Thursday, May 11, 2017

Parable of the Talents - Part I

If you have known me for a while, you know that the Parable of the Talents is my favorite parable.  Yes, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are close contenders, but I have never come across a single parable with so much packed into it. 

I won’t bury the lead.  Tom’s tweet for this parable is, “What did you do with what I gave you?”  It is the question never asked in the parable but for which every servant answered.

To bring the tweet into application mode, we ask:  “What did you do with what God gave you?”

We could put it into the corporate mode and ask:  “What did we do with what God gave us?”

I have preached and written on this parable so many times that we will surely cross some familiar territory.  I will start with my own analogy that I have used over and over again, and then get to the parable particulars.

Imagine that you gave your son a new baseball glove.  You spent some time picking it out.  You knew exactly the one that would be the very best for him.  You catch him a little off-guard when you present it to him, but you have high hopes for what he will do with that glove.

Your son takes the glove and puts it high on a shelf in his room.  It seems to be a safe place, but the glove stays there day after day.  He does not take it down to play catch or go to baseball practice or play in a game.  It is stored safely on his shelf in his room.

It might get scuffed or dirty or even wet if he took it outside.  It would become worn if he used it in practice or games.  So he leaves it preserved, if you will, sitting on the shelf.

The problem is that a baseball glove is supposed to be scuffed from digging ground balls out of the dirt.  It should have grass stains on it from bringing a little blindness to those line drives with eyes by making diving catches and sliding across the outfield.  A baseball glove is meant to be worn and to have wear and tear on it.

It is meant to be cleaned and oiled and even re-laced after time.  It is meant to be put to use.  There is nothing like the smell of a new glove, well, except, wearing off the new glove smell of the glove from putting it to use.

A baseball glove is meant to be put to use.  The son who puts the glove on the shelf for fear of getting it dirty breaks his father’s heart.  The glove is meant to be worn out.

Now to the parable. 

The parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven.  We know that because the parable begins with the word, “again.”  Some of your translations may include what is implied in that word and say, “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like.”  Which way is correct?

Neither.  Jesus didn’t use the word again or even refer to the Kingdom of Heaven in the original text that we find in this parable.  Such words provide smoother transitions in our reading and fit into the context of the entire chapter, but we should be careful not to presume that Jesus was just rapid-firing one parable after another.  There was probably some time to digest each teaching before he began the next.

We should also not presume that what we extract from this parable applies only to the end of the age, for this parable is very much about every day of our lives.  It is very much about what Paul would later refer to as working out our salvation.

Let’s get to the four main characters in the story.  First there is a man of some substance.  He has property and money and servants.  Three of his servants are included in this parable.

He is about to go on a journey, so he entrusts the property of his estate to these servants.  He also gives each of them money—a substantial amount of money.  In today’s terms, we are talking hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. 

This isn’t here’s twenty bucks until I get back.  He gives them 5 talents, 2 talents, and 1 talent worth of money in accordance with their ability. 

This tells us that this man—the master of the servants—knew his servants very well.  He understood what they were capable of, probably because he had trusted them with something smaller before. 

These were men that the master deemed worthy of his trust.  His trust in this story is revealed in talents of money, some of your translations read, “bags of gold.”  Even though the third servant doesn’t fare very well in this story, the master deemed him worthy of trusting him with one bag of gold.  That’s not small potatoes.

These are trusted servants.

Let’s get to the story itself.

The first two servants act immediately.  They went at once and put their master’s money to work.  The term that I prefer here is urgency.  They were not rash or careless, but they acted with urgency. 

Notice also that these two servants didn’t go to work; they put their master’s money to work.  They already had a job—talking care of the master’s property.  Now, they had something extra.

They could have pondered what to do with the money, hoping to find a good investment; instead, they put their master’s money to work right away.  Were they careless?
No, they were prepared to be trusted with something more. 

In the course of their relationship with their master, the servants surely revealed much about themselves to the master, but they also received revelations about their master.  He was a man who expected a return on his investment. 

The third servant described the master as a hard man who expected a return even when it appeared he didn’t make an investment.  I think if the first two servants would have described their master, they would have used the term demanding.  I think the first two would have just said that he sets the bar very high and expects us to meet or exceed his standard.  That’s just who he is.

So knowing this, I expect that the first two servants had something in their hip pocket if their master were to trust them with more responsibility.  They knew their master and knew what he expected and they were ready when they received their talents.

They put them to work at once.  The acted with urgency.

Consider again, that the servants put their master’s money to work.  In the relationship with their master’s money, they became the master or manager of that money.  They put the money to work.

What happened next?  The first two produced a return on investment for their master.  We don’t know what they did, but they were surely wise about it.  The one given 5 bags of gold produced another 5 bags by the time his master returned. 

We do know that the master was gone a long time, so this was likely not an overnight windfall.  They didn’t go to the track or casino because the master would be back in a week.  They were surely wise investors and produced a return on investment for their master, something they knew that he expected.

Let’s talk a little bit about fear.  Investing has risk.  If the risk is low, the return is often low.  The higher the risk, the higher the return, usually.  Things can go wrong.  War, famine, or even the abundance of some commodity reduces the return of the investor.  Ask any wheat farm who has a bumper crop and then finds out that the whole nation is having a bumper crop and the price per bushel drops significantly because there is wheat for sale everywhere.

But, to make money, you have to spend money.  You have to invest money.  There is risk.  With risk comes fear.  Fear is real but the question is whether fear is controlling.  Does fear rule?

We understand that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.  We understand that perfect love casts out fear.  We understand that God loves us so much that we should not fear punishment from him.

But what about fear in the context of buying a $100,000 worth of calves to fatten up and sell?  The fear of Mad Cow disease might not let you write that check.

The fear of drought might cause you to put off such a bold purchase until next year or the year after that, or never at all.

Fear could immobilize people so that nobody ever invested.  But people do invest and they do make money.  Some invest a lot and make a lot.

Wisdom, not fear, must govern those who invest. 

The first two servants did not have to decide as to if they would invest their master’s money.  That was settled in their minds before the money hit their hands.  They would be wise, not fearful investors.

Fear would not adversely impact their decision-making model.  They might lose everything.  That was a real possibility.  They might take huge losses, but if fear controlled them, they would never have a chance to produce a return for their master.

Their desire to please their master was surely greater than the fear of losing all of his money.

We know how the story turned out for these two.  The one trusted with five earned five more.  The one trusted with two earned two more.  Their master was very pleased.

In fact, he said that they had done well with a few things and now he would put them in charge of many things.  Well done!

The master went beyond saying, “Well done!”  He added qualities that he considered noteworthy.  He called each of these two a good and faithful servant.  Good and faithful—who would not want to be commended by our Master with those words.

Then the master in the parable put icing on the parable cake.  “Come and share your master’s happiness.”

The master did not say, “I’m giving you a good tip” or “There will be something extra in your Christmas stocking once people start celebrating Christmas and confuse it all with stockings.”

He said come and enjoy my happiness.  Consider the words of Jesus that we find in John’s gospel.  Jesus told his disciples that he no longer called them servants.  Servants don’t know the will of their master, but you guys understand—as much as you can now—and that makes us friends.

The relationship had changed.

The master in the parable had trusted his servants and expected a return on his investment and they delivered.  In a master-servant relationship, promotions would have been sufficient.  You were in charge of a few things, now you will be in charge of many things.  You get a raise and a corner office and first pick on the doughnuts on Fridays.

But the master added, “Come and share my happiness.”  There was more than a promotion.  There was a significant change in the relationship.  Share my happiness! 

What servant is invited to share his master’s happiness?

We will continue this parable in two more segments, but for now let’s consider what we have gleaned from these first two servants.  I will use the acronym that I constructed almost 10 years ago.  The acronym is TURN.

T is for trusted.  These were trusted servants.  There was a relationship already in place.  The master knew what they were capable of and entrusted them with his property and money accordingly.  The master didn’t just give out his money to anyone and everyone.  He had a trusted relationship with these servants.

U is for urgency.  The first two servants put their master’s money to work at once.  They were the manager in this equation.  The money worked for them and they put it to work right away.  Their own master was demanding of them and they too were demanding of what their master had given them.  They did not give their master’s money any time off.

R is for Return on Investment.  Their master expected and the two servants produced a return on their investment.  ROI is the modern day term—return on investment.

N is for No Fear.  The servants acted as if they had no fear.  Fear was surely a factor.  Risk is involved in most investments, but fear would not be the governing factor.  Fear would not debilitate.  Fear would be recognized for what it was and wisdom would be the prevailing principle. 

This short acronym is not just for the end of the age.  This is good daily counsel for godly people—for the wise. 

We have a relationship with our Master and he has trusted us with gifts and talents and a commission.  We will discuss time, talents, treasure, and the gospel later, but for now know that he gives to us in accordance with who we are.  Every good gift is from above, and in the context of this parable, it is also a trust.  What God gives us is a trust, not a whimsical provision. 

We should also understand that in this trust we find our purpose.  We will never have to live a single day without purpose—a God-given purpose.  I have written and remarked many times that there is no Sabbath to take in a life without purpose.  We will never live in that pitiful state because of the trusted relationship that we have with our Master.

We should live as if tomorrow is not promised to us, even though eternity is.  We must value the hours and days of our lives.  For the things the Lord has given us to do, we do them at once.  My term for this is urgency.  This does not mean that we don’t take time to rest.  It means that what we have been given to do gets done and we can take a Sabbath and rest.  We take care of our master’s business at once.

And we should produce a return. We might call it fruit.  We produce.  It’s not all about a monetary return.  Sometimes, it is about money.  Most of the time it is other things.

And we live this life in freedom not fearFear is a real thing that thrives in this world from generation to generation, but it does not control us or govern us or get invited into our decision-making process.  We assess risk, but we don’t do fear.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline but our decisions are not governed by fear.

We will talk more about fear next time.  We will get to the third servant next time.  For now, let’s consider the lessons we can learn from these first two servants.  How did they answer the question that was never asked?

What did you do with what I gave you?  Rephrased for us:  What did we do with what God gave us?  I will be challenging you to ask yourselves this question for the rest of the month.

My hope is that our answers are those that will produce this reply:  Well done good and faithful servant.


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