In the late 18th century, there was no American portrait artist more famous, more celebrated, more sought-after than Gilbert Stuart. He was born in Rhode Island and was something of a prodigy, producing a formal portrait at the age of 12. In 1796, at the height of his career, Stuart was commissioned to do what would become his most famous work: a portrait of George Washington.
Well, at the time, people were eager to have pictures of Washington to hang in their homes or businesses. The demand was great. So Stuart decided to capitalize on that, and interrupted his work to make copies of what he had completed, selling them for the then-astronomical sum of $100 a piece. That image of George Washington became so popular and so widespread, it was eventually adapted and used on the one dollar bill.
But if you ever see the original painting, now hanging in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, you notice something striking: most of the canvas is empty. Only one corner, featuring Washington’s face, is done. Gilbert Stuart never went back to finish it. To this day, it is considered one of the world’s greatest unfinished masterpieces.
Next time you open your wallet, consider this: you have an unfinished masterpiece in there.
But the irony is that this image that appears on millions of pieces of money exists, in part, because the man who created it was deep in debt. Gilbert Stuart ended up making all those copies of the painting because he desperately needed to pay off his debts. At one time, he was even in danger of being sent to debtor’s prison, and fled to Ireland. When he died, his family couldn’t even afford a proper burial. He was placed in an unmarked grave.
But he left behind hundreds of portraits – including that image on the one dollar bill, that unfinished masterpiece.
And an unfinished masterpiece – great work left undone — is what Jesus was talking about in this Sunday’s gospel.
As he continued his long walk to Jerusalem, his final journey to his death, Jesus stopped and told the crowds traveling with him: if you really want to follow me, know what you are getting into. There will be crosses. There will be suffering and heartache, sacrifice and pain. Be prepared to turn your back on all the things you love – even your family, and the life you are leading now – to be my disciple.
Open your eyes, he said. Act as if you are building a tower and “Calculate the cost.” Measure what will be required.
Otherwise, you may lose heart and walk away from it. The work you are undertaking – what we are undertaking – may end up incomplete.
Like an unfinished masterpiece.
Jesus, as he did so often, once again revealed his profound understanding of human nature.
How many projects do we begin, and abandon? How many of us have basements that are half-finished, novels half-written or half-read, projects we never completed? It’s human to jump into something – whether it’s a hobby, or a job or maybe even a relationship and a marriage – without truly realizing what’s involved.
But Jesus told his disciples – and us: you’ve been warned. It won’t be easy. Be prepared for that. And be prepared to give up everything, even your life, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
If anyone had any doubts of what he was talking about, they would find out soon enough, when he arrived in Jerusalem and the final week of his life unfolded.
This gospel is a hard lesson for a holiday weekend, isn’t it? When we’re looking forward to lighting the barbecue or heading to the beach, the last thing we want to hear is how tough the Christian life can be, and how we need to hate the things we love in order to truly embrace the gospel message.
But this hard gospel also offers us a beautiful opportunity. A chance to take stock. To “calculate the cost,” as Jesus put it. And to make choices.
And that is what I would like to leave you with this Sunday.
Ultimately, our lives are like that Gilbert Stuart painting – works in progress, waiting to be completed. Much of the canvas is empty.
Christ’s challenge to us is this: don’t let your great work go unfinished. I’m telling you what is needed, he says. Knowing that, don’t stop now. Go all the way.
Cover that canvas with bold and courageous colors. Fill it with faithfulness. Prayer. Obedience. Live a life of sacrifice, and humility, and love.
It isn’t easy. “Renounce your possessions,” Jesus said. Renounce, in other words, not only the things we possess, but also the things that possess us. Things like material comfort, or personal ambition, selfishness and pride.
It requires surrendering to something greater – surrendering not to our will, but to God’s.
But – Jesus assures us – it is worth it.
Because in the end, we may then be able to give God something beautiful: a work that, with every brush stroke, every choice, says: “I followed Christ.”
And that, my friends, can be the great work of our lives.
The challenge to all of us is to bring it to completion.
Each of us, in a way, is an unfinished masterpiece.
By God’s grace, may we all finish the great work that He wants us to do.