Late in the Gospel of Matthew the disciples of Jesus have asked their teacher to tell them about the end of things, to help them understand what it will look like when the world as the know it ends. Most who are honest believe that much of what Jesus tells them about in reply is actually what will happen when Jerusalem falls in A.D. 70, and not necessarily what is happening at the end of time or global life. This makes His words no less powerful, and in a way it makes them more poignant because He isn’t talking about a time that might happen in a thousand years but He is describing the world that their children will be living in.
One of the things that Jesus does as He describes all of this is to tell His friends some stories to give them an idea as to how they are to approach the end of things. The last story is about a man who owns a house and has servants working for him. He is going on a trip and he not only leaves the household in the servant’s care but he also gives them each a certain amount of money to invest while he’s gone. This is a famous story because the two who have been given the most invest it all and double their investment. The third guy, who becomes something of a punching bag for those readers who are looking to create an obvious villain, digs a hole, buries his money, and then returns the muddy coin to the owner when he gets back from his trip.
We tend to focus on the great faithfulness of the first two and the foolishly incompetent actions of the third, as if those are the only option we have in life, give everything or give nothing. But those are caricatures of life, not real fleshy and animated pictures of truth. How often do we give everything, holding nothing back? I’m not asking how often we charge hard, guns blazing, eyes set like flint toward the goal that we are pursuing. I’m asking how often do we give everything. Everything is not defined by the energy with which we pursue our goal. Everything reserves the right to redefine our goals, to move the target, to make sure we are holding tightly to nothing that we thought to be important.
I have a suspicion that the first two guys in Jesus’ story might not be the super-faith type that we have given them credit for being. This doesn’t look like reality, it’s a picture drawn by a 17 year old kid at a booth beside a roller coaster. This “all or nothing” picture has a strange, out of scale quality to it that makes you wonder if you aren’t looking at it through the bottom of a glass soda bottle or an ash tray.
Giving all is not an event, it is a process…and often a painful one. I suspect that if John and Phillip had come to Jesus later and asked Him, “those guys in the story you told earlier, the servants, did they really just give up all the money the master gave them right after he left?” – if they’d asked that question, I suspect the real and honest Jesus would look at them grinning and say something like, “I didn’t even start till I was in my thirties.”
We aren’t told how long the first two servants took to invest all of their money, to give everything they’d been given. But, in typical Western evangelical fashion, I suspect that in the back of our mind we are pretty sure that they did it before the dust from the master’s donkey had completely settled. Because dedication requires that kind of immediate commitment right?
But what if I told you a different story. What if I told you a story about two men who did want to invest the money they’d been given, but they hesitated because, after all, this was the master’s money and they were really just servants, not investment bankers by trade. What if the story in Matthew 25 didn’t take place over the course of a week but over the course of fifty years? How would that change your view of things? What if the first two, “faithful”, servants took ten or twenty years just trying to gather up the courage to do something with the money? And what if they invested it a little bit here and a little bit there; losing some, gaining some, breaking even some? And what if it was only in the days, at the end of the fifty years, leading up to the master’s arrival that they just barely doubled their money? What if the guy with ten talents had lost nine of them in the first few years and fearfully held on to the last one until a few years before the master’s return when he courageously put his remaining talent into a risky venture and only then wound up doubling his original money?
The story does not tell us any of the “how,” it merely tells us the result. We are the ones who seem to perpetuate the notion that the best version of the Christian life is the one that happens in the first ten minutes of our faith. But there is something to be said for the process, the messy walk through real life, the adoption of an honest assessment to the way the world and people actually are. In this grittier, and altogether more true, picture of life and ourselves we find that things aren’t as easy as we might have thought they were, but we also begin to understand that God isn’t ignorant of the fact that it can be tough.
Ultimately the process has less to do with the talents themselves and more to do with what happens in us when we hold those talents in our hands, rolling our fingers over them, feeling their weight. They weigh more than their actual weight it seems, because their greatest density is in the expectations that we believe accompany them. And so the angst over what to do with these talents is the point, not the talents themselves. How we hold and invest and agonize over the decisions we make with the talents is the process of seeing who God is and how He might feel about us.
Addie Zierman, in her book “When We Were On Fire,” chronicles her journey through manipulation at the hands of “church people”. It took quite sometime for Zierman to work through these things, and she is likely still on that journey – as we all are in one way or another. Near the end of the book, in a season of growing clarity and healing, she writes these beautiful words,
And it occurs to you that the real work of faith has nothing to do with saying the right words. It has to do with redefining them, chipping away at the calcified outer crust until you find the simple truth at the heart of it all. Jesus.
The longer I’m at this, doing my best to understand what my own Christian life is supposed to look like and be, I find that much of what I thought was important as an end is really more of a means to an end…and to be fair the end is only an end in the same way that getting married, or having a baby, is an end. The things that seem like they matter so much are, I imagine, gifts from God to help us sort and struggle through the beautifully messy process of finding out who He really is and how much He loves us.