Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thoughts and Reflections on Matthew 25's "Parable of the Talents" (Revised)

For those who don’t know, Matthew 25 contains 3 major sections:
  • Parable of the Ten (Wise & Foolish) Virgins (1-13)
  • Parable of the Talents (14-30)
  • Final Judgment / Sheep & Goats (31-46)
All, in one way or another, deal with the final judgment and the end of time.

Taking a look at the parable of the talents, one servant in particular is given more attention than the others, and that’s the one who doesn’t do what he’s supposed to (and is apparently punished accordingly).

This teaching has been, in the past, used to manipulate people into performance-based activity versus a substance-based faith that revolves around a relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.

The relationship will inevitably lead to action as we open up and allow the Spirit of God to transform us, but actions don’t automatically lead to a relationship (Matthew 7:21-23). As Ellen White wrote in Steps to Christ,

There are those who profess to serve God while they rely upon their own efforts to obey His law, to form a right character, and secure salvation. Their hearts are not moved by any deep sense of the love of Christ,* but they seek to perform the duties of the Christian life as that which God requires of them in order to gain heaven. Such religion is worth nothing.

When Christ dwells in the heart, the soul will be so filled with His love -- with the joy of communion with Him -- that it will cleave to Him; and in the contemplation of Him, self will be forgotten. Love to Christ will be the spring of action. Those who feel the constraining love of God do not ask how little may be given to meet the requirements of God; they do not ask for the lowest standard, but aim at perfect conformity to the will of their Redeemer. With earnest desire they yield all and manifest an interest proportionate to the value of the object which they seek. 

A profession of Christ without this deep love is mere talk, dry formality, and heavy drudgery.

* Recall that the two most important commandments -- loving God and loving others -- both revolve around love (Mark 12:29-31).

In verse 24, the master is described (by the servant) as harsh and a gatherer of fruit he didn't plant (NLT); as having high standards, hating careless ways, demanding the best, and making no allowances for error (MSG); a hard man and reaping where he has not sown (NKJV).

The thing that’s tossed around about this is that it’s understood that God is fair and just, but harsh and a cheat? He can seem like he's not making the best decision on our behalf, but that's just about always because we're not seeing things from the Larger Story (biblical perspective) point of view. The Message has its merits, but not so much when it says “making no allowances for error” – because, obviously, that's not true.

So the thing on this is that most people get how God is a master on the relational scale (since we are the servants), but they don’t usually see how this captures his true nature in relating to us long-term.

When I spoke at my church last year about the Beautiful OutlawCast – a simulcast that addressed the personality of Jesus – the scripture that the Holy Spirit brought to my mind the night before was Luke 19:21-22. This is when the servant who believed that his master was an “austere” man gives an account. He was fearful of his master; the Greek word (Strong's #G5399) means when someone is put to flight because of being terrified (reminds me of Adam hiding from God in the Garden, “I was naked – read: vulnerable – and I was afraid because of my vulnerability, which is why I hid”).

The servant didn’t really know the master, and so the master is, in a way, being portrayed as something he is not. And to be honest, I can’t really blame how the master acted, being falsely accused – and by a subordinate at that! No one likes to be misunderstood, and God is no exception to that rule (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

Yes, there are some things that we get to question and prod to find out answers to:

More important than what you ask, though, is how you ask.

However, there are other things that you simply don’t get to question God about:

“Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker – an earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’ Or the thing you are making say, ‘He has no hands’?” ~ Isaiah 45:9

We humans have a tendency to get too big for our britches, as the saying goes. In other words, we forget our place in life and demand too much of those who, in reality, owe us nothing (*cough* God *cough*):

Then we come to Matthew 25:26, where the master – who we can easily infer is symbolic of God – calls the servant wicked and lazy...

Most people get that that might be the truth in being lazy and acting out of wickedness for some people (e.g., the wicked at the final judgment), but when it's used in comparison to how God views us (those who have professed faith in Christ) and what we're primarily used for? That's a bit sketchy. From that point of view, it's basically teaching that that's how God sees us when we mess up and that we don't get second chances.

This is why we learn self-fulfilling prophecy in psychology: you believe something, and then you behave in a way that makes it come true, thus (further) confirming your beliefs. Case in point, check out the following clip (0:00-0:46):

The master was not austere; he was generous according to their abilities. This 1-talent servant freaked out with only 1 talent; how do you think he would’ve responded if his master had given him 10?! His master would’ve been ten times as pissed for the misuse of ten times the ability, so giving this servant only a little was actually a compassionate – read: loving – action because he had less to be judged for. The master was fully aware of what the servant could handle and didn’t give any him more than he could bear.

Matthew 25:19 says that it was “a long time” before the master returned. Fear wasn’t just a one-time response for this servant; it was a way of life, and the fearful do not inherit the kingdom.

I didn’t realize that particular point until John Eldredge pointed it out in Revelation 21:8 -- and notice who gets mentioned first! (Hint: it’s the fearful.)

I had a bumper sticker one time that said, “God sends no one to hell; those who ignore Jesus send themselves there.” Keep in mind that the master was generous to those who were loyal to him (2 Chronicles 16:9a); the servant who was loyal to his fear elicited that particular reaction from his master. The master didn’t want to be like that, just like a father doesn’t want to have to discipline his children, but sometimes it has to happen because of the love the father has for his children. And for a God who is Love, every action of his is always founded on his nature, which is love:

The story is almost told from the perspective of each servant. The fearful servant also didn’t truly know his lord because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Again, this whole thing is about relationship, not just obedience (reference Matthew 7:21-23).

This is one of the things I’ve really appreciated about the TV show, Once Upon A Time, because you can see how transformative love is in people’s lives:
  • Rumplestiltskin opens up to Belle in order to express himself in a moment of emotional vulnerability;
  • Charming defends Ruby (the werewolf) in the midst of an insurrection lead by his former enemy;
  • Emma realizes how much her parents cared for her by sending her away when she sees the nursery that they had set up for her and the broken dreams that it represented;
  • Regina (the evil queen), out of love for Henry, is able to get along with the husband of her long-time enemy and, out of love for Daniel, finally lets him go because you can’t force a true relationship (reference Proverbs 18:19).
This servant didn’t let the love and grace of God open up and transform him, and so he never established a relationship with his Maker that had any substance to it – meaning that he didn’t truly know his master, which is what God wants from us, anyway (John 17:3).

Okay, so, some people understand that we have certain things we need to take care of and are appointed to do as followers of God. But what does this teach when we're basing that idea on a “one time does it” mentality kinda story like this? I mean, this is talking about the final judgment. So, yes, God is fair, but how does this capture his heart if it's taught with such a binding “works” mentality?

I’ll reference the point I made above about the fact that this servant had made a lifestyle out of living by fear. “Contempt” is one of the responses that are given to the wicked (Daniel 12:2). The Hebrew word (Strong's #H1860) is used twice in the Old Testament and translated “abhorring” or “contempt,” both of which imply something that is repulsive (“lukewarm” comes to mind, Revelation 3:15-16). Contempt is an emotion felt toward someone, and although God will invariably love every single person who has ever lived, who could blame him for being broken-hearted toward those who have continually spurned his wooing heart?

By the way, it’s only those who we love that can break our hearts in this way, and God is no different since we are made in his image. This is something that I realized about Jesus and Judas a while back:

Any one of us, knowing that Judas would betray us, would act in a way that would bring about that betrayal (self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?). We would be callous toward him, dismissive, bitter, etc., and he would be justified in harboring feelings of resentment that would lead to betraying us.

But love, by definition, does not do that. It is patient, tender, humble, selfless, “keeps no record of being wronged,” “never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (reference 1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Jesus, because of his loving nature, could not and would not and did not ever give up on trying to win Judas’ heart. He was vulnerable with Judas, fully expressing the heart of God, “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). As John Eldredge wrote of God in Wild at Heart,

God's relationship with us and with our world is just that: a relationship. As with every relationship, there's a certain amount of unpredictability, and the ever-present likelihood that you'll get hurt. The ultimate risk anyone ever takes is to love, for as C.S. Lewis says, "Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal."

But God does give [his heart to us] -- again and again and again -- until he is literally bleeding from it all. God's willingness to risk is just astounding -- far beyond what any of us would do, were we in his position.

Which means that the consequences of Judas’ actions – his betrayal of Jesus – fall squarely on his own shoulders.

The Holy Spirit is no different with each of our own hearts, as Jehovah spoke of ancient Israel:

Now I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a rich and fertile hill.
He plowed the land, cleared its stones,
and planted it with the best vines.
In the middle he built a watchtower
and carved a winepress in the nearby rocks.
Then he waited for a harvest of sweet grapes,
but the grapes that grew were bitter.

Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah,
you judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could I have done for my vineyard
that I have not already done?
When I expected sweet grapes,
why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes?
(Isaiah 5:1-4)

God does everything that he possibly can in wooing and winning our hearts that does not violate our own free will:

To force himself on us would be the equivalent of spiritual rape and would be appalling to the utmost degree imaginable. Could you imagine any judge or jury returning with a “not guilty” verdict for a husband who forced himself onto his wife -- repeatedly -- against her will? Even though it’s morally lawful for them to have sex because they're married, if he forces it against her will, it’s still rape – which would then make it unlawful.

So for Judas – as well as this servant – to continue to resist God’s gentle-yet-persistent beckonings is going to invariably leave God hurt.

Despite our love for someone, which one of us wouldn’t feel some contempt toward a person who broke our heart?

DISCLAIMER: Contempt does not mean unforgiveness. In the strictly literal sense, yes, the wicked at the end of time are unforgiven – because they did not accept Jesus’ atoning sacrifice – but they are also still deeply loved by their Creator. More on that thought in this post.

It probably wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine this guy as a fence-rider, either, never really leaning one way or the other (again, the “lukewarm” issue surfaces).

Don’t get me wrong, Jesus gets pissed at people, but it’s typically the people who know what they are supposed to do and then don’t do it; these are presumably the people who would have the best chance of truly knowing God (reference John 5:39).

He also has a compassionate side, though. Matthew 12:20 says “a bruised reed shall he not break.” He’s tender with the broken, the wounded, etc. He was always looking to mend hearts in addition to people’s physical frailties.

“But if you had known what this means – ‘I will have mercy, and not sacrifice’ – you would not have condemned the guiltless.” ~ Matthew 12:7

There’s no way I’m going to presume that I know how God judges people, because I don’t. But it’s like the whole faith-versus-works thing – there’s evidence for both sides, and there is no way we’re figuring out how much God is "made up" of each one. There’s mystery here, that’s for sure.

“Paradox: Life’s a mystery. Don’t bother trying to figure it out.” ~ Peaceful Warrior

Yes, obey God in feeding the hungry, etc., etc. But God doesn't hate you and immediately toss you to the side or into a dark pit where there's gnashing of teeth (Hell, most people would assume).

Some can have a real issue with how people portray God in this strict comparison with the master. But Jesus explains that God is going to deal fairly with it. Which, yeah, he is. But it’s easy to think that the master in the story was a bit extreme – and that can have devastating effects in how people view their lives.

I remember reading about when "Samuel" appeared to Saul in the Old Testament after being summoned by a medium (which, by the way, attempting to communicate with the dead is/was strictly forbidden, Deuteronomy 18:9-12).
  1. The Mistake (1 Samuel 28:7-11). Saul consults with a medium.
  2. The Misperception (1 Samuel 28:14). Notice that the scriptures do not say that it was Samuel, but that Saul perceived that it was Samuel. If angels can disguise themselves as people (Hebrews 13:2), then it's not too much of a stretch to say that fallen angels can imitate people, too.
  3. The Message (1 Samuel 28:19-20). “Moreover” in verse 20. In other words, “Above and beyond the news I have already given you, here’s some more bad news.” Notice Saul’s reaction: “then Saul... was sore afraid because of the words of Samuel.”
  4. The Murder (1 Samuel 31:4, 1 Chronicles 10:13-14). As if I needed to go further, it is written that God specifically killed Saul for his consultation with the medium.
Notice that in 1 Chronicles, the text explicitly says that Saul didn’t approach God about it, but that he went to a woman who had a familiar spirit; would I be presumptuous to say that God desired for Saul to seek the answer from Himself? But no, Saul wouldn’t humble himself and take a chance with God (Micah 6:8), so he played it safe and consulted what he thought was a safe bet...

It’s usually the heart-level issues that are important.

Too much emphasis on obedience focuses on the symptom (e.g., inaction), similar to the “check engine” light on a car. Just don’t forget to take a good look under the hood – read, under the surface – every once in a while...

God’s heart is for us to repent, to turn ourselves back toward him and away from our selfish ways of handling life (Ezekiel 18:31-32). Satan would give a message that is intended to rob us of hope and for us to give in to despair, which is exactly what happened to Saul.

“God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love...” ~ 2 Timothy 1:7

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear...” ~ 1 John 4:18

Again, recall that this servant made his fear of his master a lifestyle that he lived out for a considerable period of time. He didn’t truly know his master, which means that his perception of his master was false, but that his false perspective caused a (falsely perceived) reality to occur that confirmed his misperception.

Bottom line:

Get to know God.

Allow his love to fill and transform you.

And then take your filled and transformed self and get ‘er done.

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