I have a hard time doing nothing. I typically feel like I should be accomplishing something — being productive in some way — at all times. I don’t mean just with work. Even when I am at home I usually have a plan to either do chores or to be active in some way. I’ll go on a hike, or a bike ride, for example. While I like the idea of sitting still and enjoying my home or the outdoors, I almost never do.
I imagine a lot of us are like this. After all, we live in a society that rewards productivity. We are taught to be self-reliant and to expect to have to earn our way to financial and social security. So we study, work, and work some more. For me, contributing to the success of a company or organization not only helps me financially, it also makes me feel good about myself. I feel like I’m doing something.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus uses yet another analogy to help us understand the life of faith. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he tells his followers “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”
It’s the second part of this saying that gets my attention as someone determined to accomplish things in life. Jesus says our lives with him are like a vine and its branches, and that as long as we are connected with him our lives will be very fruitful. Fair enough.
We like to think that we’re self-made, but we are not. We like to think that we deserve what we have. We don’t. We like to think that hard work is a spiritual virtue. It isn’t.
Then comes the hard part: “Without me, you can do nothing.”
Nothing. I think about all the effort and energy I spend to be productive. Why? Most of the time, I’m not acting with any kind of intent other than to make myself feel better. Am I really accomplishing anything by sweeping the yard, organizing the garage, sitting at my desk doing my job? Of course I am accomplishing tasks, but I’m not really focused on any significant impacts.
Without me, you can do nothing? Well, I don’t want to do nothing. I want to do something. Today’s Gospel tells me that if I really want to accomplish things that matter, I better make sure I stay plugged in to the love of God, and stay there. Otherwise, I’m just doing things to look busy.
The myth of self-reliance is one that Jesus repeatedly tries to explode. We like to think that we’re self-made, but we are not. We like to think that we deserve what we have. We don’t. We like to think that hard work is a spiritual virtue. It isn’t.
We are called to be radically dependent on another — on Jesus — and that runs against our instinct to be self-sufficient providers. The good news is that God wants to give us everything. The flip side of that truth is what we hear today — that without Jesus we can’t accomplish anything at all.
Bill Peatman writes from Napa. He may be reached at [email protected].