Working With What You’ve Got

by Lois Tverberg

[The Kingdom of God] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. Matthew 25:14-18

Sad Child

We all struggle with our weaknesses, and for some of us, they are pretty profound. We might be plagued by a physical disability, mental illness, psychological problems, or a dysfunctional family background. Jesus’ describes people with different amounts of gifts in the parable above, and many of us feel like the servant who received one talent rather than five. It’s often true that people who struggle with limitations bury their talents and give up on serving God. We feel worthless, like only those who are great in human achievement are worthy of serving God. We may even believe that God is harsh and unfair, as the man in the parable viewed his employer.

The rabbis relay a similar parable with a wise message: A king hires two watchmen over his garden—one blind, and the other lame. The two watchmen decide to steal his fruit, but neither can do it alone. The lame man can’t reach the fruit, and the blind man can’t see where it is. So the blind man hoists the lame man on his shoulders, and together they pick the fruit! When the king discovers the crime, both of them claim they were incapable of stealing the fruit. So the king lifts the lame man on the blind man’s shoulders and judges them both as one. (B. Talmud, Sanhedrin 91a-b)

The point of this parable is that all of us have two aspects —our flesh, that may have disabilities or psychological problems; and our will—our desire to accomplish what we are called to do. Together they determine what we can do, and we can’t ignore our calling to serve God because of our struggles.

We may be tempted to give up and be the chronic “victim,” feeling cheated by a harsh God, having no obligation to help others. Instead, we should look for ways to use our difficulties to serve God. Dave Brownson was tormented for years with schizophrenia and manic depression. His disability made him feel worthless and sub-human, and that he had no calling in life. But then he began a ministry counseling others with serious mental illness, and supplied enormous comfort to people in circumstances similar to his own. It was through his illness that he gained the empathy and experience to reach out to this needy group of people. (1)

God knows the talents he has given you, and he knows that many struggle with enormous problems every day. When we finally stand before him, may we be counted among those who have multiplied what we have been given.

(1) Bill & Helen Brownson, Billy and Dave (Words of Hope, Credo House Pub., Grand Rapids, 2006).

Photo: Wagner T. Cassimiro “Aranha”

Which Type Are You?

by Lois Tverberg

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop — a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Matthew 13:3-8

To explain how people would receive his message, Jesus told a parable about four types of soils, representing four kinds of responses to his ministry. Interestingly, Jesus was using a classic rabbinic teaching method — the “Four Types” parable, that presented four possible behaviors and their results. Other rabbis of Jesus’ day also used parables of this style, as the following example illustrates:

There are four types among those who sit in the presence of the rabbis: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. “The sponge,” which soaks up everything. “The funnel,” which takes in at this end and lets out at the other. “The strainer,” which lets out the wine and retains the dregs. “The sieve,” which removes the chaff and dust and keeps the grain. (Pirke Avot, 5:17)

It is interesting to see how this saying parallels that of Jesus. It also talks about people who listen to a rabbi, describing how they remember and respond to his teachings. Our initial reaction may be to think that it is best to be like the sponge which retains everything, and the worst to be the funnel, that loses everything. But the other two options give us more insight. The wine strainer is even worse than the funnel, because it lets the good wine go right through, but retains the waste. The grain sieve is the best model for us, because it retains the good grain but removes the chaff and dirt.

Which Type are You?

This parable is a good lesson for us as we learn from pastors and spiritual leaders. With the exception of Christ, all our teachers will have some “dross” in with the silver, which means we must listen with discernment. We might be tempted to find a charismatic leader or authoritative author and become a “parrot” who repeats everything uncritically. Or even worse, we can get enamored with odd, debatable points from a teacher, but miss the good ideas that he has shared. If we want to truly grow in wisdom, we need to be like the Bereans1, who held up all teaching to the Scriptures for soundness (Acts 17:11). We then need to subject every doctrine to the mind of Christ, to make sure it reflects his loving, gracious heart.

1 “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Acts 17:11

Photo: Herrad von Landsberg