The Parable of the Talents

The Parables of Jesus by Argentine artist Jorge Cocco Santiago, 2018

What would you do with a million dollars?…  Maybe you would pay off some debts, finish some work on your house, or quit your job and take a vacation. Perhaps you might invest a good portion of it. However, your investment is only as good as your level of trust.   

When I worked at a senior citizen healthcare facility, there was a resident with an apartment in independent living, but he still owned his house. During one conversation, the old man admitted to me that over the past sixty years he owned his house, he had secretly bored holes in every door jamb of the house and had stuffed away $100,000 dollars in cash!  This dear resident had personally experienced the run on banks which began the Great Depression in 1929. He had zero trust for investment banking. 

A “talent” in Christ’s day was a monetary denomination.  A talent was worth 6,000 denarii, and one denarius was worth a day’s wage.  So, in Christ’s parable of the talents, Jesus was talking about millions of dollars (in today’s money) with the master who gave his servants five talents, two talents, and one talent. (Matthew 25:14-30) 

As Jesus was telling his parable, one of his chief points was to communicate that God is gracious and generous.  The three servants responded their master’s generosity according to their view of him.  Two of the servants regarded the master as gracious and generous, and so, freely took their talents and confidently invested them to create even more money.   

The two faithful servants took risks and acted with the idea that they were secure in their relationship with their master.  However, the third servant’s perception of his master was different.  This servant discerned his master as stern, serious, and angry, so therefore, he did nothing with his talent – he was afraid. 

The man was fearful because his view of the master was off.  If we consider God as primarily an angry Being, then we will almost certainly not use the gifts he has given us, for fear of messing up and experiencing his wrath.   

However, the truth is, God is gracious and generous.  The Lord has mercifully gifted everyone and expects us to use those gifts and not hide them away in a door jamb!  God wants us to actively display grace and generosity – which will require addressing our fears. If we want to hear the Lord Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” then taking initiative is necessary. 

Fear is perhaps the greatest block in preventing God’s people from being productive Christians in serving the church and the world.  Beneath our fears are powerful feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, and an inner conviction that we are not enough. Oftentimes, a low view of self can come from a low view of God. 

Fear paralyzes our potential to serve God’s kingdom.   

Being continually afraid, drains our energy and lessens whatever impact we could have for God in the world, diminishing our resolve to act and leaving us ineffective in service. 

Fear destroys our dreams and godly desires.   

We are meant to enjoy the gracious and generous God, and in our enjoyment of the Lord, godly dreams will be placed within us that God is pleased to fulfill: 

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4, NLT) 

Our enjoyment of God gives us the security and confidence to act upon godly desires and produces a generous harvest of righteousness and peace. We then can share the bounty with others, as a way of giving back to God.   

Yet, if fear gets thrown into the mix, it dilutes and destroys everything.  Fear paralyzes us, and we do nothing, like the third servant in the parable.  What is more, fear can force us into hiding, just like the servant hid and buried his talent.   

In the Old Testament book of Numbers, the Israelites were immobilized by fear.  God had a grand vision and a big dream for the people to enter the Promised Land.  But ten of the twelve spies who came back after checking out the land were paralyzed by fear.  “The land has giants, and we are like grasshoppers!” they nervously said.   

Caleb and Joshua, however, had a different view of taking the land because they had a different view of God.  They didn’t see giants – they saw a gracious and generous God who could easily take care of whoever might be in the land, and they wanted to act on the faith they had in a mighty and merciful God.  The God of the other spies wasn’t big enough to handle the giants.  Their low view of themselves as grasshoppers betrayed their low view of God. (Numbers 13:26-33) 

We might wrap a lot of our fears in morbidly sanctified self-belittling.  That is, we might feel good about feeling bad and wrap ourselves with a blanket of secret shame. As a result, those self-deprecating feelings stop us from exploring God’s dream and vision for us.   

We could use some bold God-sized dreams!  We can speak and act in the world with confidence because we serve a God who sees giants as gnats. 

Some of the greatest fears that hold back people from exploring their faith is: 

  • Fear of criticism – being afraid of what others may think or say.   
  • Fear of taking a risk – being afraid of going outside the comfort zone of how something has always been done.  
  • Fear of ourselves – being afraid to explore our vast inner world with its guilt, shame, insecurity, and mixed motives. 

Fear snatches away God’s dreams for us.  If you once had a dream and you think that dream is dead because of your sins and bad habits, you are misguided.  Dreams evaporate because of fear, by being duped into believing that we are not enough, and never will be. So, we end up doing nothing. 

Fear ruins our relationship with God and others. 

Living a spiritual life, meanwhile always looking over our shoulder to see if God is going to sneak up on us and rap our knuckles with a ruler, is no way to live.  I think the hardest people to get along with are those who have a low view themselves.  Because they do not like themselves, they do not like others. They continually wonder if God is upset with them about something.  The man in the parable blamed God for his own lack of investment.  Yet, blame shifting is really our own fear and insecurity seeping through onto others – it helps no one, especially ourselves.   

God wants us to bloom with the talents given us.  God wants us to shine and succeed. God is on our side, has our backs, and wants us to live a good life. 

Fear sabotages our service. 

“I can’t!” is the cry of the person locked in fear.  I cannot stand up in front of people, meet strangers, sing, serve like that other person can or love like Jesus did.  I cannot because I am afraid, and I only have one talent!   

Perhaps you have observed that God typically uses tongue-tied people, worriers, and those with a sordid past – and not superstars – as servants commissioned with a set of talents. The less a person has, the more God shows up and shows off with generous power and gracious ability through that person. 

Nothing sabotages serving more than being afraid, worried, and believing we have so little. Give God a chance!  Step out.  Take a risk.  Act on that dream. 

Conclusion 

Once in a small village in India, a farmer brought to the open-air market a whole covey of quail, with a string tied around a foot of each bird.  The other end of the string was tied to a ring on a central stick.  The quail were all walking in a circle because of the strings on their feet.  As the day went on no one seemed interested in buying the farmer’s quail.   

Finally, an old man came and bought every one of the quail.  After he bought the quail, the old man told the farmer to cut the strings and set all the quail free.  So, the farmer did.  But none of the quail flew away.  They kept marching around in a circle as if they were still tied to the string.  Finally, the farmer had to shoo them away to get them to move, and even then, the quail landed somewhere else and just started marching in a circle again. 

God has freed and forgiven us.  Yet, we can so easily remain tethered to imaginary strings and march around in vicious circles of fear, afraid to venture into the unexplored world God has for us, to spread our wings and be free. 

God loves you.  God has wonderful plans for you.  God created you with your unique personality, gave you unparalleled experiences, and gifted you with uncommon abilities. God wants you to tap into that passion and dream placed down deep in your heart to serve the world.   

What would you do with a million dollars?  You already have it.  Now, go and invest it. 

Philippians 1:3-14 – Unity Through Shared Purpose

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare even more to proclaim the gospel without fear. (NIV)

Physical health does not just happen. Care of the body is necessary through eating well, exercising, and coping adequately with stress. In the same way, spiritual health and care for the Body of Christ occurs when we put every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

When spiritual health breaks down in the Body of Christ there are divided loyalties, unhappiness, and disunity. And this is precisely what happened in the ancient Philippian Church. They were spiritually sick and relationally fragmented through inattention to one another.

Unity is much more than the absence of division. It is a common community, sharing life together, working on supporting one another and reaching out to others. In our New Testament lesson for today, the Apostle Paul begins his letter with emphasizing that the Body of Christ realizes unity through a shared purpose of embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and proclaiming it to others.

Every pronoun, each “you” used in these verses is not singular but plural. We are meant to establish our common life together around a shared mission of gospel proclamation: The kingdom of God is near. Through repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus there is forgiveness of sins, new life, and participation in the life of God. The mission is not for larger church attendance, although that is nice and may happen; it isn’t to do more, or to get other people to stop swearing or avoid tattoos.

The Apostle Paul knew that without a focus on mission, on sharing the good news with each other and proclaiming the gospel to others, that the lack of purpose would create spiritual sickness. Apart from a deliberate focus on centering life and mission around the person and work of Christ, a group of people just nit-pick one another to death with all their various opinions and wants.

Wherever there is an absence of shared purpose, there you will find constant complaining, endless arguing, and a bunch of crotchety curmudgeons who nobody wants to be around.

Conversely, with a polestar on mission, the community of the redeemed work together in close fellowship with the result being joy. Happy people are a breath of fresh air to be around. A good healthy spirit is a delight to others. In fact, folks will find hope and healing through a common purpose of life together which imbibes liberally from the redemptive events of Jesus.

Good news is fun to share. It is joyful. The gospel of Jesus Christ is wonderful news, worthy of exuberant celebration. The Apostle Paul had fond memories of his partnership in the gospel with the Philippian believers. Although he had been jailed and beaten, Paul joyously sang in the prison – to the point where the jailer took notice and listened to the good news of new life in Christ. The jailer and his entire family became followers of Jesus. (Acts 16:16-34)

The Philippians were Paul’s spiritual children. They had sacrificed with Paul toward the shared vision of proclaiming good news. So, Paul wanted them to remember their own significant events of coming to faith, enjoying fellowship together, and working toward common objectives. In reminding the Philippian believers, Paul hoped to help get their heads screwed on straight again. He was confident this would happen, having an unshakable belief that God would continue the good work started within them.

This confidence was the basis of Paul’s prayers for the church. He beseeched God to unleash the Philippians’ collective love in a grand experiential knowledge of the divine so that they might discern well, making solid decisions which place the gospel as central to all of life.

There is an incredible depth to human need – a deep spiritual longing for what is good and beautiful. Relational unity brings out the beauty and majesty of humanity. Sometimes we just need to recall past days when this was true of us when we are facing animosity and acrimony.

In times of frustration, anger, demonstrations, riots, violence (both physical and verbal) and injustice, we desperately need a vision of humanity which locks arms in unity without vilifying one another.

When we place priority on the good news, I believe we will again discover the joy of life, of knowing Christ. Perhaps, with a watching world observing basic human kindness and joyful relations, we will find ways of being better together and working toward the common good of all persons. And methinks, Jesus wants to help with this, if we will only let him.

May the risen and ascended Lord strengthen our efforts to mend the ruptures of the past and to meet the challenges of the present with hope in the future. May we embrace the grace which a sovereign God holds out to us and to our world. Amen.

Matthew 18:1-5 – On Humility

At that time, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (NIV)

God’s benevolent, gracious, and ethical realm is accessed and rests upon humility. Wherever there are humble hearts, there is change, transformation, and new life. Where there is the presence of pride, there you will find posturing, positioning, and peacocking – nothing changes.

Humility enables a person to see beyond the end of their nose. A humble posture allows an individual to observe the wounds and pains of those with little power and low societal status. A preoccupation with being great and believing we are indispensable is to amble down a blind path.

In the ancient world, children were on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. They were mostly looked upon as potential adults – little people who would someday contribute to the welfare of the family business and the community. Until then, kids were expected to begin learning their future trade with full submission and obedience. They had no power or leverage over others.

So, when Jesus told his disciples to take the lowly position of a child, he was not talking about innocence or cuteness. Christ meant for his followers to divest themselves of prideful positioning for greatness and embrace the helplessness and vulnerability of children. For Jesus, a child was closer to God’s rule and reign because they existed in truly humble circumstances, whereas an adult had too much concern with looking good and seeking every advantage possible.

Life is more upside-down than we sometimes realize. Adults have more to learn from kids than kids do from adults. To listen to a child is about as near to hearing the voice of God as you will get.

Let us consider how pride and humility work out in our daily lives. For example, when down and hurting, maybe you have had the experience of another person trying to one-up your pain, as if what they experienced was worse than you. In their pride, they ignore that pain is personal, as if it’s a one-size-fits-all. 

Invalidating a person’s state of being or feelings does no one any good.  It happens because of pride and a lack of humility. Imagine going to see a doctor who turns out to be arrogant in his approach. He fails to really listen to you. He just gives a quick exam and offers his diagnosis with a regimen of more pills to take. You are left sitting there while he is off to another patient, colonizing another person’s mind and emotions with his expertise.

I am not giving doctors a hard knock. I work in a hospital and have great respect for medical professionals who provide wise care plans. Yet, it is likely that you, like me, have had that occasional experience of the doctor full of him/herself with all the right answers on your pain and situation.

You may have also had the unfortunate experience of having a pastor, therapist, or counselor assess your situation with little information and even smaller compassion.  Like writing a script for pills, they give you a few Bible verses and tell you to quit sinning and live obediently.

If pride and arrogance are the original sin, then the remedy to that malady is humility. No matter who we are – whether doctors, pastors, laypersons, patients, or whomever – we are meant and designed by our Creator God to live a humble life.  That means we are to both give and receive humility-based care.

Humility is the cornerstone to every good thing in this life.  Jesus said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, NIV)

The door of God’s kingdom swings-open on the hinges of humility.

The Apostle Paul, seeking to follow his Master Jesus in his teaching and humility said:

“Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12, NLT)

Basic human interaction with one another is grounded in humility. The old prophet made his expectations clear:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Life is truly life when it is humility-based.

Therefore, caring for another person is not a simple linear matter of offering your opinion or expertise; it is believing that the one needing care is the expert on herself.  The caregiver has as much to learn from the care-seeker. The beauty of humility-based care is that two people discover together how to grow, thrive, and flourish in a situation where it is not currently happening.

Breakthroughs occur in the soil of humility when the care-seeker comes out of the darkness and into the light through mutual discovery and insight.

We live with the confidence of the Psalmist:

“God leads humble people to do what is right and teaches them the way.” (Psalm 25:9, GW)

In the end, God saves and heals, not you or me.  That God chooses to use us to bring care to others ought to elicit the utmost of humility within us.

Lord God let me have too deep a sense of humor to be proud. Let me know my absurdity before I act absurdly. Let me realize that when I am humble, I am most human, most truthful, and most worthy of your serious consideration. Amen.

Exodus 3:16-25 – A Great Reversal

Moses and the Children of Israel by Richard McBee
“Moses and the Children of Israel” by Richard McBee

“Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’ 

“The elders of Israel will listen to you. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So, I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go. 

“And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so, you will plunder the Egyptians.” (NIV) 

Moses spent forty years in the back side of the desert tending sheep. The first forty years were lived in the most powerful place on earth at the time, Egypt. Although Moses had a privileged position, he forsook his place to be in solidarity with the enslaved Israelites. With a skewed sense of timing and method, he slew a cruel Egyptian, and was forced to flee into the desert. 

The time eventually became ripe, and God was on the move. At eighty years old, God called Moses out of the desert and back to Egypt. The deliverance was going to be accomplished according to God’s designs and purposes, and not from the impetuous actions of a younger Moses. God knew exactly what he was doing and put Moses on a course which would strike at the heart of imperial Egypt and bring freedom to millions of slaves. 

Today’s story is laced thick with divine promises. After all, it is the promises of God which give people hope and a future. Referring to himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Lord connects the generations-long covenant promise to the Israelites and reminded them they are not forgotten. God’s covenant has neither disappeared nor changed; it still exists. While the Jews were languishing in slavery, God was not aloof but watching – carefully inspecting, caring, and paying close attention. 

The inheritance of the Promised Land was coming, and it would be realized. God affirmed the covenant, knowing the plans he has for them – plans to give them abundance and joy. And God knew full well that dislodging the Israelites from Egypt would take some work, since Pharaoh relied so heavily on slave labor to support his massive imperial state. 

You, like me, have likely noticed that God tends to move rather slow by our standards. We might question and wonder about so much injustice going unabated for so long. Yet, that is our perspective of things, not God’s. Whereas we often have our own self-interest at mind, the Lord has the concern of an entire world. God is patient and long-suffering, providing full opportunity for both individual and national repentance. The Lord is on the lookout for people to amend their errant ways and return to their true purpose for living. He only judges at the proper time. 

And when that time comes, look out! Nothing can stand in the way of God’s good plans for the earth. The ancient Egyptians had built an empire on the backs of slavery, and everything went into supporting the power and wealth of the state. God was not okay with this situation. As he had done many times before, the Lord would thoroughly dismantle and destroy the powerful system of oppression. God is the expert at flip-flopping the status of people – the slaves become free, and the free are bound; the hated become favored, and those who enjoyed all the perks of power and privilege become the despised. 

Embracing God’s upside-down kingdom means advocating for justice, righteousness, and holiness for all people, not just a select few whom I like. Jesus, over 1,500 years after Moses and the exodus from Egypt, had this to say: 

“Those who are last now will someday be first, and those who are first now will someday be last.” (Matthew 20:16, NCV) 

“Blessed are you who are poor, 
    for yours is the kingdom of God. 
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, 
    for you will be filled. 
“Blessed are you who weep now, 
    for you will laugh. 

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 

“But woe to you who are rich, 
    for you have received your consolation. 
“Woe to you who are full now, 
    for you will be hungry. 
“Woe to you who are laughing now, 
    for you will mourn and weep. 

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26, NRSV) 

And the Apostle Paul said to the Church: 

“For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NLT) 

The New Testament references are not meant to sanitize or put a positive spin on the very real suffering that so many people have endured both past and present. It is, however, meant to lift-up the reality that we have a sure and certain hope. Our trust in the promises and presence of God will eventually be realized and gives shape to how we live today in persistent prayers with patience and perseverance. 

So, may the Lord of all creation bless and protect you. May the Lord show you mercy and kindness in your affliction. And, may the Lord be good to you and give you peace. Amen.