My favorite writer is a man by the name of Antonio Machado. Machado was a Spanish poet and philosopher who fled Spain during that country's civil war, crossing the Pyrenees in an old car with his elderly mother on his lap. The two died only a few days apart. In one notebook he writes about how, one day when he was young, he had a piece of sugar cane in his hand. He saw another young boy with a piece of sugar cane too, and sure that his was bigger, he asked his mother to confirm it, just to be sure. His mother told him no, it wasn't, and then asked him, "Son, what have you done with your eyes?" It was the greatest reprimand she ever gave him, and he remembered it.
Much of scripture falls into the realm of poetry and philosophy, and this notion of seeing comes up frequently in the New Testament. If you have any kind of spiritual life, you believe that much (even most) of what matters you can't see. It's hidden. Jesus is fully aware of this, which is why he's so big on faith, but it's also why he spends so much time trying to help people recognize when a likeness of that "unseen" thing is right before their eyes. It's a new way of looking, and it generally means paying close attention to those small things that, it turns out, are both common and revealing.
1) All You Can't See. In all of the parables of the Day of Reckoning or the stories about judgment, nothing fills me with more dread than the parable of the talents. Maybe it's because I'm paranoid about being irresponsible. I worry constantly that I'm not making my life all it could be. Or maybe (admittedly) I wonder if I am more like the guy who gets one talent and is even screwing that up.
Over the last year I've stewed over this parable more than is probably healthy. I've tried to look at my life, to "see" it for what it really is, and determine if I've multiplied anything I've been given. Maybe not doubled it, I reassure myself, but just, you know, added a little? But if I look too closely, all I see are mistakes. And then I'm hazy on what the increase is supposed to look like anyway. Accomplishments? Personal happiness? Prosperity?
The difficulty is that we can't always physically see the ramifications of our own lives, or other's lives for that matter. We only see a fraction of what each individual life gives to the world. All of those subtleties - the long talks in friendship, days of waking up to do work that is monotonous and endless, the countless times we forgive the ones we love - we often don't see where they go. They are part of a work that, for the most part, washes away into a place unseen to us. So how do we know if we, like the two wise servants, are multiplying our gifts?
I finally connected the parable of the talents to other stories in the New Testament that helped me understand better this notion of multiplying. Twice Jesus feeds a multitude with far less food than is reasonable. And twice that food is miraculously multiplied. This happens under the very eyes of his disciples and they can't explain it. The disciples didn't make it multiply, and neither did any of the multitude. Jesus did. That's the miracle. So could it be that the same thing is at work here in the parable of the talents? I know it says that the one who had five talents "went and traded with the same and made them other five talents," but could it be that while he did much of the work, it was someone greater who did the actual multiplying? Is this also like the parable of the woman who divides up the yeast into different jars and when they all rise, she can feed three times as many people? That yeast has its own powers outside of just the woman's doing. It rises at night, when she isn't looking. She did the work to spread it out, she was wise, but something else in the very elements of the yeast made it rise and work “till the whole was leavened.” And when the multitude eats the bread and fish Jesus gives them, it says "they were filled." In both examples, somehow, beyond logical calculations and visible evidence, what they had was enough.
In other words, the miracle of life is the way it multiplies without our understanding how, without our seeing it directly. I guess that's why it's God himself that does the judging, and why he does it at the end of all things.
2) See and do. It's true that a Day of Reckoning is coming. I know that because all of the parables in this chapter speak of a day of accounting, when every person will be held responsible for their work. In a world where we constantly fight "black and white scenarios," where we can see that things are not always so clear as they may first seem, and even in a book that tells us not to judge but to forgive and love, Jesus speaks in no uncertain terms that there is a very real judgment waiting for us. But in each of these parables - the 10 virgins, the talents, the sheep and goats - the kingdom of God is "like unto" the most basic things in life. Therefore, it's coming, but we are also living close to it right now. It's likeness is all around us. We can see it if we look with the right eyes.
We are currently remodeling our basement. Correction: we are currently living upstairs while our empty basement is waiting for the contractor to help us remodel. We did our own demolition. Over the weeks our little 1950s basement became a warehouse of splintered wood, bent nails, and broken sheetrock. We wore masks and gloves and goggles and hats. (I looked like a kid playing astronaut.) We pried asbestos-filled linoleum tiles off the floor. We threw our sledgehammer against the walls. We tore down asbestos-filled ceiling tiles. And we walked back upstairs at midnight or 1:00 a.m., sore and tired and covered from head to toe in sheetrock dust, white, ghost-like footprints trailing behind us on the wood floors. The next day we'd load the debris in the truck and drive across the train tracks to the dump. After several weeks of this, our basement consisted of beams, natural light, and empty space: beautiful in the promise of its possibilities. But this isn't a story about destruction, and how that destruction was necessary to make way for something greater. It's not about the way I sorted through an entire basement of stuff and made piles of what we'd keep and what we wouldn't, though both of those points would work nicely in a post about the kingdom of God and judgment. Instead, it's about the two things that do remain in the basement (under layers of that dust and piles of tools), the two things without which we'd cease to function. I mean our washer and dryer. We can live in a tight space. My two older sons can share a bed, and they can share a room with the baby. We can move load after load of storage to the garage. But we can't live without something to wash and dry our clothes.
My fondness for our old washer and dryer has grown beyond a normal relationship between a housewife and her trusty appliances. Sometimes I stand on the steps and just look at them: two white buddhas churning away in the corner of a vast empty room, doing their good work out of sight and far away from the rest of the world. They never fail me. I open the washer and stuff it with dirty clothes, and when I return 30 minutes later, it presents me with clean clothes. When I open the dryer and stuff in wet clothes, all I have to do is turn the dial, listen for the buzzer from upstairs, and return, knowing full well that when I open that door a load of warm, wonderfully-scented clothes will fall into my hands. And it does.
Maybe it is a little like the end of the world, or the beginning of it, when all the elements are waiting on the sidelines and everything is quiet and a soft humming comes from somewhere almost out of sight. Something is still working, has been working from the beginning, something that just does what it's supposed to do regardless of what's going on with everyone and everything else.
Someday they will finally give out and we'll have them hauled away and replaced by newer models. But for as long as they can last, my washer and dryer know what they are supposed to do and they do it. Likewise the kingdom of heaven is filled with people who see and do. The wise virgins, the two wise servants, the sheep, all physically see and comprehend what it is they are to do. And then they do it.
I'm crudely offering my own parable here: the parable of the Washer and Dryer. The children of God are as savory as salt, as luminous as a candle in a dark house or a city on a hill, and maybe too as constant as an old washer and dryer, spinning away in an empty basement, turning whatever is in them into something miraculous.