Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners


The Gift of Failing

Garrison Keillor read this poem by Wendell Berry on yesterday’s “The Writer’s Almanac”:

IX.

I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.

There is something profoundly reassuring in the truth that when we fail, the trees still come back.  With the healing passage of time God’s vegetation gradually fills in all of those places in our lives where we have sown where we cannot reap.  A law of nature, maybe- or of grace?

(As an aside, if only this law also applied to the piles of laundry sitting on my couch for the last two days waiting to be folded! If a forest can grow without my help, why can’t laundry find its way into drawers, too?)

I am re-reading Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30)- this time in a new light, thanks to Berry.  Do you remember the story?  A master entrusts each of his servants with a certain number of “talents” (a money denomination in the ancient world).  The first leaves with five and comes back with five more.  The second leaves with two and comes back with two more.  The last servant hides his one talent in the ground.  When the master comes back, he has nothing but praise to shower upon the first two servants, but the third servant meets a sorry fate:  “take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents,” his master demands.  “And throw that worthless servant outside into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vv.28-30).

I used to assume that the first two servants were just shrewd portfolio managers: that they by sheer effort, wise decision-making and innate giftedness earn the master’s admiration.  But the text actually makes no suggestion of the sort.  There is no indication that the doubling of the two servants’ talents has anything to do with how they go about choosing to invest.  All we really know from the text is that they do invest- how, with whom, or where remains unknown. For all we know, they could have been cultivating “a few poor crops” on a field that ended up overrun by trees.

And then we come to the third servant.  His failure is not that he invested his money and came back empty-handed, or that he planted a crop only to have it fail.  His failure is that he never tried in the first place.

The question, then, is why?  Why did he not try?  Why did he not stake out his own little plot of land and begin planting, or at the very least put his one talent in the bank to accrue interest?

One compelling explanation is that he misread the character of the Master (v. 24), so that it was the servant’s own distorted picture of God as a hard-driving, unfair manager that made him afraid to try and ultimately cost him everything.  When he comes to the Master, the servant says,  “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground.  See, here is what belongs to you (vv.24,25).”

But there is another way to answer this question.  Maybe the servant had discovered a bit of who God really was and decided that he did not want to have any part in Him.  Maybe he had decided it would be too “hard” to take what this God was giving at face value.  Maybe his words to the Master were not a misreading at all but, rather, the truth that when unveiled unlocks the whole point of this parable.

Because there is something “hard” about the grace of God: it really is not about how well we do based on any of our own merit.  We could even go out tomorrow and plant “a few poor crops” that fail.  God’s trees will still come back.  God really does harvest where God has not sown.  All we need to do is give our best college try with what we have been given.



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