The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is one passage that places great significance on human productivity. Not activity, not busyness, not even consistency but results. Caution is almost spoken against. If we read this parable properly we get the idea that God is more concerned about the growth we stimulate than He is about the methods used to get there.
In the passage Jesus tells of an investor, the Master, who gives money to three different asset managers. The amount given to each is proportionate to his abilities.
One man receives five thousand dollars, a second receives two thousand and a third receives one thousand and obviously, the intent is for each to increase those monies through investment.
After an appropriate amount of time the Master returns to check on the growth of each account. To his approval, the first two double the original investment to ten thousand and four thousand dollars respectively.
To his dismay, the third gained no increase and the explanation for this failure draws severe criticism from the investor.
Failed Asset Manager
‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’
The master was furious. “That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest. Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.”
(Both quotes are taken from The Message)
This parable is relevant to some oft-repeated questions:
- “What is the purpose of life?”
- “Why am I here?”
- “How did I get stuck in a dead end job?”
It really challenges our thinking in regard to workaday employment. We find jobs and work for a paycheck which hopefully will at least enable us to get by or to make ends meet. The more people work their jobs the more pay-check-dependent they become and what Jesus teaches here would suggest just the opposite: the more we work, the more freedom we gain.
That doesn’t mean we work to get out of work or to eventually quit the job. If we work the job and manage resources rightly we will one day work because we want to and not because we have to and we are then in a position to do the work we choose.
Of course, someone will suggest that this parable is about spiritual issues and has nothing to do with material things. Well, the fact that Jesus chose material issues to make His spiritual point would imply that the connection between the two issues is seamless. Which is to say…
- Your attitude toward material growth should be no different to your attitude toward ministry expansion.
- Your lack of personal growth in secular work will mirror your lack of spiritual growth at church.
- Growth in one area stimulates growth in the other and the growth marks are amazingly similar.
In fact, workaday jobs will often provide more opportunity to learn to love your enemies than full time ministry and the man who drudgingly goes through the motions in his workaday employment, with no view to future independence, will do the same in ministry should he be called to such elevated work. The two types of work have much in common.
Everyone is looking for the job he or she likes and Jesus is giving us the reason to like the job we have, to use it rather than be used by it. He cleverly makes the point that jobs are only the means to an end, never the end, and that people who work for a living will likely never find a life. Many people stop looking for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness once they get stuck in a job.
The productive people in Jesus’ parable would probably be accused of being pragmatic, maybe even materialistic or, worse, selfish. But Jesus said very little about methods and didn’t hesitate to reward them for their results. He was pleased with their accomplishments.
The servant who “held his ground,” on the other hand, was severely criticized for getting no results and as far as we know he did nothing we could identify as immoral. After reading this story you get the idea that “profits” are the evidence of spirituality not materialism.
This parable challenges the way we define words like “faithfulness,” “rewards,” “profit,” “accountability” and “gamble.” It rearranges our value system and changes our priorities.
There are several observations to be made:
- The Master represents Christ.
- The servants are disciples (you and I right now).
- The money could be anything: talents, educational qualifications, opportunities, actual money, a job, influence, etc.
- The increase represents results both material and spiritual (financial growth or independence, souls saved, ministries expanded).
The servant failed primarily because of faulty thinking.
He didn’t understand God
He describes God as hard, inflexible and unforgiving. His primary response to Christ was fear. His theology was repressive not liberating. He was the kind of disciple who believed being used of God was a privilege to earn and not one offered by grace. He apparently saw his limited ability as total incapacity. He had no confidence in himself and worse; he doubted God’s wisdom in choosing him.
He didn’t realize that God offering him the opportunity to serve was simultaneously an endorsement of his ability to do so. The Master knew his faults and wanted to use him anyway and if God thinks a person can be productive then they have no reason to think otherwise. Any person can be effective even if they can’t be perfect.
He didn’t understand the nature of faith
Growth of any kind requires bold moves and bold moves require faith. The difference between faith and foolishness is careful planning, prudence and a healthy degree of caution but the most carefully planned act of faith still looks like a gamble. Playing it safe is humanly acceptable but is never an appropriate way to serve God. It involves no act of faith.
If growing your investments or increasing ministry results were easy everyone would be doing it. As it is, most people take the easy and safe route.
When it comes to money we place our hard earned cash in savings accounts and mutual funds, which is the easy thing to do, but that approach earns more money for the manager than the person who made the investment in the first place. What growth we do experience is so incremental it is hardly noticeable and over time the ultimate outcome may very well be a loss of buying power.
When it comes to ministry we take the same approach. We do what the religious community approves of even if it achieves no growth. It isn’t any easier to expand our ministries than it is to double our financial net worth and the methods we use to do so will rarely meet with acceptance.
Ministries grow because disciples explore and experiment with different possibilities. We take chances and attempt bold moves. We will probably experience a few losses along the way.
To experience real growth you must do what others aren’t doing. That can be risky. If no one else is doing it, you can’t be sure it will work. The risk factor is enough to scare most people off but with prudent and clever planning you can risk some resources without breaking the bank. Religiously, you don’t look any sillier trying to grow and failing than you do by going through the same old routine week in and week out without making a difference. Solid and extraordinary results only come when you make bold moves.
Not loosing ground is never the evidence that all is right in your ministry life and, as with money, it isn’t possible anyway. The lazy “play-it-safe” in the parable didn’t loose any money but the money did loose value. It always does. In the same vein ministries that don’t expand will eventually diminish.
Very little is said about it but the two fellows who doubled their money probably lost a bit along the way. I doubt their progress would have been represented by a straight-line progression. They had ups and downs. But, even trying and failing would have been better than the third man who tried nothing, gained nothing and assumed he had lost nothing.
He didn’t understand what it means to be faithful
He thought if he consistently did the same things over and over – to the approval of the religious community – even though no real results were achieved, that God would one day honor him as a faithful servant. What he thought of as “faithfulness” is what most everyone else refers to as “insanity” – doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.
He was the worst kind of traditionalist, consistently maintaining in the present, practices made popular in the past just because he wasn’t imaginative enough to make some useful changes. As J. Frank Norris would say, “consistency is the virtue of fools.”
He didn’t understand the meaning of “failure”
A key part of his excuse was “I was afraid I might disappoint you.” That translates into the fear of failure but his thinking here is illogical.
He believed on the one hand that trying and failing would be a disappointment but he couldn’t see that doing nothing at all was even worse. He was failing in one way – doing, saying and being nothing – so he could avoid failing in another – trying but not succeeding.
He isn’t making sense. It is universally understood that the way to success is through failure. Trying and failing is a given. People who succeed often try and fail many times.
This man mistakenly thought God would honor him for never failing in spite of his lack of production. What we learn from the parable is, remaining failure free isn’t the goal, becoming productive at all cost is.
He didn’t understand the difference between God’s will and God’s power
One reason some ministries never expand is the people who lead those ministries believe God can bring the growth without their help. God’s power alone is sufficient to get the job done. They see God saving souls, changing lives and developing ministries as easily, or even better, without them as He does with them. The sentiment is, “even if we do nothing God will still accomplish His will.”
That was apparently the thought of the failed asset manager. He referred to Christ as “harvesting where He had not sown and gathering where He had not scattered seed.” In other words, he was confident God could get the job done even if he did nothing.
That idea is both right and wrong. God can do anything…everything…all things but He has chosen not to. His plan, or will, allows for the efforts of disciples who diligently put their lives, names and resources on the line to make an impact with the Gospel. This servant claimed to believe in God’s power but the Master rightly accused him of using this belief to justify being lazy, indolent and comfortable. This man refused to go out on a limb for God.
He didn’t understand the connection between internal and external growth
We focus on personal spiritual growth, which is internal but Jesus taught numerical, material expansion, which is outward and easily visible. In fact, He said nothing about spiritual growth that was personal and internal, never.
When the Master took account He didn’t ask the asset managers how much they had grown personally, had learned from the experience or how close they felt to God. The bottom line was material growth. Maybe we are to understand that the effort required to expand materially and numerically also stimulates the spiritual growth we long to experience internally. People who grow “spiritually” but have no outward fruit to show for it are delusional.
This parable demands that we break with the status quo on both levels, spiritually and materially. We shouldn’t be overly concerned with so called spiritual growth and we shouldn’t be dismissive about material expansion. Obedient servants don’t excuse a lack of material growth with platitudes about being super spiritual. They take bold moves and sometimes fail but are better off for it because failing after trying is much more honorable than failing to move at all. Be thoughtful and cautious but by all means be forward moving. We might sometimes embarrass ourselves but caution should never stop us trying.
And remember. Many are called but few are chosen.