Sowing Grace

“The Caretaker’s Cottage,” © Lynn Abbott Studios. Used with Permission.

© 2017 Lynn Abbott

One of my favorite haunts brightens the wooded landscape of the “blink-and-you’ll miss it,” historic village just minutes from my home.

Most tourists drive past the lovely grounds of an old estate on their way to see the more well-known sites in town, remnants of the United States’ tragic Civil War.

Yet, there, perched on a rise above the Rappahannock River, Gari Melchers’ Belmont looks toward the larger city of Fredericksburg, Virginia.   Yes, most hurry by on their way to see the battlefield parks.

But the artist in me loves Belmont.

I suppose that’s because it is a creative paradise.  Gari Melchers, both an extraordinarily talented as well as financially successful American artist,  lived in the late 1800s, and in fact,  his career spanned the era of French Impressionism.

Although few know Melchers’ name today, he nevertheless was the most well-known American artist in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  You might compare his success to a more recent artist who achieved both fame and fortune, Thomas Kincaide.

It isn’t surprising, then, that I love the Melchers’ estate.  Not only do the gardens and house delight, but I regularly find inspiration while browsing in Melchers’ studio.

It is interesting to note, however, that when Gari bought “Belmont,” it had fallen into disrepair.  And so, he and his wife, Corinne, lovingly restored the house and grounds, and they even made some additions.

Although Gari loved Belmont best, his career required that he split his time between his beloved country home and his New York studio.

Someone obviously needed to care for Belmont in his absence.  Thus, a caretaker was employed.  Although I cannot see Melchers’ home from the road I take into town, I drive past the caretaker’s cottage regularly.

And when  I do, I find myself daydreaming about the kind of life and work that the caretaker must have had.  True, he did not create the gardens and his home’s size paled by comparison to Melchers’ home, and yet, the caretaker’s work must have allowed for tremendous creativity.

In addition to maintaining the grounds and house, the caretaker likely had freedom to plant and beautify the gardens on the property.  His job was not only to preserve what Melchers had created, but to continue work in the gardens in anticipation of Melchers’ return.   And he accomplished all of this while living in an idyllic setting.

I imagine he counted himself extremely fortunate in his employ.

As I ponder the importance of his role at Belmont, I am reminded one of Jesus’ parables.

It’s a pretty familiar tale.  If you’ve hung around church at all, you’ve probably heard at least one sermon based on Jesus’ parable of the Talents.  And we’ve been encouraged to make the most of what gifts and abilities God has given to serve our Savior.

The parable’s application seems pretty straightforward:  Use your gifts to the full.

End of story. Close the book.  Start my day.

But during my morning Bible reading recently, it occurred to me that my familiarity with Jesus’ story had caused me to breeze through my reading, and as a result,  I had missed the context of Jesus’ teaching.

And without noting the context for Jesus’ teaching, I had failed to see the whole of what appears on first reading to be a fairly simple story.

Indeed, I must admit that like the twelve disciples, I haven’t caught all that Christ communicated through parables.  Undoubtedly, I missed the full breadth of this seemingly simple story.  I suppose I missed it because I often study chapter-by-chapter, or parable-by-parable instead of reading a Gospel book from start to finish in one sitting.

After all, reading a chapter at a time lends itself well to devotional reading.  And for most of us,  reading a chapter or a verse before we start or as we close our day provides the structure we need for our daily time alone with Abba.

And certainly, close study of God’s Word does yield depth.  However, in the case of the Parable of the Talents, I became so tied to my verse-by-verse studies that I missed the big picture.

Fortunately, the Holy Spirit teaches and guides us to truth as Abba guides our spiritual transformation.  And so, as I recently reread the Gospel of Matthew,  a key phrase that Jesus repeated again and again reshaped my understanding of this familiar parable.

It’s a rather simple phrase, and one that I might otherwise skip over in my reading.  However, God evidently wished for me to grasp something important because the phrase stood out like it never had before.

I flipped through the pages of Matthew’s gospel just to be sure I read it correctly.  But there it was.  Before beginning His parables, Jesus  frequently prefaced His stories with the phrase “The kingdom of God is like…”

In fact, He used this introduction so many times that Bible scholars regularly refer to Christ’s parables as “kingdom parables.”  It’s an interesting headliner for a collection of stories.

After all, Jesus’ clearly knew His mission: He came to be a substitute for us on the cross so that the debt for rebellion against God might be paid and all those who wished might receive grace.  Without a doubt, Jesus knew what He had come to accomplish.  He spoke directly to Nicodemus about it early in His earthly ministry.

And anyone familiar with Christ’s teaching has heard the distillation of the Gospel in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life.”

Jesus understood that He would die on a cross and that He would rise from the dead.  There can be no doubt.  The apostle Paul details the choice that our Savior made when He submitted to death by crucifixion, (Philippians 2:6-8).

There would be no kingdom during Christ’s first sojourn on earth. In light of this, it seems rather perplexing that Jesus devoted so much of His teaching to His kingdom.

However,  our heavenly Father addresses our long-term as well as our short-term concerns.  And the disciples had lots of questions about Messiah’s kingdom.  Of course, they hoped the kingdom would provide immediate relief from the Roman empire’s iron grip in Israel.

So concerned were they with their immediate problems and discomfort that they overlooked the Old Testament prophecies that predicted Messiah’s suffering.  For this reason, Jesus used parables to gently shift their perspective from short-term to God’s long-term.

The parable of the Talents does just that.  The Master prepares for a journey, and entrusts each of his servants with the care of his property.  That’s right.  These three servants were caretakers.

In addition, the Master gave specific sums of money or talents to each of his servants.  The servants had freedom to invest those talents on behalf of the Master.  Talk about creative freedom.   And most of us recall that two of three servants invested wisely and received a good return; the third servant feared any risk, and thus, simply buried his portion.

Reflecting upon this parable in light of Christ’s overall kingdom instruction, the application becomes clear.   At the time of His teaching, our Savior anticipated His death, burial, resurrection and ascension.  His journey would necessarily leave His disciples behind.

And the establishment of Messiah’s kingdom would happen in the future.  Although the disciples didn’t fully comprehend this until after the resurrection, Jesus spoke of His death and resurrection repeatedly.

He also knew they would question their own mission in light of His death and resurrection.  If they were not to immediately assist in establishing Messiah’s kingdom on earth, what would be their purpose?

The Master goes on a journey…

The caretaker receives instruction.  He is to preserve the Master’s estate.  In addition, he is given freedom to improve and build upon the Master’s vision.  An honored and trusted servant, he is given great authority and privilege to act on the Master’s behalf.

And he finds great joy in his tasks.  Who would not enjoy the beauty of the estate?  Who would not find inspiration in the Master’s creations?

Like the servants in our Savior’s parable, Jesus’ followers have been given tremendous privilege and responsibility in the Master’s absence.

We are Kingdom Caretakers, so to speak.

Called to be the ‘salt of the earth,’ you and I preserve Abba’s estate.  Through His Spirit, we are to sow kingdom principles, to cultivate God’s gift of grace here on earth.

Indeed, our responsibilities are not unlike those given to Adam and Eve in the garden.  As God’s caretakers, we should seek to preserve our world.  But preservation extends beyond our world’s physical state.

Our calling also includes tending to the spiritual well-being of those around us.  Through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, we deliver God’s love and grace to those around us.

We continue Christ’s creative work in both the physical and spiritual world.  But there’s so much more. He actually has given us “talents” to invest.

You see, we are not only life preserving, ‘salt of the earth,’ but we are also the life announcing, ‘light of the world.’

And light actively shines forth.  It does not hide.

Thus, God gives grace through our Savior, Jesus Christ.  And we, in turn,  are called to shine His light, the treasure that He has entrusted to us.  We have the opportunity to invest or sow His grace, love and goodness in others’ lives.

Grace grants us both opportunity and choice. Two of the parable’s servants emulated their Master.  The third hid his light under a bushel.

All three servants had varying degrees of influence.   Reward did not depend on the amount of “talent,” but on the degree of faithfulness.  The master rewarded servants that both preserved and built the estate.

Kingdom Parables…

Indeed.

Messiah’s earthly kingdom will yet come.  However, Christ’s mission of mercy required caretakers-cottage-falmouth-2017-lynn-abbott-studios-with-watermarkHis suffering, death and resurrection.  Because of His great love for us, God put Christ’s earthly Kingdom on hold.  Our redemption took first priority.

In light of this, the parables actually answer His disciples’ desperate post-resurrection question.

Yes, the Master has gone to prepare a place for us, (John 14:6).  We look for His return and the establishment of the promised Kingdom…

But ‘What now?’

I smile as I drive past the caretaker’s cottage at Belmont.  It regularly reminds me that we possess a privileged position in Abba’s kingdom.  Yup, we’re caretakers of His estate…

And thus, as we wait for the Master’s return, we sow grace.

We work on behalf of our Savior.

We carry the Good News of Abba’s love and provision of salvation by grace through Jesus, (Ephesians 2:8-9).

We shine our Creator’s light, and continue His work, (Matthew 5:16).

Oh, what responsibility! Yet, in these extraordinary tasks, those who call His kingdom “home” will find great joy.

And when Christ returns, He will applaud our work and lovingly say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.  Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21).

“You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand and it gives  light to every one in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven,” ~Matthew 5:14-16