Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Vessels of Honor” first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Touchstone.
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Vessels of Honor
Louis Markos on All the Glory We Can Hold
All men, as our Declaration of Independence boldly asserts, “are created equal,” but no one could ever claim that all men are equally gifted, and sometimes I am asked what will happen when unequally gifted Christians reach Heaven. Some people seem to worry that Heaven will be arranged like an earthly enterprise, with everyone rewarded according to his success.
They worry, apparently, despite the biblical evidence. Look at the parable of the talents. In this parable (Matt. 25:14–30), Jesus tells us of three servants entrusted with five talents, two talents, and one talent respectively. The third, slothful servant buries his talent in the ground and receives only scorn and condemnation from his master.
But what of the first two? The first makes five more talents, while the second makes only two. We might expect that when the day of reckoning arrives, the first servant will be praised more highly than the second, because he has made more.
But this, unexpectedly, does not occur. Rather than elevate the first over the second, the master bestows upon both servants the exact same blessing (a blessing that all who are serious about using their gifts hope someday to hear): “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.”
God is just and merciful. He judges us not by what we begin with, but by what we do with what we have been given. The two servants in the parable receive the same blessing, for they both made maximum use of the talents given them.
On earth, God expects us to succeed in accordance with our gifts: no more, no less. In Heaven, I believe, we shall receive as much blessing and reward as we are able to hold: no more, no less.
This Dante saw. On his journey through Paradise, he meets Piccarda, a nun who, because she broke a vow, inhabits the lowest level of Heaven, that of the moon. Dante is puzzled by her calm serenity and asks her if she does not wish to ascend to a higher station than the one she now inhabits. She answers:
She tells Dante that the essence of Heaven’s bliss is to “delight the King in whose desire/ We find our own. In His will is our peace.” Then, writes Dante,
In the Inferno, it is better to be in level two than level six; on the mount of Purgatory, level six is far better than level two. But in Heaven, all levels ring with equal joy. How can this be?
Imagine two vessels: One is built to hold eight ounces of water, the other sixteen. Now take the first vessel and fill it with eight ounces of water; take the second and fill it with sixteen. Which vessel is more full? The answer, of course, is that they are equally full. Though the second contains more water, both share equally in the joy of fullness and completion. For Dante, Heaven is a place where, for all eternity, we receive into our being as much of God’s light as we can bear.
Thus, Piccarda would not want to ascend to a higher sphere, for then she would be overwhelmed with more of God’s light than she could contain. She would receive a double pain: the pain of being over-full, of “bursting at the seams,” and the pain of having fallen out of God’s will, of being in a place where God does not desire her to be. In Heaven, we may be placed on different shelves, but we shall all be vessels of grace, filled with just the right amount of that living water that Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman at the well.
Our Share of Glory
I think Dante is right; he must be right. If he is not, I cannot explain how one Christian (a doctor of theology, say) whose gifts and opportunities allowed him to attain a full and nuanced understanding of Scripture, another (a simple laborer) whose more modest gifts and opportunities allowed him a far less sophisticated understanding, and a third (a Down’s syndrome child) whose mental deficiencies prevented him from grasping anything more than the basic gospel and the golden rule, could experience equal joy and blessing when they come into the presence of God—when, indeed, it is altogether possible that the Down’s syndrome child will have access to dimensions of God’s glory to which the greatest of theologians is blind.
Our Father is not the kind of father who lavishes all his attention on the child with the most potential and rewards the one who achieves the most obvious success. He is not bound by our small-minded conceptions of equity and fairness.
We need not believe, as I think many of us tend to do, that in Heaven God will give each of us exactly the same amount and type of glory. Rather, we can rejoice that as we enter, one by one, through the gates of the New Jerusalem, it will be God’s great pleasure to give us all the glory we can hold.
And that is why we should make as full a use of our gifts and talents as we can. Not because we will be rewarded above our fellow Christians: for in Heaven, perfect charity will enable us to take joy in the greater giftedness of others. But because the proper exercise of our gifts will so expand our vessel that we can bear more of God’s living water (his grace and truth and light) and thus be more full in our fullness.
The proper exercise of our gifts and talents (whether they be sacred or secular, vocational or “liberal”) change us from within, serving either to build or to diminish our character. Every time we put our gifts to work, every time we shape external matter by that internal touchstone, that half-intellectual/half-spiritual mold that is the very breath and spirit of the talent God gave us, we become a slightly different person (sometimes worse, but more often better).
I envision two possible deathbed scenes for the believer in Christ. In both, a Christian symbolically gathers around him the fruit of his gifts and talents as he prepares for death.
The first Christian (who either made little use of his gifts or squandered them in un-heavenly ways) says to his gifts as he ascends: “I can’t take you with me; I wonder why I spent so much time on you; you certainly have done nothing to prepare me for this hour. Good-bye.”
The second (who has striven all his life to use his gifts and talents as a way to seek after something higher) says to his gifts as he ascends: “I can’t take you with me, but that’s okay. I go now to see and to experience that reality which you have helped me to catch glimpses of all these years. You’ve prepared me well for this hour. Hail and farewell.”
I hope my final speech will be more like the latter than the former.
The source of the quotation from Canto Three of the Paradiso is Anthony Esolen’s translation (Modern Library).
Louis Markos (www.Loumarkos.com), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include From Achilles to Christ (IVP), Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway), and Literature: A Student's Guide (Crossway). His On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis was released by Moody in October 2012.
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