Sharpening the pencil: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 14:25–33:

Great crowds were traveling with Jesus, and he turned and addressed them, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’ Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”


I have a confession to make, which for a Catholic is hardly an earth-shaking declaration. I’m not terribly good at prayer. Perhaps this comes from being an adult revert to the faith after having skipped most of the catechesis on prayer aimed at youth in the church, or maybe I’m just too self-conscious for it to be comfortable.

Still, I pray every day, at least at dinner, and occasionally through the rest of the day when people ask for intercessions. When I remember to pray at other times, I ask the Lord to strengthen me in three ways. “Lord, help me to remember who I am today: a child of God, a disciple of Jesus Christ, and an instrument of Your holy will.” If I can get that much right, I figure, the rest will fall into place — as long as I don’t get in the way of it.

Today’s Gospel reminds me of the last of those three requests — a reminder of our purpose, especially those who put their faith in Christ. Mother Teresa spoke about it in 1988 in an interview with Time Magazine, which was reprinted this week in the National Catholic Register. She offered an excellent analogy as to what it means to be an instrument of God’s will, and what it takes for us to fill that role:

You feel you have no special qualities?

I don’t think so. I don’t claim anything of the work. It’s his work. I’m like a little pencil in his hand. That’s all. He does the thinking. He does the writing. The pencil has nothing to do it. The pencil has only to be allowed to be used.


The analogy of a pencil goes well beyond just being an instrument. How do we use pencils? In their original form, they’re useless. They have a rubber tip on one end and a squared-off blunt end at the other. We have to sharpen the pencil to use it, shedding the useless attachments to get to its core. The more it gets used, the more we sharpen it and shed those attachments. At times, the tip breaks under pressure, or we get dull and ineffective from the effort. We only become effective again when we shed more attachments and allow ourselves to be sharpened for the effort.

When I read that this week, this passage spoke to me in a manner I didn’t quite realize until I began to reflect on this week’s Gospel. Jesus is telling His disciples the same thing. He certainly isn’t telling people to hate their families, no more than Jesus is suggesting that we have to be invading kings in order to receive salvation.

Instead, Jesus wants His disciples to focus on preparation for salvation rather than be consumed with the worries of this world. This teaching took place in a society where family obligations were paramount in the social structure. Everyone had very clearly defined roles and responsibilities to close relations; it would have been shocking to entertain the idea that those could just be abandoned. (Even today, it’s still a bit shocking, although hardly as rare.)


All those, however necessary they might be, do not themselves advance the cause of salvation and the coming of Christ’s Church. Jesus’ disciples will have to prepare for that in the same manner as a builder or a military planner in order to fulfill the roles they have as instruments of God’s will. To do that, Jesus tells His disciples that they have to whittle themselves down to their essence as children of God. They must shed their attachments and sharpen themselves for their mission.

And like Mother Teresa’s pencil, this must be an ongoing process. No pencil gets sharpened once and stays sharp forever. We must understand that becoming the Lord’s instrument means constant sharpening and focus, allowing the accretions of the material world to fall off like shavings in order to get to our spiritual essence. Only in that way can the Lord truly work through us.

Needless to say, that process is hardly pain-free. Nor does the pencil know what its Writer has in mind. It requires us to have faith and trust and to put the demand for knowledge and control aside. Our first reading today from Wisdom makes that clear. “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the LORD intends? … Scarce do we guess the things on earth,” the scripture observes, “and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty[.]”


If that’s true — and our experience in the world makes that more clear the older we get — then there is no way for us to grasp the Lord’s plan or His will. All we can do is either accept that the Lord is good and His plan is for our benefit, or reject Him entirely and any hope of eternal life in His love. If we wish to be His instruments, then we must trust the Lord and allow Him to work through us — and to continue sharpening us in ways we might not imagine or understand.

The front page image is a detail from “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes,” early 16th century, by Lambert Lombard. Currently on display at the Rockox House in Antwerp, Belgium. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

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