Fr. McClain is Associate Rector for Christian Formation at St. David’s Episcopal Church, Baltimore, Maryland.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry
You may hear, in this poem by the poet and scholar Wendell Berry, the resonance of Christ’s words in the sermon on the Mount, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[a] or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
Jesus well understood the fear and despair that seem endemic to human life. We have created a collective life for ourselves, a culture that rewards those who worry, those for whom the anxiety of survival and success leads them to live guarded lives, what Berry calls taxing lives of forethought.
Such lives, as Jesus teaches, contribute nothing to our existence. Does our worry add a single hour to our lifespans?
And yet, despair and worry seem like very natural responses to danger. We often worry because we perceive that what’s near and dear to us is threatened. Ironically, however, worry threatens to undermine that which it protects.
I know as a father of four that worry comes to us so naturally. I know also that that it can branch out in aggressive ways. Worry becomes anxiety and despair, which themselves lead to a restlessness that searches for a solution, anything to relieve that anxiety. Solutions lead to planning, implementing a solution at any cost. Worry-based thinking tries to con us into making decisions and taking action often at the expense of our principles and convictions. even when our decision is to do nothing.
So too with the servant in today’s parable. In despairing about what to do with the master’s money, the servant’s worry paralyzed him to inaction.
He thought that burying his talent would keep him from harm, would bring him peace, although he seems aware that that peace was tenuous at best.
Worry and despair also led him to the worst kind of assumptions about his master. “I know that you are a harsh man, reaping where you haven’t sown.” He outright calls his master a predatory business man. The master’s response can be read one of two ways: the first would be to read the masters as saying: ok, you’re right, I am that way; so why didn’t you help to extend my predatory business concerns? Here, the master admits to being just how the anxious servant describes him. But if that description is correct, why didn’t the servant act accordingly.
A second reading would hear the master responding sarcastically to the servant’s description of him. IF you’re right about me, then shouldn’t you have acted in a way that’s consistent with how you think about me? In both cases, the servant doesn’t act wisely in accord with how he perceived the master. But what this second reading also implies is that the servant’s anxiety obscured his understanding of the master, and caused him to act foolishly.
Wendell Berry says that antidote to fear is to “dig in and make as much sense of it” as one can. The servant who buried his talent accepted a cheap solution—do nothing—in order to relieve his anxiety. He adopted a cheap caricature of his master, and he made a business decision that at the very least made little sense, all in the name of finding temporary peace.
But the peace he secured for himself was an illusion; it had little to do with the reality of his situation. Anxiety obscured his vision and excused his inaction. In this sense, Jesus tells us that aggressive worry leads us in ways that are contrary to wisdom. Wisdom would have dictated that the servant trust his master, who by the way entrusted him with wealth.
Wisdom would have also dictated that the servant do something constructive with what the master entrusted. Wisdom would have helped the servant see that peace comes from burying neither his head nor his talent in the sand. Rather, peace comes from acting on trust, acting from a truthfully understanding of the master, acting out of hope, to see that the master had hope for him. Peace comes from receiving hope as a bond of affection between the master and servant.
That said, I do not see in this story any promise that wisdom rids us of anxiety. Even had the servant trusted his master, the idea of taking a risk with his master’s wealth would have provoked anxiety.
But had the servant first accepted peace as the bond with his master, he might have seen that risk as an opportunity to live in the midst of that trust, to make mistakes and learn at the feet of the master. He might have seen such a moment as an opportunity for a distinct kind of growth, namely growth in hope and wisdom.
Paul tells us that for those with hope, there is light. Those with hope are not in the dark. They may worry, but they also faith and love and hope. And they also have a special responsibility to encourage others, to hep reinforce wisdom and hope. “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”
The hope and wisdom that Christ gives us enables us to do something for the world that is so radically counterintuitive and countercultural that we probably don’t initially see the value in it. We are able to help others face their worry, not in order to get rid of it altogether, but to redeem it, to reshape it into an opportunity to grow in faith, hope and love. Most importantly, we have an opportunity to help others see and receive love.
The problem with the servant in our parable today, if I may be so bold to diagnose him, is that he let his worry separate himself from his master.
Might this parable have something to offer us? Might we use this parable to reflect on your own experience of worry? How often have I let my worry about the future separate me from the love that Jesus offers? How often have we cut ourselves off from the love that we could offer each other in the church. How often have we let despair stem the flow of love from the Church to the world, to obscure the light of hope that should be coming from the Church?
Wisdom and hope pull us together through bonds of love. Peace offers us an alternative foundation for our relationships. Peace commends risk because we trust even when we might also worry.
Jesus call us to receive encouragement, to let him redeem your anxiety. Will you trust the master even as the master trusts you with his talents? Will you encourage others in their worry? When others look at you, do they see a form of life that persuades them to trust the master?