Sunday, February 24, 2008

small things

It happens time and again, naturally and often quite correctly: dreams start out small. Which is to say, their fulfillment does. The folks who won Academy Awards tonight got them for deeds small (e.g., the musical duo that won the “Best Song” award) and great (e.g., Robert Boyle’s “Lifetime Achievement” award), all done well. Doing a job well is what earns you respect and professional trust. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I draw nearer my graduation. I have a few phrases from the Bible posted in my office; the main one is simply a printout of Psalm 103 (which I read a meditation about some years ago at a time that made it particularly touching):
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children's children,
to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
These are reminders I need daily.

But lately there’s been a quote from a parable of Jesus that I’ve thought about adding to the wall (almost certainly the thinking is more important than the putting up the words):
One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?
To be honest, I had remembered this in my head as a paraphrase: “If you cannot be trusted with small things, how can you be trusted with great things?” This question is simple and direct, and very useful for a struggling grad student. Jesus’ question is more complex, particularly given the context. This, too, I had slightly misremembered, thinking it came from the story of the talents, which instead has the exchange:
And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
And later:
‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.’
Already this is a bit puzzling, but it is at least clear that we will be accountable for what we have done—how we have “invested”—the gifts and resources God has given us.

The actual story from which the quote I had in mind is taken is even more confusing:
There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
Here is a man who has been lazy and careless, yet when he finds himself at risk, through “shrewdness” (which seems like even more mismanagement and cheating) he gains his employer’s approval (although it’s not clear whether he gets to keep his job). This story seems to pick up thematically where the other left off (despite appearing earlier in Luke’s gospel than the parable of the talents). What it seems to be telling is that we should prove ourselves trustworthy of the worldly goods we are charged with, and that we should learn to be cunning (while remaining honest).

My work is time given to me, entrusted to me by God, but more directly by my university. If that’s not encouragement to use it well, I don’t know what is. What it leads to is how you can be trusted with greater things—higher posts, more prestige, better tasks—once you’ve shown how you handle the lesser ones.

There are other aspects to the phrase ”small things,” as well, such as in understanding. One grasps the greater things only upon a firm foundation of more elementary matters. Sometimes the genius of a master’s work is in making what seemed far off and distant more immediately accessible. But my devotion for today and for always in my work is to try to live up to the potential of what God have given me. Goodness knows I find it hard, and I feel inadequate plenty. But let me at least turn back some interest to my earthly and heavenly investors.

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