The Middle May Always Be the Middle…
We adopted our sons from Guatemala. First, Philip; when Philip was two, his baby brother, Nate; and six months after that, Dan, a ten-year-old I met at the orphanage. And so it was that Philip, once an only and for a brief time the oldest, became our middle child.
We didn’t know how much it mattered to him until one September Sunday shortly after he turned five. The priest proclaimed, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” to which little Philip responded loudly enough for all to hear, “But the middle is always the middle!” And then he sighed.
Pride of place is important to us—being first, being the best, having the most, being right, getting our due. Winning is a big deal too—whether the scholarship or the promotion, the race or the game or the war.
Then we come to church and hear these strange lessons about the first being last, loving enemies, forgiving persecutors, and Jesus’ peculiar preference for the poor, the sick, the refugee, and the embarrassingly sinful.
How do we reconcile what we hear for one hour each week with the pervasive messages that inundate us the other 167 hours of the week? That’s always been a difficult question to answer. I’ll bet Saint Paul’s exhortation “In humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3) fell on skeptical first-century ears. How are we supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves and compete for first place?
Jesus also told the Parable of the Talents. (See Mt 25:14–30.) The servant entrusted with five talents makes a wise investment and earns five more. The servant given only one talent is afraid of losing it and buries it in the ground. The former is rewarded, the latter severely chastised. What happened to the first being last and the last being first?
Notice this: the talents were not the property of the servants. Rather, the servants were only the stewards of their master’s property. Just so, our talents and gifts—beauty, athletic ability, intelligence—these are our Master’s property. We are only stewards.
Some of us were given gifts that are humble by the world’s standards. Some of us were given gifts that are world-class. But as Dumbledore says in J. K. Rowling’s 2003 novel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
What should we disciples choose to do with our gifts? Not boast about them. As Miss Maudie says in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (HarperCollins, 1960), “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.” Why? Because we didn’t earn these gifts, and they weren’t given to us to lord over others.
Have you ever given a gift you couldn’t wait for someone to open? And don’t you feel pride and joy every time you see the recipient wearing that new shirt or riding that new bike? That’s how God feels when we use our talents to serve others. We should be like Eric Liddell, the Christian Olympian in Chariots of Fire (Warner Bros., 1981). He said, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
If you’ll allow me one more quote, this one from a child’s song my three-year-old grandson learned to sing with me this summer: “This little light of mine…put it under a bushel?” And he shouts, “No! I’m gonna let it shine!”