“Some Things Are Worth the Risk” Summer Series: “Virtues that Keep Us Stable”
Of the many factors that each of us has had to weigh in making decisions during this season of COVID, one factor that we would never have imagined being as pronounced as it has been over these last several months is the element of risk. It’s not that we hadn’t been weighing risks in our decisions prior to COVID, it’s just that it seems that so much more is at stake now, because we’re talking about our health. And so, before we do anything or go anywhere, we ask ourselves the question, “Is it worth the risk?” If so, then we move forward. But if not, then we stay put.
I have to say that I’m pretty much a pansy when it comes to most risks. I, like most of you, have my “comfort zone,” and I don’t relish stepping out of it, even when I know that doing so might enable me to experience something new and adventurous. And that is why I have never bungee jumped or parasailed or rappelled from any type of cliff, and never plan to. Those activities have zero appeal to me simply because for me they are not worth the risks involved.
But as we all know, and as I have come to accept, I can’t make it through life playing everything close to the vest. At some point, we all must tiptoe out of our safe places and expose ourselves to threats and hazards we might otherwise not want to meet. That’s because of how our reluctance to risk anything now could very well cause us to risk everything in the days to come. From God’s standpoint, one of the surest signs of our faithfulness is our willingness to take on some measure of risk for the Kingdom because of how it shows that we value the Kingdom more than we value life itself.
That seems to be the point of this parable of Jesus that is before us this morning. We know it as “the Parable of the Talents,” but we might well call it “the Parable of the Faithful and Faithless Servants.”
You know the parable. A man is about to go on a journey and so he calls upon his three servants, each of whom he entrusts with a certain amount of money. Actually, he entrusts to them impressive sums of money. The text calls them “talents,” but the term doesn’t mean what we might take it to mean at first hearing. The parable is not about gifts and abilities, which really can’t be transferred from one party to another. In the ancient world, a talent was a measurement of weight, in this case, a certain amount of gold, which by today’s standards would come out to about 6,000 days of wages for a day laborer. Calculate that on the basis of a minimum wage, and you’re talking about $300,000 per talent!
As the story unfolds, two of the servants go out “immediately” and put their master’s money to work. We should not overlook that word “immediately.” They didn’t dally. They didn’t sit around waiting on the “right opportunity” to materialize. They took the bull by the horns and worked to create the right opportunity, accepting along the way whatever risks might come with their investment.
Meanwhile, the third servant, who was given only one talent, still a significant amount of money, takes his talent and buries it in a field, which we know from other parables Jesus told, was not an uncommon practice in the ancient world. People did it all the time, because, as today, some folk are reluctant to assume any risks. They don’t because of how their situation as having “everything to lose and nothing to gain.”
Because you’ve heard the story so many times, you know how it ends. The master of the servants returns from his journey and there is a day of reckoning. What we most remember from our previous times hearing the parable is how the focus falls on the master’s scorn and contempt for that third servant, the one who buried his talent. We remember how the master dubs him “a wicked and lazy servant” who in effect tries to blame his failure on the master’s flawed and imperfect character. “I knew you were a hard man. So I was afraid and went out and buried your gold in the ground.”
But this morning, I’d like to focus our attention instead on the master’s praise of the two servants who realized gain with what they had risked. Sometimes I find it more helpful to underscore the good we might emulate instead of the bad we should avoid. So, what does the master say to these two servants, the ones who doubled their charge? “Well done,” he says to them. “Well, done you good and faithful servants!”
Faithfulness, according to Jesus’ parable, is not just something that characterizes our belief; it is also something that manifests our desire to act on our belief so that in the process we prove ourselves to be worthy of God’s trust. Faithfulness is not just our willingness to receive intellectually the word of promise that comes to us through someone’s efforts to share it with us; it’s also our willingness to take that word and then act on it! Again, I cannot emphasize enough the way these two wise and faithful servants in the story receive what the master has entrusted them with and then go “immediately” to see what they can do to put his talents to work. Faithfulness is without question the measure of a person’s willingness to leverage the grace that has come to him or her in order to expand its worth in our world.
Think about the many characters in the Bible whom God found faithful because of their willingness to do just that. There’s Abraham. God had told him, “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household, and go to the land I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Talk about a risk! Or how about Moses, who had fled to the land of Midian from Egypt because of how he had murdered an Egyptian in reaction to how he had seen the man abuse a fellow Israelite? “I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (Ex. 3:7, 10). Talk about a risk! Or how about Hosea, God’s prophet, whom God commanded, “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD” (Hos. 1:2). And when Hosea does that and his wife leaves him, God then tells him, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods” (Hos. 3:1). Talk about a risk! And how about Jesus, who assumes the greatest risk of all by taking upon himself the burden of the cross because of how in so doing God might show His love to the entire world! Talk about a risk! But in each case, God honored their faithfulness and rewarded them for the risks they took.
And He will do the same for you, if only this morning you would be willing to risk your time or your talents or your resources in a show of faithfulness, one that would further God’s purposes in this world and advance the cause of Christ.
Some years ago, I was introduced to a Baptist pastor and evangelist, named John Edmund Haggai. He was in his 80’s when I met him and was still active in the missions ministry he had established back in 1961, Haggai Institute. At that time Dr. Haggai was in evangelism and he had this idea that Southern Baptists might improve their missions reach by training nationals for ministry as opposed to sending Western missionaries to other countries, where they would need to learn the language and the culture, all the while earning the trust of the people. All in all, it was a very cutting-edge, post-colonial, post-imperial approach. Of course, the leaders at the Foreign Mission Board thought his idea was too risky and they told him thanks, but no thanks, whereupon Dr. Haggai went out and started his own work, which is thriving today.
To make a long story short, I had the opportunity some years ago to attend one of the training sessions for these national leaders. I was the only Westerner in attendance and was told to sit in the back of the room and stay quiet, which as a Baptist I had no problem doing. But it was a great opportunity to engage with these leaders, the vast majority of whom were not clergy, but were businesspeople and educators.
We had our meals together in a large room where all around were posters with inspirational quotes, the largest of which was one by Dr. Haggai himself. It went as follows: “Attempt something so great for God it’s doomed for failure lest God be in it.”
Three times a day for thirty days I looked at that poster, and as the days went by, I asked myself the question, “Now, when have I shown that kind of faith?” And when it was over, I pledged to God that from then on, I wouldn’t be afraid to take that kind of risk.
And I’ve been pretty good to that pledge. Does that mean that God’s been in everything I’ve attempted? No, it doesn’t mean that. Some things didn’t pan out not because I missed God, but because it wasn’t God’s time, and I learned to be OK with that. But some things did. And let me tell you, there’s no greater joy you will ever experience than to have been a part of something that was so great and so risky that it would have failed miserably, except for the fact that God was in it. And God honored it.
Someone has said, “One of the reasons God gave us necks is so that we can stick them out every once in a while.” Why not begin to see the possibilities of what God might do in your life if you were willing to show that kind of faith?
Don’t be afraid. Instead, set out boldly with what the Master has made available. Do so because you understand that being so risky is what the Master expects you to do. Only then will you hear the Master say, what every servant longs to hear: “Well done; well done, you good and faithful servant.”