In the 1950s there were a few farms in North Carolina where the cotton crop was still picked by hand. One of my seminary classmates had grown up in that county on a cotton farm. Picking cotton by hand is back-breaking work. Late into the night, he told some of us about the time he stood up straight for a moment’s rest, and saw big letters in the sky – the letters of G – P and C.
He took that to be a sign from God telling him to go preach Christ. Sure enough, now he’s in seminary. Let me stop the story to assure you that seminarians can be brutal to each other, more so, along spiritual matters. Go Preach Christ. But a classmate spoke right up. “Karl, you’ve got that all wrong. If you saw those letters, they meant you were to go pick cotton.”
That little cartoon came to mind when I saw the Gospel lesson for this day. What we are to do with this life, predicting, the future, or getting a message from God, is always subject to suspicion and to close examination, and needs a lot of prayer. The passage from the Gospel of Matthew must be approached with caution because it has been misinterpreted in every age.
When I was growing up in Burlington, there were several street preachers, we called them. They could draw a dozen or so curiosity seekers to hear them in the mid 1930s predict the future of war in Europe. It did not take a spiritual genius to know that. And it came.
In Matthew’s story Jesus has completed his tour of the countryside around Jerusalem and now he is ready to take on the Pharisees and scribes, the temple crowd we would call them because they preached a false gospel. Above all, they did not understand the love of God – that is, they did not accept that God simply loved the people – all the people of the earth. They could not believe that God had created them in his own image. That expression, God’s image, is the same as saying that a boy looks like his father, or a girl looks like her mother. The love of God is unceasing and unqualified and Jesus Christ is our model.
We don’t have to do anything to gain God’s favor. He is our creator and if a sinful human being can love a family member, how much more can a creating God love those whom he has made?
In the Gospel for the Day, we are reminded that responsibility comes with God’s love. It’s not a case of earning God’s love and favor, but rather, we should ask, “What response can we make to the love of God because we want to thank God for his gifts to us?
The chief gift is his promise and assurance of eternity in God’s presence. The outcome of the story Jesus told is predictable. According to the man’s individual judgment and pleasure, he distributed bags of gold. He gave a different amount of gold to each of his three slaves.
If God is doing the giving, then we cannot question why he gives different amounts of riches or brains or feelings to his slaves. Maybe Jesus is saying, “This is the way life is.”
Life is not fair. It is a given. Evidently the man is gone for an extended period. When he returns, he calls for an accounting.
We are free to make a prayerful examination of this story. With all the modern tools of discovering the genetic history of our own family, we still don’t know why we are made up exactly as we are.
After considering our origins and skills and gifts and the family trees, we come down to our personal responsibility for doing what we do. It is perfectly obvious that Jesus is telling a story that comes down to personal responsibility.
When we recognize that God has given each of us gifts, what are we going to do with them? As Paul wrote to the congregation in Corinth, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Led by the Spirt, Paul observed that members of the congregation in Corinth – and elsewhere, right down to the present day – Paul could see that individuals have different skills, talents, abilities, inclinations, likes and dislikes — we are what we are because God has given us –as it were – bags of gold.
All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. Now the meaning of all this – the gospel lesson in Matthew is put into practice in congregations as strongly suggested by Paul – the meaning of the story seems to come down to a couple of observations.
First, we are what we are as gifts to each other, and we are to examine ourselves and see how we can be of use, not only to our special loved ones but also to all with whom we pass thru this life.
It is our duty, our pleasure even, as I heard it sung by an old-time men’s gospel quartet, to give the world a smile each day, “helping someone on life’s way; let your light so be that all the world may see the joy of serving Jesus with a smile.”
Second, Jesus Christ who died on the cross for us, loves each one of us exactly as we are and we thank God without jealousy for all the gifts he has given not only to each of us but also to friends and family, fellow travelers all.
The question is laid upon each of us. How am I going to fulfill my destiny as a child of God? For our gifts and for how we use them, we all say together: “Thanks be to God.”