This parable, read with the Parable of the Talents, is a fearful lesson both individually and corporately.
Let’s talk about the Churches of Christ as a body. One of the characteristics of my fellowship is fear of making a mistake. I can’t begin to count the classes I’ve been in where we debated the rightness of this or that issue. The conclusion was nearly always, “Since we’re not certain that God has authorized this particular practice, the safe thing to do is nothing. We should avoid this practice to be sure we don’t give offense to God.”
I know of a church that had many thousands of dollars (many talents) in the bank. The elders couldn’t think of a single authorized thing to do with the money. And so they stopped issuing financial statements to the members, for fear that the members would stop giving. They just put the money in the bank. Really.
But in the Parable of the Talents, the person damned is the person who was too afraid of the master to put his money (a literal talent is a sum of money) at risk in an investment. Remember these words well:
(Matt. 25:27 ESV) 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.
Jesus in speaking in the First Century. There was no FDIC insuring bank deposits. There was no Federal Reserve. Investing even with the bankers involved risk — real risk. To invest, as the others did, to earn 100% return on the money must have been a truly risky investment. And the master (God!) was angry with the manager who refused to take a risk.
But wouldn’t the master be upset if the money was lost on an unfortunate investment? No. Remember, the master is God. He’s not going to run out of money! He is happy to take the risk in order to gain the reward.
When we claim to be smarter and wiser than God, and figure that since God was silent we ought to fill the uncertainty with a rule, and the rule just happens to always be “You can’t do that,” well, our biases are showing — and our thinking is strongly biased against risk and therefore against a profit.
Jesus himself plainly condemned adding commandments to the word of God —
(Matt. 15:8-9 ESV) 8 “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’“
To add a commandment to God’s word is to miss the heart of God.
(Col. 2:20-23 ESV) 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion [KJV: “will worship”] and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
What does Paul condemn as “self-made religion” or “will worship” (KJV)? “Human precepts and teachings.” Submitting to man-made regulations that prohibit enjoyment of God’s good Creation. Making up rules to impose on your fellow church member!
How “safe” is it to fill a gap with a prohibition? How safe is it to announce a rule that’s an inference from an inference from an inference — and hence far more from man’s wisdom than God’s?
Jesus could certainly have condemned some among the Jews for refusing to honor plainly taught commands. He did this in some cases. But he also made a particular point to condemn those who inferred commands not really in the scripture — and he condemned them in no uncertain terms.
Safety is not found in binding doubtful rules. Safety is found in the grace of God through faith in Jesus.
Is it any surprise that our numbers are in decline? Well, if we’re investing God’s talents at a loss anyway, we’d may as well do what he commands — take a chance and maybe we’ll produce a return that will please God. The present approach is not working. Indeed, God declares our risk-averse mindset damning.
You might ask, if we risk God’s wrath for ignoring a rule that he makes and also for imposing a rule that he doesn’t impose, then surely most will be damned! How can we get all the rules right?
Well, by being better students of the word and submitting to what is actually said rather than what it’s our notes from preacher school. For example, maybe we preach on these texts, taking every word seriously —
(Gal. 5:5-6 ESV) 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
(Gal. 5:13-26 ESV) 13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
(Rom. 13:8-10 ESV) 8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
And there are countless similar passages that we routinely ignore in our “gospel” preaching. You see, when you understand the “rules” and “commandments” as Paul teaches, it’s not hard to know right from wrong. It just run so contrary to our traditions that we struggle to believe that is could be this simple and this freeing.