Handkerchief Abuse

Dear Friends:

There will be a pause in the Word of Grace messages after this until the end of May, 2009 due to international travel.

In the after dinner conversation at Zacchaeus’ house discussed in last week’s message, Jesus said, “The Son of Man has come to seek and save the lost” (Lk 19:10). Then he told a story because, as Luke observes, “He was near Jerusalem, and because the kingdom of God was supposed to appear immediately” (Lk 19:11) . In other words, Jesus was considering both his destiny and the expectations of his followers.

The story, commonly referred to as the, “Parable of the Ten Pounds” provides insight into the kingdom of God and who enters it and who does not. It is one of my favorite passages for reflection.

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Jesus “sat down opposite the (temple) treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk 12:41-44).

Contrast Jesus’ story with this one told by Henri Nouwen: “An elderly woman was brought to a psychiatric center. “She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and scaring everyone so much that the doctor had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that squeezed hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more, and be nothing more. That was her fear” (Henri J.M. Nouwen, With Open Hands [New York: Ballantine Books, 1990], p. 3).

Between these stories lies the frontier of faith. If you think either story is about money, think again. Money is only valuable for what it can buy. If you are marooned at the South Pole with nothing more than one million dollars in cash you are going to die. The coins of these women represented their lives. The widow gave up “all she had to live on”– in essence, her life. The elderly psychiatric patient could not let go of her life.

Think about what you can or can’t live without. Think about what you are grasping, even hoarding. Is it your job? A relationship? A bank account? Image? Influence? Power?  A secret thought of revenge? A dream? A cause?

Do you and I go through our days carefully guarding our turf, saving our strength, storing up for a pleasant retirement? Does our hope boil down to the description of T.S. Eliot, “an asphalt driveway in front of our home and a thousand lost golf balls.”

“For what are you saving your life?” is a question that I am asking myself and others these days. We live comfortably and carefully. We go through the motions not wanting to make waves. We tell each other “don’t be rash,” mistaking rashness for the risk-taking inherent in the life of faith.

Robert Wicks writes: “Being rash is the result of thoughtless impulse. Risking is knowing that there are some things we must do–even when we feel they may involve making mistakes or even failure. The reality we must be willing to look at and accept is: being on the road to finding the truth or seeking improvement is, at best, a hazardous process. Still, it is one we cannot avoid if we wish to live a full spiritual life, even when the temptation to hold back seems so sensible” (Robert Wicks, Seeds of Sensitivity [Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1995], p. 70)

Jesus told a story about a wealthy tycoon who needed to go on a long business trip. He placed his fortune in the hands of ten of his subordinates instructing them to use the capital to operate the enterprise until his return. On his return the ruler called in the first subordinate  and asked “how did you do with my money?” The subordinate said, “I invested it and made a 1000 percent return on the principal.” The ruler said,”That is great. Because you were trustworthy in this small job, I’m going to make you the managing director of ten of my companies.”  The second subordinate brought in reported that he had invested the principal entrusted to him and made a return of 500 percent. The tycoon rewarded him with the management of five companies.

The next subordinate told a different story. “Master, I pursued a conservative strategy for the preservation of the principal you entrusted to me. I wrapped the money up in my handkerchief and buried it under a rock in the back yard. To be frank, I was afraid. I know that you are demanding and have high expectations, and you don’t suffer fools gladly. You make money where you haven’t even invested.”

The ruler said, “You’re absolutely correct that I don’t suffer fools gladly–and you’ve acted the fool! Why didn’t you at least invest the money in a bond fund so I would have gotten a little interest on it?”

He told the others, “Take the money from this guy and give it to the man who increased my money tenfold.”

The aides were shocked. “But Master he already has 1000 times what everyone else received.”

He said, “That’s what I mean: Risk your life and get more than you ever dreamed of. Play it safe and end up holding the bag” (Luke 19: 11-27, a combination of my paraphrase and The Message).

This is a story of grace. Ten servants each get an equal amount of money to invest regardless of their respective abilities and merit. We each receive an equal opportunity for a new life in Christ. “For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:8-10). The question is what do we do with those things that God prepared to be our way of life?

If everything comes from God and belongs to God, why play it safe? Why not invest what God gives us. Two of the servants do this. They hold nothing back and when the tycoon returns he is pleased at the bold risks they have taken to increase his holdings. He rewards them with commensurate authority.

The one who has merely preserved the capital rather than taking the risk of investment is in trouble. The key to his problems is his choice of a handkerchief in which to wrap up the money before hiding it.

Handkerchiefs are meant to clean up messes, bind wounds, wipe runny noses and mop sweaty brows. These are all byproducts of action. The passive use of the handkerchief as a wallet is “Exhibit A” that no risk was taken. If God can obtain our unreserved investment of the life that he gives us, the increase will be by his grace — his power, not our effort. He expects us to use what we are given and not stand pat in cringing paralysis that if we lose what we have there won’t be more.

But again, these aren’t stories about money and stuff. Jesus did not come to establish endowments and build portfolios.

He said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). That’s it. Fuss, figure and complicate it as you will, but the simple truth is that God wants us to know that we are loved and he wants us to be happy. Jesus came to “seal the deal” with his own life.  For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life to take it up again” (Jn 10:17).

Sending Jesus, straight from his side, proves that there is nothing that God holds back from us (Rom:31-32). In the love that led the Father and Son to plan and create the world out of nothing, Jesus came and gave his life to redeem us to be free to enter that original embrace of God for his children. This should mean something about what we do with the lives he gives us.

We can read the Gospels through and through and we will never find anything that says Jesus wants us to be conservative with our lives. He desires our obedience, morality and ethical conduct, but that does not mean that we are to be conservative and self-protective. Jesus also said: “…Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

“A ransom for many” means that Jesus considers another life worth his. Whose life is worth his? Take a pick–Your’s, mine, Osama Bin Laden’s. The Word says “many” which means anyone and everyone.

What kind of God would do such a thing? A God who would rather die than live without one of his children, that’s who!

We may choose not to accept this love and go our way, but that does not devalue that love. “Christ died for the ungodly. . . God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6,8). There are no limits on that love. No one can out-sin God’s love. “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20b)

Now he calls us to invest the lives he gives us in love. Nothing sets you free to love like knowing that you are loved. We can never love more than we believe that God loves us. Our hearts have to be filled up before they can spill over. Zacchaeus was a hated tax collector and a despised physical and moral runt. But when Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down here and let’s talk. I want to ‘hang out’ with you. I delight in a guy who will run and climb a tree just to see me,” Zacchaeus’ heart filled up and spilled over with extravagant love for the poor and those he had cheated” (Lk 19:8). “We love because he first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19) is the fundamental cause and effect principle of the universe.

There were ten servants who received coins to invest from the ruler. Jesus only shared the story of three of them. I think his point was that there are other investments to be made and stories to be told. I wouldn’t spend much time, though, trying to figure out our investment strategy. Scripture is quite clear that our call is to turn ourselves over to God and let him invest us where and as he will (Rom 12:1-2, 2 Cor 4:7).

From this perspective we aren’t investors for God, we are the currency that God invests. Why are we trying to hoard our own lives and blessings. We were not meant to be banked and held in reserve. We are meant to be spent by God.

Dag Hammarskjold was the first Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was also a deeply committed Christian who served out of that commitment and ultimately gave his life for the cause of peace. Hammarskjold knew what it means to be currency in the hand of God. He wrote these words in his journal in 1957: ” You will know Life and be acknowledged by it according to your degree of transparency, your capacity, that is, to vanish as an end, and remain purely as a means….’The best and most wonderful thing that can happen to you in this life is that you should be silent and let God work and speak.’  Long ago, you gripped me, Slinger. Now into the storm. Now towards your target. (Markings [New York: Alfred Knopf, 1964], p. 134-135).

When I came to this understanding that I am currency in the hand of God, I was so overwhelmed that I wrote a song about it. I only played and sang it once for two friends and their reaction was the lyrics terrified them. They felt so strongly about it that I never brought it out again, but I often sing and pray these words when I am alone. They express the understanding of my heart about God’s will.

LORD, SPEND ME

(Kent Hansen, copyright, 1994)

As water in a thirsty desert,
as coins in a beggar’s hand,
as a candle in the darkness,
as salt poured on the bland,
Lord spend me.

Spend me lavishly,
use me recklessly,
to love extravagantly,
Lord spend me.

As fresh bread for the hungry ,
as vision for the blind,
whatever, Lord, your purpose,
take my body, soul and mind,
and spend me.

Spend me lavishly,
use me recklessly,
to love extravagantly,
Lord spend me.

Abba: Take us. Spend us where and as you will for Jesus’ sake, for love’s sake. Yes!

“O, taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,

Kent

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