Monday, June 12, 2017

Our Talents

There is a rather terrifying story in Matthew 25 about a master who gives money to his servants to invest while he is on a journey. It is terrifying because the servant who buries his money and does not invest it is thrown out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it is terrifying because sermons use this parable to teach Christians how we ought to use our talents for the Lord. Don't hide your gifts under a bushel, they say. Let your light shine. However, the sermons rarely explain what might happen if we don't use our talents for the Lord.

The whole business can leave anyone feeling terrified of the day when he or she must give an account of his or her work to God. Will it be enough? Have I made a good enough return on my investment or shall I be thrown out into the darkness?

But if we understand our entry into heaven as something acquired because of what Christ did for us and not something we earned, then this understanding of Matthew 25 is missing something. And I believe that "something" is given by Jesus himself in Chapter 25:31-46, the verses right after this parable. This section explains how at the final judgement God will separate the sheep from the goats.

"Then the King will say to those on His right side (the sheep), 'Come, you who have been called by My Father, Come into the holy nation that has been made ready for you before the world was made. For I was hungry and you gave Me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave Me water to drink. I was a stranger and you gave Me a room. I had no clothes and you gave Me clothes to wear. I was sick and you cared for Me. I was in prison and you came to see Me" (Matthew 25:34-36 NLT).

The sheep themselves are unsure as to when they've done these things for the Lord. So God clarifies. "I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of My brothers, you have done it to Me" (Matthew 25:40 NLT). So, those who served the needy are welcomed into God's kingdom; those who didn't are cast into fire.

I don't think the placement of this story of the sheep and goats is coincidental. I think it explains the preceding parable about the master and his servants. The two stories parallel each other in several obvious places: a day of reckoning/judgement, praise to those who've done rightly, and casting out of those who have done ill. This means that the sheep are like the servants who doubled their master's money. And the goats are like the ones who hid their money in the ground.

This also means that the money given to the servants isn't some kind of talent God gives us to use, but rather the needy people in our lives. This might feel like a stretch, but consider: the master gave his servants HIS money. God puts into our lives HIS needy people.

This seems even more apparent when we remember that this is Jesus' fifth and final discourse in Matthew. The start of this discourse began with Jesus' woes to the scribes and Pharisees. Matthew 23:13 reads, "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in" (ESV). And they (the scribes and Pharisees) love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others . . . The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matthew 23:6-7, 11-12 ESV)

Jesus is telling the religious leaders that they have been entrusted with something of great value, namely, to guide the lost and needy people. However, the scribes and Pharisees have buried their money, so to speak. They have buried the news of the kingdom of heaven. They have shut it in people's faces. They have not served the needy at all, but used their positions to make themselves great. Because of this, their role as religious leaders will be taken away from them and given to another, namely those who will invest their money wisely, those who serve the needy, i.e., the disciples who will soon preach the kingdom of heaven to the ends of the earth.

It is far too easy to read the parable of the master giving money to his servants and start to wonder, what is my gift? We like to think ourselves gifted by God and thus a gift to a world, but that's not what Jesus wants us to think about. That's what the scribes and Pharisees thought of themselves when they were actually like walking crypts. Rather, Jesus' way is to see others as a gift and to see yourself as the servant. After this final discourse, Jesus will go to the cross and demonstrate the highest form of servanthood for his disciples and for us.

They are a gift to us, you see. People. Because every man and woman reflects God uniquely, we acquire a greater view of God through knowing and loving and serving those around us. God gives us a window into His own heart by surrounding us with a cornucopia of different people. But we cannot see anything very great in each other when we are acting as a master over people. We must be as servants.

"And if you give what you have to the hungry, and fill the needs of those who suffer, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your darkness will be like the brightest time of day. The Lord will always lead you. He will meet the needs of your soul in the dry times and give strength to your body. You will be like a garden that has enough water like a well of water that never dries up" (Isaiah 58:10-11).


MommaMina said...

May make us squirm but I think you have a good point!

Great Aunt Gretchen said...

Wow! I've never thought about it from this perspecitve!

C DeNoon said...

Thanks Abby,
Well thought out and explained. You get me thinking. As I’m sure you know, nearly every passage of scripture has layers of meaning, or wrinkles in which new insights can be found with subsequent readings. I’ve considered the three servants over the decades and found an important aspect which you may have seen, but I think is worth mentioning—the Masters final commendations and condemnation were characterized not in terms of success, but faithfulness. We have the privilege to live in this world not working for approval from our judge, but participating with our trustworthy Father.

I picture the burier operating self centered in fear of failure—being judged—and judging the Master and His motives. The faithful ones relish working for the best boss in the world, joyfully looking out for His interests and producing as they are able (like you). The product is incidental, the relationship is everything.

Abigail Joy Stevens said...

Yes! There is a freedom to work from the heart.