Saturday, September 27, 2008

Not the Gift But the Giver

The parable of the talents is among the first Bible stories taught in most Sunday schools. A rich man entrusted sums of money to three of his servants, apparently instructing them to make wise use of the gifts. Two of the servants doubled their holdings. The third was afraid to make even the most cautious investment, so he hid his share away where it would be "safe"--and useless. The master, upon receiving their reports, angrily removed the third servant from any further position of responsibility.

What comes as a surprise is the rationale behind the master's anger. The servant wasn't simply cowardly and indecisive to act as he did; he was "lazy" and "wicked." In other words, failure to make use of the master's investment was on the level of the indictment in James 4:17 (NIV): "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins." We like to think that if we do nothing, we can't be doing anything wrong; Jesus says that there are times when God expects positive action, and if we refuse to take it, we are committing the sin of defying God.

Why did the servant in the parable commit this sin? For one thing, he apparently lacked confidence in his ability to bring in a profit, and feared that any attempt to invest the money would mean loss instead of gain. Moreover, he didn't really know his master; he apparently thought he was working for a tyrant (Matthew 25:24-25) who would be furious if the money returned was less than the money given, so he decided it would be safest to make sure that at least the exact amount would remain available. And there may have been another reason as well: perhaps the servant was secretly resentful because he got the smallest amount of money. "One talent" was a sizable enough sum; but another servant had received twice as much and still another five times as much. Perhaps the third servant really felt that "if my master thinks I'm worth so much less than the others, why should I make as much effort as they?"

The parable, of course, is an analogy: God is the Master Who gives each of His servants gifts (money, time, circumstances, abilities) which He expects us to put to good use advancing His Kingdom. Some of us look at the Christian author whose books are bestsellers even in the secular world; the Christian musician who gives fifty well-attended concerts a year and has released a dozen top-selling CDs; or the pastor whose church is growing by the hundreds and thousands of members--and we think, "I'll never be in their league; I can't possibly do anything major for God, so what's the use of even trying?"

Like the servant in the parable, we badly misjudge our Master. We not only imply that He didn't know what He was doing when He chose what gifts to give us, and that He doesn't really care whether we use them or not; but we fail to see that it isn't the size of the gift that matters. It's the size of the Giver. The God Who turned five loaves of bread into a hearty meal for thousands (Matthew 14:14-21) can certainly show us how to turn a single talent into great profit. Because our Master isn't really away on a trip. He's right here with us, just waiting for us to ask for guidance.

One more thing: if you consider yourself to be in the "ten talents and growing" pool, rather than the "one-talent" one, it's still the size of the Giver that counts. God doesn't discipline only those who neglect their talents; people who become arrogant and take all the credit for their success--as if they had created themselves--are if anything headed for a harder fall.

Lord, keep me from the sin of sloth
And also that of fear,
Lest I be like the wicked man
Who held Your talent in his hand,
But hid it in a piece of cloth,
And kept it useless there.

But keep me also safe from pride,
Lest, gifted from Your hand,
I think, "It all depends on me,"
And work not for eternity
But turn my thoughts from You aside,
And build success on sand.

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