If Jesus Christ were here today, and he were to preach, how would he begin his message? Would he start by saying, “You are all sinners”? I don’t think he would – I don’t think he would need to. I believe each one of us deep down inside knows our own condition. And what we need is not another dose of condemnation, but some answers: how to become what we are called to be; how to become who we really want to be.
That’s the vise the preacher is caught in – how to balance that approach to scripture.
Jesus never called a man or woman a sinner. Now, he ate with sinners, talked with sinners, befriended sinners, forgave sinners. He never sold sin short. He warned against sin and he condemned sin and called them to leave their lives of sin, but he never pointed the finger at someone and called them a worthless sinner.
He called a few people snakes and vipers and hypocrites – but those were people who thought they had all the answers in the first place.
Jesus called people out of their mediocrity, out of their compromise, out of their defeat – to become what God their Father had called them to be – PERFECT! And so the fifth chapter of Matthew concludes “You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
That’s my same task this morning: to call you to be all that you were meant by God to be.
I want us to look at three parables in which Jesus challenged people to see themselves as God sees them:
A parable of 3 men.
A parable of 2 men.
A parable of 1 man.
These three parables tell us about men who made right choices and wrong choices. And each of them challenges us to use what God has given us to the best of our abilities.
The parable of three men in Matthew 25:14-30
You’ll recognize it as the parable of the talents, and remember it is within the context of preparedness for the coming of the judgment and being ready to stand before the Lord and give an account.
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ His master replied, ’Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 25:14-30)
Three servants are given a stewardship of money. A talent in this context is not our modern English word “talent” which refers to skills and mental powers, but a Hebrew word designating a unit of financial value. It could be gold, silver or copper, and its weight was between 58 and 80 pounds. Its value was the equivalent of 6,000 denarii. It’s impossible to put a modern day equivalent, because inflation continues to change whatever value that might be. What we can give is the equivalent of earning power. A common laborer earned a denarius a day. A talent was worth 6,000 denarii, and so it would take a day laborer twenty years to earn a talent. So the man who was given five talents was given the equivalent of a hundred years’ wages, the two talents was forty years, and the one talent was twenty years’ wages. So even the one talent was a fortune.
The thing we need to realize about this parable is that the master who entrusted his fortune to these three servants is doing more than hiring investment people. He is making them his partners, not his hired hands.
Our focus ought to be drawn to the two men who confidently and obediently served the master and were good stewards of the money entrusted to them. Rather, so tragic is the one man who through disobedience and cowardice, buries his one talent in the ground that we can’t seem to take our eyes off of him.
Why did he choose to do what he did?
It wasn’t a lack of resources. Though his was the least stewardship, it was certainly a sizable amount. The master had given him the resources, the authority, and the freedom to do whatever needed to be done to bring an increase in that talent. Any of the three servants could have chosen the same path that he took, but this man, fearful and uncertain, filled with anger over this heavy burden, was immobilized. And what could have and should have been an hour of glory when his master returned, was filled with excuses, judgment and condemnation.
The only explanation for his inaction is fear. He was paralyzed by the thought of failure and condemnation. When the master returned, he explained, “I knew you were a hard man…” He was bitter because he thought the master was setting him up for failure, a trap so that he might lose everything. I imagine this man, as he buries the treasure in the ground grumbling about how unfair it was that his master had chosen him for this task.
I’ve known too many people who stood in this man’s shoes. They see God as hard and vindictive. Instead of experiencing freedom and joy in Christ, their lives are paralyzed by a picture of God who looks down on them with disgust, and all they anticipate is condemnation. They have everything they need for a joyful productive life, but they bury it in the ground and wait for the fateful day their master will return and find them wanting.
But our focus ought to be on his companions. Here’s what their story tells us. God gives each of us everything we need to succeed -- talents and resources and authority to use them. Those two men seized their opportunities and when the master came, they received the greatest honor and praise for having fulfilled their master’s wishes – and so were given increased responsibility and shared in the master’s joy. They saw the trust their master had in them and experienced the true freedom of grace.
Look at your life. What kind of “talents” has God entrusted with you? Are you using them in his service and for his glory? If not, why not? Is it because your picture of God is a harsh, punitive master who expects you to fail? If that’s your picture, you need a new picture. You need to meet Jesus who loves you so much that he went to the cross for you, and he has such confidence in you that he entrusted his greatest gift to your care – the good news of salvation. He isn’t waiting for you to fail, he is eagerly anticipating welcoming you home to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into your master’s joy.”
The parable of two sons in Matthew 21:28-32
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” (Matthew 21:28-32)
The Pharisees had a crystal clear concept of righteousness. They looked in the mirror and said, “God is lucky to have me.” And though they were the guardians of the law and saw themselves as perfect examples of obedience and righteousness, they were blind to just how far away from God they really were.
In this parable Jesus tells us there is a difference between obedience and lip-service.
The Pharisees saw themselves as obedient because they kept saying “yes” to God. The problem was their words said “yes” but their lives said “no.” Jesus is really setting them up to demonstrate the contradiction between their definition and the truth.
In the parable, Jesus begins with the first son who represented all of the tax collectors and prostitutes and every kind of sinner. The father told this son to go to the field and this son said “no.” When he began to think about his disobedience, his heart was changed, and he put on his work clothes and went. Those who had, by their sin and disobedience denied God’s rule in their lives, now turned their hearts in repentance at the message of Jesus. Their disobedience became obedience. Their first word was no, but it was their actions which spoke the loudest. Their “no” became a resounding “yes.”
The contrast Jesus makes is with the second son who initially says “yes,” but when it comes time to work in the vineyard, he doesn’t go, and it’s obvious he never had any intentions of working for his father.
The mask he wore said “obedient,” but inside he was selfish and rebellious. His “yes” sounded good, but his inaction is what tells you what he was made of.
And of course, this son represents the Pharisees who, by the externals – their devotion to scripture, their prayers on the street corners, their meticulous tithing, their outward show of piety may have convinced the people, but God wasn’t impressed, because he knew their hearts.
Is Jesus setting you up also? Is your outward mask one of obedience – you do all the right things – but if someone were to peel away the shell they would find your heart turned and twisted with rebellion?
It’s an easy rut to get into – you have just enough religion to make you miserable, but not enough to make you happy. You think all God wants is to hear you say “yes” by coming to church and going through the motions. But the truth is, your life outside these four walls belongs to the world. Your priorities, your values, your morals, the way you treat people, the language you use – those betray the “no” that is really in your heart.
The parable of the dishonest steward in Luke 16:1-13
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
The manager said to himself, “What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg—I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.” So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” “Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,” he replied. The manager told him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.” Then he asked the second, “And how much do you owe?” “A thousand bushels of wheat,” he replied. He told him, “Take your bill and make it eight hundred.”
The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Luke 16:1-13)
Here is a most perplexing parable because Jesus uses a man at the focus who is a scoundrel. He has obviously cheated and lied and embezzled his master out of quite a bit of money.
This man’s only redeeming quality seems to be his ingenuity at getting out of a tight place. He is diligent and resourceful. And it’s those qualities which Jesus draws out of the story for us to see.
Now, Jesus doesn’t’ excuse or endorse this man’s dishonesty, nor is he telling us to buy our way into God’s good graces, but what he does say is, if God’s people were as diligent and resourceful in kingdom business as the world is in its selfish pursuits, what a powerful force that would be in the world. This man, when faced with the urgency of his situation did whatever it took to secure his future.
Think about those who have excelled in their worldly pursuits:
The pro golfer who consistently shoots 6,7,8 under par. It didn’t happen because he has natural talent.
The insurance salesman who year after year is in the top tier of sales for his company. It didn’t happen because he happened to be at the right place at the right time.
The musician who plays for a world class philharmonic orchestra. She didn’t get there by playing as a hobby.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a field of pursuit. Any person who has mastered their goal has done so by hard work, dedication and sacrifice.
Look at the way a worldly person pursues their ambitions. If that person is so dedicated to accomplishing things in this world, why aren’t you and I more enthusiastic about the things that have value for eternity? Why don’t we put in the time and training and effort to pursue and achieve things for God?
The point you and I need to hear Jesus telling us is a simple one. You and I need to put our lives into action. Not just any action, but living for the Master – getting involved in the work that makes a difference eternally. Seeing such an urgency to our lives that we will do whatever it takes to secure our future.
We are called, not to success, but to faithfulness.
We are called to a standard – not merely human achievement, but perfection.
And we are called to a reward – to share the joy of the master.
God has entrusted to you and me, not just earthly riches, but heavenly wealth. God has called you to come work with him in his kingdom. God has made you a trusted servant in his household to faithfully watch over his business.
Are you like the man who has buried his treasure in the ground?
Are you like the son who has said “yes” all his life, but has never gone to the field?
Are you the son who said “no” for so long, but you are ready to make it right and go?
This morning, there is no better time than now to take that first step in giving it all in his service.