What do you do when no-one’s looking? That is a test of our character, isn’t it?
One American minister whose blog I read wrote about it this last week. He gave a few examples of what this might mean for Christians. How do we react when someone cuts us up on the road? How do I choose between two options when I am sure I know my spouse would prefer one of them? How do I behave around members of the opposite sex when my spouse isn’t around? Do I speak the same way about others in their presence as I would when they are absent? Do I pay my bills on time? Do I exaggerate my achievements on a CV, or generally boast unduly about my abilities?
Similarly, a few days before the Presidential election in the USA, the well-known church leader Rick Warren wrote a piece about the kind of leadership he believed America needed. He talked about the need for leaders to demonstrate integrity, humility and generosity. With regard to integrity, he said this:
Some people say that it doesn’t really matter what a leader does in his private life. It matters if you want God’s blessing. What you do in your private life always affects your public life. In fact, that’s the definition of integrity – your public and private life is the same.
Again, it’s a question of what you do when no-one’s looking.
What have these examples to do with the Parable of the Talents? Simply this: the parable is couched in terms of an absent master. He gives the talents to his slaves and then goes away for a long time.
You could say we live in the absence of Jesus. That sounds shocking. Quickly we object that he promised to be with us always, and that he promised to send his Spirit. Absolutely. Christ is present by his Spirit. But that presence is not always tangible, and certainly we often live as if he were absent. How we conduct ourselves when he is not physically present is a Gospel issue for his disciples, and the various servants in the parable show different responses to that situation.
It is the dream of many Christians to hear Christ address us on Judgment Day with the words the master uses to the trustworthy slaves here: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’, followed by the invitation to enter into the Master’s joy. But what draws a delighted verdict of ‘Well done’ from Christ to his servants? How exactly have they been so faithful in small things that Jesus will now put them in charge of many things?
Well, clearly it’s an act of faith. But we need to be careful how we define faithfulness. For faithfulness is much more than simply doing things regularly. We say someone is faithful if they show up every week. There is a certain truth to that, which we ought to observe. Faithfulness involves endurance. It means sticking at things through thick and thin.
But I believe Jesus means much more than that in commending the faithfulness of the trustworthy servants in this parable. They take the money they have been given (remember, a talent here is currency, not a gift or ability) and speculate with it. Faithfulness here is much more than regular habits of spiritual commitment, important as they are.
I think it was best put by the late John Wimber, in one of my favourite sayings of his. He observed that the word ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K. If faith is about radical trust and obedience to Christ, then it is going to involve risk.
Perhaps the classic story in the Gospels is where Jesus walks on the water and Simon Peter says, ‘Lord, if it’s you, call me.’ So Jesus does call him and Peter gets out of the boat. For a while, he walks on the water, too. But then when he gets more concerned with the waves at his feet, he sinks.
What does Jesus do? He lifts him up. Contrary to some of our assumptions, Jesus does not condemn Peter for the moment when he takes his eyes off him and onto the circumstances. I believe that the balance of the situation is that Jesus commends Peter for his risky act of faith.
You will notice if you read the story that Jesus has no word at all for the disciples who remain in the boat. All his words and actions are directed towards risk-taking, faithful Peter. Don’t put this one down to the impetuous, blustering Peter. Here he takes risks of faith. In doing so, he shines much brighter than the other disciples.
So, the question is for us: are we the types who practise risk-taking faith? We need to cultivate an approach which is willing to try one thing after another, and not be discouraged if something doesn’t work out. If like Peter we begin to sink, then Christ will stretch his hands out to lift us up and encourage us to keep going.
I may have told you before that one of the most liberating things I ever read about ministry was the comment of an American pastor who said he didn’t mind if he tried ten different things in church, only for nine of them to fail, if it meant he found the one thing it was right for him to do. I believe that minister had an insight into risk-taking faith, the sort of faith that Jesus commends and rewards.
For Hatfield Peverel, this challenge comes as we approach the final session of the first Alpha Course we have specifically conducted as an outreach. Will people be converted? Will anyone join this church, or another one? If so, will it happen now or later? None of us knows. Suppose we see no obvious fruit: should we give up? No. Way. We should either continue to run Alpha Courses or something else. That is what risk-taking faithful servants do.
There is a ‘secular’ proverb that makes for good spiritual application here: failure is not falling down. The only failure is when we do not get up again after a fall. Those who practise risky faith are bruised from many falls. But they keep going. As a result, they bear fruit. And one day, they will be rewarded.
So onto the shocking part of the parable. I refer to the unfaithful servant, but the language of the master is much stronger. He calls him ‘wicked and lazy’. That’s a bit strong, isn’t it? Worse, this slave says he knows the master is ‘harsh’, and he seems to act in exactly that way in his anger. He has the one talent taken from this man and given to the servant with ten talents. Then he has him thrown into outer darkness. What are we to make of this horrifying and violent conclusion?
I want to begin by saying that while the parables of Jesus have allegorical features, not every detail is meant to have its allegory. So we should be careful about applying every last detail of a parable by looking for an exact parallel.
But in saying that, I do not want to dilute the challenge here. Often, Jesus includes a shock element in a parable: think about the scandal of the father welcoming home the prodigal son, for example. The shock is meant to guide us into the core of what Jesus is teaching us. So we should listen carefully to the condemnation of the one-talent servant. What might Jesus be saying to us here?
Let me approach that by way of an illustration. On Tuesday evening, the circuit ministers, circuit stewards and a few other circuit officers gathered to discuss the findings of our recent Circuit Review. Inevitably, we got onto the subject of change. Someone observed that one reason for resistance to change in our churches is this: the world is changing rapidly, and some of our folk find this bewildering and even frightening. They look for a place where they can find security in the familiar things they have known for years not changing. That place is the church.
I do not believe in advocating change for the sake of change. However, at the risk of sounding callous, can I suggest that such reasons for resisting change in the church and keeping things ‘as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be’ betray the mentality of the one-talent servant? Our security is not meant to be with familiar practices, buildings and hymns. Christian security is found in Jesus Christ and God’s enduring love. Anything less is idolatry.
I have told the story how in my teens I took a poll of people’s favourite hymns in my home church. The top choice was a surprise. It wasn’t ‘And can it be’. Nor was it ‘O for a thousand tongues’ or ‘Love divine’. It was ‘In heavenly love abiding’. I was always convinced the reason that hymn got the most votes was for the line, ‘For nothing changes here’!
The one-talent servant would not engage in risk-taking faith. He wanted to keep everything the same. Change was a threat to him. He had an inkling the master would be angry, and he was right. Christ, too, will be displeased with us if we take the safe option. He called his disciples to leave everything and follow him. Might it be that he calls us to leave much that is familiar to us in order to go on a journey of risky faithfulness as his disciples? I believe he might well. Remember, he had no words of encouragement for those disciples who stayed in the boat while Peter attempted to walk on the water.
Maybe the problem for those of us who like to play it safe is the one with which I opened the sermon. We act as if Jesus were not present. He is not very real to us. If we had a sense of his close presence, how could we not take great risks of faith? Yes, we wonder whether we know his will at times. But wouldn’t he rather we took a chance on seeing whether something was his will and have a stab at it, rather than sit around with it buried out of doubt or fear?
On my daily exercise walks, I have taken to listening to podcasts, which are like radio programmes you can download from the Internet. I listen to them on earphones in the same way others listen to music. On Friday, I listened to a talk given at a conference in Southampton by the Australian missionary thinker Mike Frost. One thing he said that struck me was this. You can name all the signs you like that you think prove the Holy Spirit is at work in your life. But if you are not getting on with the risky subject of Christian mission, then how much can you say you are like the God who is always sending and who in his Son is not only sending but sent?
Playing safe just doesn’t fit with God. That’s why the master is angry.
The challenge of this parable is very personal for me. As some of you know, I resisted a call to the ministry for a long time, because I thought my personality didn’t fit what most congregations wanted from a minister. Sixteen years into circuit ministry, I still think that!
Not only that, although the great majority of people I have met through ministry have been lovely Christians, I have seen enough of Christianity’s dark underbelly to have had more than the occasional thought of quitting.
In my darker moments, I don’t always have the most worthy of reasons for staying in the ministry. I wonder what else I would do. I think about financially providing for my family. These are hardly heroic reasons.
Yet remaining as a minister is nevertheless a risk-taking act of faith for me. I still can’t fathom why God called me this way. All I know is that – to my sometimes incredulous surprise – he does something beautiful, because I’ve hung around in what is often an uncomfortable environment for me. This calling is where I exercise risky faith, just by following it. Were I to follow my natural inclinations as they tempt me when ministry is dry or discouraging, I would be playing it safe. I would be a one-talent servant.
Has God called you to an uncomfortable place, too? Do you think that like Peter you might sink? Hang around there. Don’t quit. Let Jesus pick you up when things go wrong. In due course you will bear fruit for the kingdom of God.
And let’s take risks as a church, too.