No, I’m not making this up like the Fire Department Story. This is one of the parables of the Lord Jesus Christ. He tells us this during the last week of His earthly, pre-Resurrection life. (Side note: it’s hard to label the Lord Jesus Christ with time: “last week of His life” is not accurate, kind of like calling Him “young” isn’t. He’s eternal, so He’s never really been young, even if His incarnate body was. He’s eternal, so He hasn’t, and never will have, a “last week.” So, last week of earthly, pre-Resurrection life is the best I can do.)
Why don’t you see the Parable of the Preservationist? Because, most likely, your Bible has it under the heading “The Parable of the Talents,” “Parable of the Three Servants,” or “The Story About Investment” (The Message). It’s Matthew 25:14-30. This is the passage I preached from this past Sunday night—if you’re really interested in what aspects I put before my church, this link will take you to the sermon page from my blog, with audio link.
I wanted to share with you a few thoughts I had while preparing this sermon, and these probably won’t be in the sermon itself. As I looked at the 3 servants, and pondered the idea of giving to each according to his ability, what I first saw here were three churches. It’s a parable, after all, and so most likely this is not just about how to handle 300 pounds of silver. So, my thought was this: if you take the man as the Lord Jesus, his slaves as churches (or pastors), and his journey as the time between Ascension and “HEY! LOOK AT THAT! IN THE CLOUDS!” what do you come up with? Who are the three churches?
Well, obviously, the slave with five talents is a big church: wealth and resources have been entrusted to them because of the ability they have. Their pastor has letters before and after his name, he preaches at the big conferences, and people would actually pay for his books. The slave with two talents? Well, that’s the mid-size church: not so many resources, because the pastor’s not quite that great. He still goes to the conferences, but he gives away his books to visitors, and he hopes to, someday, have a church twice the size of the one he’s got now. It still will never be what the first guy has, but, it’s a step up.
Finally, one-talent slave is the small church. Not a lot in terms of resources, not much in the way of pastoral talent either. Maybe he’s a failed student or a wannabe blogger. Perhaps he’s just never going to be awesome, and he’s certainly not going to sell or give away books. He doesn’t go the conferences and hopes to have time to catch a podcast from one of them. In time, the people of this small church will either be taken by the bigger, more amazing church (even if only via TV) or they’ll be, well, buried in the ground.
Indeed, this parable is of the pastors of churches, and how small churches remain small because they have bad pastors.
Except that’s not right. My interpretation was, shall we say, pitiful and self-destructive.
Instead, I see here three churches, true, but not the big, medium, and small. It’s not in the number of talents that the key to understanding this passage is found. Even the great Biblical scholars that write commentaries agree we don’t know exactly how much is in a talent or even what this was a talent of! It could have been gold, silver, or other precious items—if the amount was crucial, the text would be clear beyond an elusive “5 talents.”
No, the key here is what’s done with these talents:
Matthew 25:16 records that the first slave “immediately….went and traded with them.” He acted with his talents. He put them to work, made trades and bargains, and increased what he had. The end result? He doubled his master’s money. He increased what the master could call his own. Why? By action. The first slave represents the church that acts. They have enough resources, perhaps, to have a fall back plan or to attempt multiple ideas at once, but they act. They do. They do immediately and they accomplish great things.
Matthew 25:17 records that the second slave “in the same manner…..gained two more.” He didn’t sit about either. He went to work, except he had less margin for error. After all, had the first slave blown a talent or two, he had reserves. The second slave had to be more deliberate. His actions were immediate, but I read into him a moment of consideration before the leap. However, he risked more greatly than the first because of his zero-margin. He represents the church that risks. The church that sees that a once-a-week tutoring program will require all of the volunteer energy they’ve got and will double the electric bill, but does it to reach children. The church that cancels traditional non-evangelism to fund missions, cancels traditional vacation-style missions for local ministry. The end result? They’ve doubled what the master gave them.
Notice something: the master does not say anything different in Matthew 25:21 and Matthew 25:23. Both slaves are given the same reward “Enter into the joy of your master.” Well, and more work….but there’s no shame or comparison: they’ve been faithful and effective with their entrusted amounts.
What church is the final slave? They are the preservationist church. The church that does not act, because they haven’t done so before. The church that hopes, when it’s all said and done, to at least present back to the master that they never ran off anybody that came. The church that sees the needs, the possibilities, the opportunities, and does…..nothing. They preserve what they’ve got, for a time. Eventually, though, it falls apart. The people leave, the funding falls short.
You see, it’s not really about whether your church is wealthy, small, poor, big, or in the middle. It matters whether we look at what God has given us and choose to risk our own comfort, our own effort, and our own criticism for acting and risking. I remain astounded at how we as Southern Baptists will acknowledge the sovereignty of God(in even an Arminian way–the ‘holding the universe together way’), the effectiveness of Scripture, the need to spread the Word, and yet we hunker down in fear. Fear that He’s going to judge us for smaller buildings or cheaply printed Sunday School materials. Fear that He’s going to criticize us for losing what is His, when He can’t lose it anyway.
Let us not spend our time burying the resources of God in the churchyard. Every thing God has given us as a church, every person He has blessed us with, He’s done so that we may see the increase of His glory. Risk and Act—or else, like the Preservationist in the Parable of the Preservationist, we will lose even what we have….and never enter the joy of our Master.