Even for those of us who are Christians, who understand that we cannot save ourselves, we have a tendency to drift into a mindset that makes too much of our (usually occasional) good efforts, causing us to bestow heaven's blessing on ourselves as a reward for our faithfulness and generosity, as if we were somehow capable of putting God in our debt. Such an attitude is revealed when we utter things like, "Helping people makes me feel so good," or, worse, "I help others because it makes me feel good." I don't recall ever reading, or hearing, where St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, or Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, uttered such words.
As people who dedicated their lives to assisting the poor, I think more often than not St. Francis, St. Vincent, and Bl. Teresa were overwhelmed by the scope of the human need they encountered just in their own milieux. In other words, they were aware of how far short the help they were able offer those in need fell from the scope of the need. I believe this is one of the reasons that led Bl. Teresa to say, "Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love."
Performing small acts with great love is "the little way" of the the Little Flower. Love, the apostle wrote, "does not seek its own interests" (1 Cor 13:5), even if that interest is a warm fuzzy. Love, as Jesus showed us, is utterly selfless. In the words of Christian singer/songwriter Don Francisco, taken from his song, "Love Is Not a Feeling," "Jesus didn't die for you because it was fun/He hung there for love because it had to be done."
It is by realizing the smallness of even our greatest efforts that we begin to make progress in being humble, in imitation of our Lord. Because of our pride it is easy to either just pass lightly over Jesus' words at the end of today's Gospel, or to take them as a slap-in-the-face. In my view, taking them as a slap-in-the-face is better than ignoring them. His words are a provocation (i.e., a call for us to fulfill our vocation), one borne of His great love for us. It is love that prompted Him to teach His disciples these things, which are the deep things of the kingdom of God.
I was reminded as I watched, once again, Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis on Friday (the Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi) that while it is difficult for us to fully realize that we remain "unprofitable servants" even after "we have done what we were obliged to do," such a realization is utterly necessary for anyone to live in the glorious freedom of the children of God, to live in light of the good news that God loves us anyway. We can't earn God's love and favor, but once we experience it we can't help but want, even to feel compelled, to share it with others. This desire to share what we have been so freely given is what the Scriptures call "faith," which is why "the just one, because of his faith, shall live" (Hab 2:4).