Catholic

The Central Minnesota Catholic is the magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

Leave a Reply