on emptiness: Matthew 25

read Matthew 25.  Everyone wrestles with the problem of feeling empty.  Our wells run dry.  ”The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Emerson said. We all experience feelings of frustration, meaninglessness and futility not just in our lives, but throughout our day.  So what’s the solution?

The easiest solution, and one every single human uses to varying degrees, is to numb oneself.  That’s why most tv shows are … mind-numbing.  And if you’re a man, you need to control the remote so you don’t run the risk of having a single nanosecond without the numbness. A friend of mine studying to be a psychotherapist told me she was stunned when she first started learning about the amount of prescription medication people keep in their medicine cabinets. There are 14 million alcoholics in the United States, and many believe that number is low. Anything can be used to numb oneself, even good things.  You can throw yourself into other people’s problems to avoid your own.  You can overwork. You can underwork.  You can shop.  You can buy a kindle so you can read romances without anyone seeing the bodice ripper cover.  You can move from the licit to the illicit. You can have a massage with an unhappy ending.  The options are as infinite as the human imagination, and yet each is ultimately as empty as the next.  Because what happens with the numbing runs dry?

The problem with numbing is that it doesn’t take away the bad feelings.  It just buries them.  But the groundnote of despair, restlessness and futility remains.  And the feelings have an annoying habit of popping up when least expected, and least wanted. The feelings lurk within and then sabotage us right when we need to be our strongest.

In addition, numbing destroys our relationships.  The people we love can sense when we’ve checked out.  They know when they’ve lost us.  They know we’re not there for them. And we know it, too.  And if our numbing has moved into the area of sin, we’ve added guilt and the consequences of sin to the problem.  So isn’t there a better way?

A therapist might tell you to go into the pain.  They might suggest you walk around in the anxiety.  ”Make friends with your fears.”  Really?  Why?  That sounds awful.  I want to make friends with nice people.  Pain, despair, restlessness, anxiety, meaninglessness are hardly the kinds of friends I want to hang out with.  I get the concept of facing your fears – instead of, for instance, texting them away.  But me accepting my limitations all by my lonesome is still only a partial solution.

You knew where I was going.  Straight to Jesus, of course.  But why go there in Chapter 25, when Christ is talking about Judgment Day?  Why would Christ’s words on the end of the world have any bearing on our feelings of emptiness?  Honestly, wouldn’t reading about how God is going to separate the sheep from the goats just make us feel worse?  Wouldn’t his admonition that insofar as we didn’t feed or clothe or house or care for people, we didn’t feed, clothe, house or care for Christ, just sink us with feelings of inadequacy?  Heck, I didn’t visit anyone in prison yesterday.  I’ve never visited anyone in prison.  How could there be any hope in this chapter?  How could we find filling here?

There are three stories in Matthew 25, and each one has to do with giving away and being filled.  Christ begins this chapter with the parable of ten bridesmaids.  The five foolish bridesmaids don’t have enough oil and so miss the boat. Interestingly, the five who have oil are rewarded for not sharing.  There’s something different going on here, something that distinguishes this parable from ones like the parable of the Good Samaritan, or from Christ’s feeding of the 5,000.  There is something about the oil that we are supposed to keep in our lamps that is inherently unsharable.  Or perhaps, there is something about our emptiness that is inherently unsharable.

Most people think the oil represents the Holy Spirit.  They say this parable shows that you have to have your own relationship with God.  You can’t rely on anyone else.  It’s between you and Him.  God is calling to you, right now, to fall in love with Him.  The door is open.  I think that’s a fair interpretation.  It’s certainly true.  You do need to have your own relationship with God, and you do need daily doses of the Holy Spirit.  ”Give us this day our daily bread,” refers not just to literal bread, but also to the Bread of Life.  Give us this day our daily portion, our daily dose of Jesus.  Yes, please, is all I have to say to that.  But I’m not sure that’s all that’s going on here.

The parable ends on a chilling note.  It seems to teach that you better not to miss the boat, because one day the door will shut, as it did on the five foolish bridesmaids:  ”while they were gone to buy oil, the bridegroom came.  Then those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was locked.  Later, when the other five bridesmaids returned, they stood outside, calling, ‘Lord!  Lord!  Open the door for us!’  But he called back, ‘Believe me, I don’t know you.’”

Those are chilling words.  Is that the kind of God we serve?  Do we love a God who will lock the door on us one day?  Do we have a God who will say: “I don’t know you?”  Wait a minute.  God will say He doesn’t KNOW me?  I thought God made me?  How could he not know me?  I thought he knew me better than anyone in the whole wide world?  What does this parable mean?  What exactly was it that the five foolish bridesmaids did that disqualified them from the feast?

Christ follows the parable of the ten bridesmaids with the parable of the talents. The master gives talents of silver to three servants according to their abilities, and praises the two who invest, and condemns the one who buries his talent.  What does the silver represent?  It could be, among other things, love, gifts or resources.  We sense, however, that there is something larger at stake here than just the gift of singing, sprinting, or tap dancing.

Whatever the silver represents, it’s meant to be invested.  If God gives you love, give it away.  The rest of the Bible teaches that He’ll give you more.  If God has given you gifts, use them.  ”When I run, I feel his pleasure,” the Scottish man in Chariots of Fire said.  We all feel God’s pleasure when we use our gifts.  We know that God enjoys them along with us.  Christ came so that we could enjoy our lives.  It’s the enemy who came to steal, kill and destroy.  So find ways, today, to use your gifts; right here is, of course, a positive alternative to the numbing.

If God gave you resources, the parable of the talent teaches you to invest them and earn two times as much.  The parable teaches you to at least put your money in the bank (perhaps not a Greek bank right now), so you can earn interest.  It really does teach that.  I’m a lawyer.  I’m just reading the parable literally here.  But that’s what it says.  Is that really what it means?  I don’t know.  All I know is that whatever God gives you, he wants you to “use it well.”  v. 29. To understand what it means to use it “well,” you’ll have to read the rest of the Bible and prayerfully ask Him.  He’ll tell you.  God is a giver. He loves to give good gifts to us, just as we love to give gifts to our children.  He’ll tell you how to use your gifts, in ways that open the world up to you, instead of close it off.

I think the most liberating aspect of the parable of the talents is that Christ says not to be afraid.  Don’t bury your talents out of fear.  Go out and use them.  Because you have to believe that God will give you more.  Who gave the servants the talents in the first place?  And here, in this implicit suggestion of God’s character of giving, we begin to see the solution to emptiness.

Because the last part of this chapter will stop you short.  We are told to feed the hungry and take care of the sick and visit the prisoners.  Christ says he takes it personally when we do this for others, and he takes it personally when we don’t: “when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me…. when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.”  v. 40 and 45.  This admonition is so extreme, that there isn’t a human alive, not even Mother Theresa, who could fail to be convicted by it.

Instead of crushing us, however, these verses about how we’re supposed to behave should lift us up.  That’s because in the same breath that the verses teach us about our inadequacy, they also remind us of God’s character.  We hold back, but God gives. When we are hungry, God feeds us with the bread of life.  When we are thirsty, Jesus gives us streams of living water.  When we are a stranger to God, he invites us in.  When we are naked in our sins, He clothes us with His righteousness.  When we are sin sick, He heals us.  While we were trapped by sin, He came to set the captives free.  These truths are all over the Bible.  They are all around us – shimmering in the air.  God gives.  He gives, and He wants us to take, and He will keep giving, and the more we give away, the more He will give.

And here we come back to the parable of the foolish bridesmaids.  What strikes me is that they were foolish because when they discovered they were running out of oil, they went elsewhere.  They left.  They didn’t wait for the bridegroom and say, “we’re so sorry.  We’re foolish.  We ran out of oil.  But we didn’t want to leave, because we didn’t want to miss you.  And we know you.  We know you give.  We trust you.  Can you fill us back up?  Can you forgive us for letting our wells run dry?  Can you forgive us for all those times we failed to feed and clothe other people?  Can you pardon us for burying our talents?  Can you have mercy on us, even though we were too afraid to use our gifts?”

Because Jesus Christ, the true bridegroom, will say, with a smile, “of course I will.  Who did you think was bankrolling you all along?”

The solution to emptiness is to be honest with God about it, trusting Him to fill us.  And so, paradoxically, feeling empty is the best place of all to be, because when we take our emptiness to the foot of the cross, we’ll discover the One who already knows we’re empty. Christ has taken our emptiness on the cross, so that He can fill us.  God gives.  So the emptier you are, the better off you are. Those feelings of frustration, meaninglessness and despair feel like the worst thing, but they’re really the best.  Because if you can be honest about them, and confess to God that your lamp has run dry, He will meet you with love, and say: “no worries.  I already knew that.  I’ve filled it already.  It happened in the moment that you came to me with your hands outstretched.”  The only thing that disqualifies you is going elsewhere.

So reach out your empty hands to the One who made you, and you’ll find He fills you with good things.  He fills you with Himself.  The only way to miss the boat is to try to fill your emptiness with something else.  The only way God can say He doesn’t know you, is when you are too afraid to try knowing Him.  Ask him to meet your restlessness and feelings of futility and emptiness.  Try it.  What do you have to lose, but your nothingness?

Therapists are only partially right.  Don’t be afraid of your emptiness.  Walk into it.  But you won’t be walking alone. You don’t have to be “religious” to be with God.  In fact, thinking you’re all that will actually work against you.  All you need is your need.

The only qualification for heaven is your emptiness.  It’s a gift.  Use it well.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on November 15, 2011

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