In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story. Your boss, he says, is heading up to Breckenridge for an extended vacation. She plans to be gone for a long time, giving you no idea of when she’ll return. She’s very wealthy, by the way. Business has been very good, profits are up—thanks, in part, to you and your hard work.
Before she leaves town, she pools together all of her liquid assets, and she calls you and the rest of her trusted managers into the conference room for a staff meeting. In the conference room, on each of your chairs, is a briefcase full of cash—enough cash in your briefcase equal to about twenty years of your current salary. Now, because each of you earns a different wage, your briefcases contain different amounts of cash, but the multiple remains the same: about 20 times your annual earnings. You can do the math. Think about your annual income and multiply that by 20. What is it for you? $1 million? $2.5 million? $20 Million? In this story, we’re talking about big money.
The boss gives the briefcase to you with no specific instructions, but she reminds you that she’ll be back someday. In the meantime, you are to run the operations, keeping the business profitable, using the resources she’s now entrusting to you to grow the company. She’s not giving you this cash; she’s simply asking you to manage it wisely while she’s gone.
“I’m giving to each of you more than enough to keep the company running and to make it profitable while I’m gone,” she says. “You know our business strategy; you know the vision and values of the company; you know the market share and what strategies have worked in the past. But it will be up to you to decide what to do with the money. You’ve seen how I’ve run this company over the years,” she says, “so just do what you’ve watched me do. Just do your best, until I return.”
Then, just like that, the boss walks out the door—and there you are, under those bright lights, with this briefcase sitting in your lap. Can you feel the weight of that briefcase? Can you feel the gravity of your boss’ expectations? Can you feel the blessing and the burden that comes from knowing that she actually believes in you— actually believes in your abilities, your commitment to the mission, your trustworthiness.
When the boss returns someday, what will she find in that briefcase? Will there be more, or will there be less?
When Jesus tells this story in Matthew 25, he’s preparing to say goodbye to his disciples. Jesus is about to leave them. His arrest and crucifixion are imminent, and his disciples will be left to take over the business until he returns.
What is that business?
In the three years Jesus has been with them, he’s been teaching them about what he calls the “Kingdom of God.” At the very heart of his teaching and ministry is this concept of the “Kingdom of God.” It’s so central to his teaching, in fact, that he refers to it more than 80 times in the gospels.
For many of us, perhaps, when we hear the word “kingdom” we might think of royal thrones, political might, statecraft, spies, armies and weaponry. In this world, kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, and how long they endure depends largely on how effective the king is at defending his throne and defeating enemies both within and outside the kingdom. In the kingdoms of this world, political might is the currency that fuels the survival and progress of the kingdom—making politics a zero-sum, winner-take-all, game. In the kingdoms of this world, you’re either a friend or an enemy of the king, which divides a lot of kingdoms and makes a lot of kings paranoid.
But when Jesus speaks of the “Kingdom of God,” he’s referring to an entirely different kind of kingdom, run by an entirely different set of ideals. The Kingdom of God is not an actual place so much as it is a community in which the guiding ideal and animating spirit is not political might but divine compassion. Compassion is the only currency in the Kingdom of God, and that currency is exchanged whenever people take care of each other, genuinely trust and respect one another, willingly share with and serve one another, freely forgive one another, and even daringly love their enemies. In the Kingdom of God, this divine compassion is the currency that heals every social division, rules every relationship, and makes every living thing an essential part of the fabric of the community. In the kingdom of God, there are no friends and enemies, there is no “them.” There’s only “us.”
Jesus made this Kingdom of God his sole business, because he believed it was Israel’s only hope. He believed that if the people of Israel lived according to these Kingdom ideals, they could be saved from the yoke of Rome. Under Roman occupation, Israel was fracturing in a million different pieces—and inching closer and closer to self-destruction through violent opposition to Roman oppression. If it came to blows, Israel had no chance against Rome. There had to be a better way than violence. So, Jesus offered a way of life that would nonviolently end the oppressiveness of Roman rule by living according to the ideals of God’s Kingdom.
Living this Kingdom life was Israel’s only hope. Practicing this compassion was Israel’s only chance. And Jesus was so convinced of this, and so committed to living this way of life, that he put his own life on the line to fulfill it.
So, sensing that his life was coming to an end, he tells a story about the day the boss has to hand over to his servants the currency that fuel the business of the Kingdom of God: compassion. What is in that briefcase that rests on your lap is God’s stockpile of divine compassion. Jesus gives it to us, saying, “I have poured this compassion into you, and now I expect you to pour it into the world. Do not sit on it. Do not bury it. Do not guard it for yourself. Invest it, take risks with it, grow it—because the world depends on it. It’s your only hope.
Here we are, on the day of one of the most contentious elections of our lifetimes, and I am asking you today to feel the weight of that briefcase on your lap. The same compassion that God has poured into your life is the compassion God expects you to multiply in the world. If there was ever a time to multiply it, it is now, in this moment of deep division, when it feels like our country is fracturing in a million different places. The only currency that can heal that division is the divine compassion that comes from living the Kingdom life. It is our only hope.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the Mitchells, lifelong Democrats, who planted a Biden sign in the front yard of their home in suburban Pittsburgh. Next door to the Mitchells, the Gateses—lifelong Republicans—planted a Trump sign in their yard.
These two families, close friends for 14 years, divided by political ideology. You’d think it was another one of those stories about how today’s politics have ripped apart our relationships.
But the story was about how another sign that stands in each yard has kept them together. Both the Mitchells and the Gateses have handmade signs in their yards that read: “We (Heart) Them” with an arrow pointing to the other house.
“There’s so much hate,” says Chris Mitchell, who came up with the idea. “We want to send a message” that people on opposite ends of the political spectrum can actually like each other and be civil.
Two families, divided by political ideology, but fiercely committed to living the Kingdom life grounded and rooted in the currency of compassion.
Chances are you’re feeling disillusioned and disheartened by the widespread divisions that our political climate has created in your social fabric. Mental health professionals actually have a name for this: it’s called Post-Election Stress Disorder (PESD). Anxiety, anger, fear, and conflict fatigue are common symptoms of PESD. If any of these describe what you’re feeling right now, two days before the election, I want you to know you’re not alone. But you can chose another way. You can commit yourself to living the Kingdom life.
If it helps, I want to share with you four keys to living the Kingdom life in the final days leading up to, and beyond, the 2020 election.
First, resist assigning ultimate meaning and value to any political candidate or any political issue.
Sometimes we confuse and conflate the Kingdom of God with the political pursuit of the common good. Sometimes we overinvest ultimate significance in what are actually penultimate, immanent concerns.
We may disagree with someone over immigration or Obamacare, but if we can remember that such disagreements are, in the end, merely political disagreement, not metaphysical ones, then we leave a little room for God to work. Whenever we assign ultimate value and meaning to any political solution or agenda or candidate, we creep ever closer to religious extremism that weaponizes faith—and where does that end? Just five years ago, a man in Colorado Springs, in the name of God, opened fire on a Planned Parenthood facility, killing three and injuring nine people.
Whenever we assign ultimate value and meaning to our politics, we creep ever closer to a “functional atheism” that assumes that ultimate responsibility for everything rests entirely with this policy or that candidate. We edge God out.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues about which we should take a stand. Our baptismal vows as Methodists obligate us to “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” Dismantling systemic racism, stemming climate change—these are matters about which God is profoundly concerned, and which call us to faithful action. But even still, such action has its finite limitations. At some point, the Kingdom life must trust in God’s infinite capacity to fix whatever mess we humans have created in this world.
Remember that much hinges on this election—but not everything. In the post-election aftermath, keep things in perspective. Remember the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who says, “Ah Lord God! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.” (32:17)
Trust the wisdom of the farmer’s proverb, which says, “God doesn’t settle all accounts in October.”
Multiply what’s in that briefcase and leave the outcomes to God.
Second, refuse to stereotype, scapegoat, demonize or otherize.
As with any election, there will be a winning candidate and a losing candidate, one of whom may have campaigned on values more closely aligned with your moral and religious framework. If your candidate loses in this election, you may feel what psychologists call “moral injury:” the sense that your deeply held beliefs and values have been betrayed or violated, or even that the will of God has been subverted. Millions of years of human tribalistic thinking have taught us to project or transmit whatever disillusionment we are feeling onto others—as though the other represents everything that’s wrong with the world and must now be excluded from our “tribe.”
Leave some room in your tribe for the other. Avoid binary thinking that categorizes people in terms of good/evil, light/dark, friends/enemies based on political preference.
Remember that the twelve disciples of Jesus couldn’t have been more different from one another: among them was Simon the zealot and Matthew the tax collector. One was labeled by the state as a terrorist, the other consider by Jews to be a outright traitor. In the Kingdom of God, Jesus made them kin.
In the words of the late theologian, Walter Wink: “When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying them with absolute evil, we deny that they have that of God within them which still makes transformation possible… We conclude that our enemy has drifted beyond the redemptive hand of God.”
Third, understand that not all conflict is bad, and not every compromise is wrong.
There is so much chronic conflict in our society that we don’t know how to live with it in healthy ways. The fight or flight instinct kicks in, and we either run from conflict or we hurt each other. The Kingdom life offers a third way: compassion. A compassion that is courageous enough to speak up and advocate for what is right; a compassion that is humble enough to compromise.
Where there is no conflict, it’s a sign that our compassion is not radical enough. Where there is no compassion in our conflict, it’s a sign that our politics and our religion has grown toxic.
Remember that the gospel is not politically neutral. It has something to say about our obligation to the poor, the immigrant, the oppressed, the sick, and the prisoner. Because of this, whenever Christians do politics, conflict is inevitable—but it doesn’t have to be insoluble.
The results of this election cycle will not heal the political polarization in our country. But if you want to live the Kingdom life, and multiply that divine compassion in the world, ask yourself: “Am I tough enough to be kind?”
I hosted a national call with faith leaders this week to talk about leading through polarizing times. One of my friends, Rev. Gary Mason, joined the call from Belfast, Ireland. Gary is Director of “Rethinking Conflict,” and has helped broker peace treaties in Ireland, the Middle East, South Africa and Palestine. He said something on the call that reminded me just how radical our compassion needs to be. He said that Christians need to stop hanging out with people who are only like them. Do you want to live like Jesus? Do you want true peace? Then you’ll have to eventually sit at a table with a member of the Proud Boys, or a white supremacist, get to know them, and listen to their story.
Not all conflict is bad, and not every compromise is wrong.
Finally, practice the politics of compassion.
Politics is far more than about how we vote or who we vote for. It’s more than policies, platforms, or party affiliation. The word “politics,” from the Greek, “polis,” means “affairs of the cities.” To do politics is to be concerned about the affairs of the communities in which we live, and to do politics as Christians is to ask, “What does Jesus say about how I should live in my community. What’s my responsibility to the people with whom I share the sidewalk?”
To live the Kingdom life, to multiply that divine compassion in the world, requires us to transcend “issue politics,” to roll up our sleeves, and work for the kind of community we want to live in. We can’t do that by simply voting. According to our parable, the boss will return someday, and will ask us: what did you do with the treasure I left you? Did you sit on it? Did you bury it? Or did you invest it, risk it, let it ride? Did you multiply my compassion?
Remember this week that if you want to live the Kingdom life and multiply that compassion, you’ll have to step away from the cable news talking heads and the social media echo chamber, roil up your sleeves, and serve the real needs of your community: share your bread, feed the hungry, check in with the lonely, care for the sick, practice compassion.
In other words, change what’s changeable, control what’s controllable.
This is the Kingdom life. And it’s the only way to multiply that compassion in the world.
The late writer, George Bernard Shaw, wrote about this kind of life. It’s a noteworthy ending on this All Saints Sunday, two days before a national election. He said,
“This is the true joy in life:
being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one;
being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.
Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
Four take-aways for today:
Resist assigning ultimate meaning and value to any political candidate or any political issue by trusting in God’s infinite capacity to fix whatever mess we humans have created.
Refuse to stereotype, scapegoat, demonize or otherize.
Not all conflict is bad, and not every compromise is wrong.
Practice the politics of compassion.