This sermon is part of the sermon series "Taking Responsibility for Your Life". See series.
Each week in this series we've asked this question: Am I taking responsibility for my life—really? The reason we've been asking this question is because everybody thinks they do take responsibility for their lives. Irresponsibility is very difficult to see in the mirror. But through this series we've discovered that our irresponsibility eventually becomes someone else's responsibility; it's not a solo thing. Irresponsibility impacts people you are connected with, whether in marriage, family, community, workplace, church, or any other type of community.
Think back to your childhood, to something you said—to something we all said at one point or another: "That's not fair!" To which the grownup in our lives responded, "Life isn't fair." The truth is that life isn't fair, and yet there's something in all of us that wants life to be fair some of the time. I'll confess that I'm primarily concerned about fairness when my piece of the pie is the smallest piece of the pie. When I get the larger piece of the pie, I could care less about what's fair. When I get the large piece of pie, I just say, "God is so great." I don't think about those people who got the smaller piece who are out there thinking, My life is so unfair. I prayed. I work hard.
When we say life isn't fair, what we're really saying is life isn't even. While I think that life should be even, I think we can all see that that would be impossible. There is no way for things to be even. Here's why this is important for us to look at: the unfairness of life, the unevenness of life, can quickly become an excuse for our irresponsibility: "If I don't get a big piece of the pie, can you expect me to be a responsible person? Why try? Why go the extra mile if I don't get the benefits? I have every right in the world to walk away from my responsibilities because someone else got my fair share."
Let me say something to those of you who lean in that direction: Don't do that! Irresponsibility eats a hole in your soul, and you begin to spiral. You're the one who will be most negatively impacted by your irresponsibility, and you're never going to be happy. Irresponsible people aren't ultimately happy, because irresponsibility always creates conflict with others and conflict within yourself. Benjamin Franklin said this: "He that is good at making excuses is seldom good at anything else." He's describing that downward spiral of irresponsibility that comes when we view our lives as unfair.
But it's not just the people with the short end of the stick who are irresponsible. We've all seen that people with the larger piece of the pie can become just as irresponsible with what they have. The more money you have, the more money you waste; the more time you have, the more time you waste; the more of anything you have that you don't need, the more you waste. We're generally irresponsible with things of which we have extra. If you're not careful, you can be just as irresponsible as the person on the other side of the ledger sheet.
The issue isn't how to make life fair. The real issue is what we're going to do with the hand we were dealt. What are we going to do with the lives God has given us? The more you focus on the unfairness and unevenness of life, the more you will be tempted to excuse irresponsibility because of what someone else has or hasn't done.
The parable of the talents
All of this that I've been saying is stuff that Jesus taught 2,000 years ago! We're going to look in the Book of Matthew, chapter 25. Here Jesus is telling parables about what the kingdom of God is like, and in the midst of these, he tells a story about the unevenness and unfairness of life. He offers us God's perspective of the unevenness, and it's fascinating.
If you grew up in the church, you might know this story as the parable of the talents. In this story a talent is a measure of money. Jesus took something cultural for these first century people and used it to teach a lesson about how God views unevenness in life. Keep in mind that parables are told in extremes; they're not quite literal, but Jesus uses some hyperbole to make his point clear. Let's look at this parable together:
"Again, [the kingdom of God] will be like a man going on a journey who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them." Jesus is clearly speaking in extremes; this man left all of his wealth to three of his servants. The man leaves his wealth for these servants to manage in the way he would manage it if he were there. "To one he gave five bags of gold,"—a talent of gold was worth about 20 years of work for the average day laborer in this culture—"to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey."
Now that's not even, is it? That's not fair! And while it's not fair that they didn't get the same amount of gold, it is fair that someone who owns wealth can decide how he distributes it. So one of the life lessons is this: Everything is fair to someone. Let's continue:
"The man who received the five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more." By "putting his money to work," we are to understand that he went and traded his wealth for other things of appreciating value. He did this because he knew that was what his master was expecting of him; he had been given the money to manage. "So also the one with two bags of gold gained two more." The second servant managed the money entrusted to him as the first servant had. "But the man who had received one bag 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 five bags of gold brought the other five. "Master," he said, "you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more." His master replied, "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few thing, so I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!
The man with two bags of gold also came. "Master," he said, "you entrusted me with two bags of gold; 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!
Wouldn't this seem unfair to the first servant? Wouldn't he be thinking, Wait a minute! I had five and made it ten, and you're going to put me charge of many. He went from two to four, and you're going to put him in charge of many too? That's not even!
What happens next is a great illustration of first century whining. Listen closely, because as the third servant begins to explain why he buried his money, he subtly blames the master. This is what irresponsible people do:
"Then the man who had received one bag of gold 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.'" The servant is saying that the master is tough to work with; he doesn't leave any crumb on the table; he doesn't take no for an answer. The servant is intimidated by the master and says so. He was anxious. "So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you." The servant is basically blaming his master for there not being more gold.
"His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant!'" Wicked here can also be translated worthless, and I think that's a better translation. The servant didn't invest the money because he was lazy. He just did the easiest thing and then blamed his master for his own slothfulness. "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."
Here is another surprise in this parable: the master says to his other servants, "'Take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For those who have will be given more, and they will have an abundance. As for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them.'" For those who have been responsible with what they have, they will be given more.
And the master says to the first two servants, "'Throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'" So this guy who has had this incredible opportunity realizes he has blown it, blames his boss, and is thrown out of the inner circle to where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth—a place of anger and frustration. And the parable is over.
Jesus' point is this: Everybody gets an uneven amount of opportunity, and everybody gets held accountable for what they do with it. Everybody has the privilege, everybody has the responsibility, to somehow, someday give an account for what they did with their uneven amount of opportunity. And this uneven amount of opportunity isn't even ours; it's on loan to us. Our responsibility is to figure out how to leverage it to its maximum.
We are all one-bag, two-bag, or five-bag people.
We all know some five-bag people: they get into the right schools, they marry the right people, they have talent that gets recognized in the public sphere, they make a lot of money, they're beautiful. We hate those people! Everything just seems to have come naturally to them! But if these five-bag people aren't careful, they will just take what they've been given for granted—because it's just that easy.
Then there are people who had to really work their way through school, whose parents divorced when they were young, who aren't all that attractive, who don't have good communication skills—life is tough for them. These people know when they look around them: I just don't have a lot going for me, especially compared to those other people.
And then there are most of us—somewhere in the middle. And the question for us is this: What are we going to do with what we have? The tendency is to look at everybody else—at what they have or don't have—and make excuses for what we will or won't do.
This parable teaches us that we're to look at our own bag and decide how to leverage it to its fullest. We are to refuse to take what we have been given for granted, either by wasting it or by making excuses.
I have several friends who've been very successful financially, such that they could retire fairly young. But these men have been convicted of the responsibility they still carry by all they've been given. One of these men decided to create an entire organization devoted to mentoring young men in our city. He doesn't do this because he has to; he does it because he's been given so much and is responsible for that. Another friend started a school in his fifties. He gives all of his extra time and wealth and energy and leadership to this school, because he realizes he's going to have to give an account for what he's done with what he's been given.
It's easy to be jealous of those who have been given much. But our favorite stories are about these people—people who have it all but choose to invest what they have for the benefit of others.
My friend Scott Rigby asked himself the same question. At 18, he was involved in a terrible truck accident and had to have both of his legs amputated. He didn't sign up for that. And for a little while, his life spiraled downward. But one day he had a wake-up call. He said, Wait a minute. I can't spend the rest of my life making excuses and placing blame. I can't spend the rest of my life looking at what everybody else has and can do. So he got busy and started taking care of himself physically. In 2007 he was the first double amputee using prosthetics to cross the finish line of the Ford Iron Man World Championship. But that's not all he did. Scott chose to leverage his story for the sake of other people. He now spends time working with war veterans who have lost limbs and are dealing with the transition back into civilian life. That's pretty amazing.
I have another friend named Mario, who came to the U.S. from Cuba with his sister when he was 13-years-old. They came without their parents, because their parents couldn't leave Cuba, and they went to live with their uncle whom they had never met. Mario recalls that he and his sister would just hold each other and cry themselves to sleep every night. He didn't see his parents again until he was 35. Mario was a one-bag person. But he decided not to make excuses. He got through high school and got into the University of Miami where he excelled and landed a great job with a telecom company. After he retired, he joined the board as chair of a charities committee. He serves in his community because he understands how people who don't have anything feel. He also understands the fear that goes along with having few options. Mario is leveraging this season of his life to do something for other people. That's what one-bag people do when they decide to quit making excuses.
And then there is us—the two-bag people. We have been given different opportunities, more than some people and less than some people. Our responsibility is to look at what we have been given and figure out how to leverage it for all it's worth—for the sake of God's kingdom if you're a Christian, or if you're not a Christian just for the sake of something bigger than yourself. Living only for yourself is a waste of your life; there's nothing inspiring about that.
God is not trying to be even; he's just given us what he's given us to work with. You might be 25-years-old and have just an okay job. What are you going to do with that? You might be a 32-year-old woman with a good job, but you thought you would have already been married with kids by now. What are you going to do with that? You might be happily married, but you've learned that you're not able to have kids. What are you going to do with that? Are you going to gripe and complain and make excuses, or are you going to accept what is in your hands as coming from your Father in heaven and leverage it for the sake of something bigger than yourself?
The most important verse in our parable is verse 19: "After a long time, the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them." One day you will have to give account for your life. It can be an awesome thing, as depicted by the first two servants in the parable, or it can be yet another instance of excuses and blame.
We all have some time, but we have uneven amounts of time. We all have opportunities, but we have uneven, unfair amounts of opportunity. To be a person who can say, "I'm taking responsibility of my life—really," means I'm an individual who takes responsibility for the opportunities that come my way, really. I'm not going to take them for granted, and I'm not going to make excuses, and I'm not going to compare myself to the people around me.
The bottom line is simply this: to whom something is given—regardless how great or small—something is required. It is when we embrace that and embrace it through the lens of a God who loves us, we begin to be serious about taking full responsibility for our lives.