A Life of Risk
A Life of Risk
(Read Matthew 25:14-30)
About 10 years ago I got on a plane to see some friends on the East Coast. I was in the window seat and after I got settled in, I took out my Bible and a couple of books and started reading.
A few minutes later a young woman who was professionally dressed sat in the seat next to me. Not long after she sat down, she began a conversation. Normally, I like to be left alone on planes, but I didn't want to be rude, so I do what's normally done in those contexts and asked what she did for a living. She replied that she was a buyer for a major retail firm and was traveling to the East Coast for a clothing show. She talked about how much she liked her job and how much fun the trip and the show were going to be.
Then she asked what I did, and I responded by saying that I was a pastor and a seminary professor. She asked, "So you're religious?" I laughed somewhat and replied, "I guess so." She quickly took a magazine out of her bag; I could tell the conversation was done, so I went back to reading my books.
About 40 minutes into the flight, we hit a bad storm over the Midwest and the turbulence was terrible. The plane was like a roller coaster bumping up and down, and I did what I normally do: I closed my eyes, grabbed the seat rails, held on tightly, and prayed like crazy.
Like most of you, I've flown through turbulence before, but the turbulence during that flight was extremely bad. I was scared, and people were screaming and the plane kept dropping. I was praying, "Oh Lord, please don't let us crash; please Lord, just get us through this storm." Suddenly, I felt hands grip my arm tightly, and I looked to my left and saw the young woman looking at me. She said, "You're religious! Do something!" So I took an offering.
Obviously, the plane didn't crash, but that flight experience was pretty traumatic, and I started to question the wisdom of flying again. I did some investigation and discovered that I had a far greater chance of getting in a car wreck on the way to airport than ever being in a plane crash.
The reality is that there's no risk free way to travel, and if we think about it, that applies to almost every other aspect of life as well. Most of us know that there are no absolute guarantees, no fail safe plans, and no "risk free" arrangements. Life refuses to be neat and clean. Anyone who knows anything knows that living and risking go hand in hand.
At a personal level, to reach out to another in friendship is to risk involvement. To love someone else is to risk not being loved in return. To expose your feelings is to risk being rejected. It does no good to run scared from the risks of life; yet we're told all the time to protect ourselves in every conceivable way.
Insurance companies makes billions of dollars a year by promising to protect us from life. Advertisements promise grandiose things and enormous benefits with "no risk involved." Sometimes, the "avoid risk" mentality spills over into our relationship with God. We begin to play it safe by putting walls around our lives and limiting the extent of our involvement for Christ and his kingdom.
We might come to church and read our Bibles and say a few prayers and maybe even go to Sunday school or a small group; all of those are good, but sometimes that defines the full extent of our faith. Jesus of Nazareth never meant the Christian life to be limited or boring. He meant it to be a life of excitement, adventure, and sometimes even risk. We see that pictured for us throughout the Bible.
Think of God calling Abraham and Sarah to leave their home and go to place they didn't know. Think of Peter, Andrew, James, and John when Christ approached them and said, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Think of the excitement involved but also the risk in leaving a thriving business to follow a wandering, itinerant preacher. Think of the anticipation Paul and Barnabas must have felt when they heard the Holy Spirit had a risky missionary journey to send them on.
Christ has called us to a life of risk and the parable in Matthew 25 is an illustration and proof of that.
The resources we've been entrusted with
Jesus told this story in the context of a long discourse that he gave to his disciples about his second coming. It's important to note that Jesus is not talking to the multitudes or to unbelievers; there are no Pharisees or Sadducees around. Jesus was speaking to his followers, people like us who claim to be Christians. It shows us that God rewards a life of risk for him and it warns us against the type of life that can, unfortunately, epitomize certain elements of the contemporary church world.
(Read Matthew 25:14-15)
The man going on a journey represents Jesus, and the servants represent people like us. According to the story, Jesus has entrusted us with his property, or as it says, with numbers of talents. A talent was a large sum of wealth, and here they illustrate resources such as our time, energy, mind, money, and abilities that God in his grace has entrusted to us.
It's important that we notice the first variable in the story: The servants are given different amounts including five talents, two talents, and one talent. Jesus' point is that everyone is given different amounts of resources and abilities with which to work.
One of the brightest guys I've ever met knows 21 different languages. If you ask him about it, he'll qualify it and tell you that he's only fluent in 8 languages and just speak parts of the other 13. He's literally got the gift of tongues! In contrast, I took two years of German in high school and two more in college and can barely say Danke.
How do you use the resources God has given you?
The main focus of the story is the second variable; it's not on what we're given but how we use what we're given. Look at how the different servants leverage their resources (see verses 16-18). The man who had received five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more talents. The servant with the two talents gained two more. However, the man who received one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master's money.
The first two servants got to work, risked their resources, and doubled what they were entrusted with. It's a great description of how some people use what's been given to them for the glory of God and the benefit of others. They come to know Christ, and they see the resources that God, in his love, has given to them. They know that the resources present tremendous opportunities for creating, developing, and investing. As they walk through life, they risk those for Jesus and his work and, over time, all kinds of good things come about as a result.
I have a friend named Bobby. At one point in his life, he was a cocaine addict and an abusive personality who served jail time for criminal activity. Then he met Jesus, and the Lord transformed Bobby's life. He got into God's kingdom the same way anyone does—totally by the grace of God— there wasn't a thing Bobby could do to earn or work his way in.
Once Bobby was in, he understood that the Master had gifted him in various ways. Bobby began to better utilize his abilities in the corporation he worked for. He helped start a single parents ministry at his church and eventually served on the deacon board. In addition to re-building his marriage and parenting his three children, he went on to earn a master's degree. One Easter the senior pastor of Bobby's church had Bobby share his testimony, and God used his testimony to draw others to himself.
Ever since he's met Jesus, Bobby has risked his resources, his time, talents, skills, gifts, and money to expand the work of Christ and the kingdom. That's exactly what the first two servants in the passage did. They knew the master; they knew he loved them and entrusted them with all their resources, so they risked those for him.
The third servant stands in stark contrast to the first two servants. While two servants were out seizing opportunities, the one servant dug a hole and put his talent in the ground. He's a picture of those who refuse to risk anything, change anything, or do anything for Jesus. For those people, life is comprised of always playing it safe. They might attend church but don't talk to them about using the resources that God has given them for ministry, outreach, or service. Their motto is "Come weal or woe, the only status we know is quo." Sometimes, churches are tempted to act similarly.
Our culture is breaking apart and yet far too many churches are hunkering down inside the walls of the fortress and are burying their resources instead of risking what God's entrusted to them in order to reach out to those in need and have an influence for Christ. That's a tragedy because the needs are big and growing.
One in five children in the US is now raised in poverty. Over 25 percent of American high school youth are illiterate. Drug addiction is growing even in the suburbs. Political discourse has become offensive and unhelpful, and although some racial progress has been made since Dr. King's dramatic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week in our culture.
What's even more serious is the growth of the number of people who don't know who Jesus was, let alone have any kind of relationship with him. The needs are big, the opportunities for gospel advancement are enormous, and it's no time to shut down because Jesus has given us tremendous resources, and he's called us to risk those resources in faith for him! One of the main reasons why comes to us in verse 19.
What are you doing with what you are given?
(Read Matthew 25:19-21)
Please note that despite the difference in their resources, they're given the same reward of sharing their master's happiness! It's not what we're given but what we do with what we're given that matters to God. That's why we never should play the comparison game. It's never about what we have been entrusted with; it's always about whether or not we're willing to risk what we have in service to the Savior. That takes us to the third servant and look at the master's response.
(Read Matt. 25:24-30)
That interaction is pretty scary and raises some questions. Why did the servant bury his talent? Why was he unwilling to risk his resources? Was it fear or wickedness (selfishness) that lead him to act as he did? Was he just being lazy? Was it all three of those reasons, revealing that he didn't trust the master (or, as we might say theologically, he never had a saving faith in Jesus)? Whatever the answer, Jesus makes it clear in the story that a day of accountability is coming.
While the parable ends on a negative note related to the third servant, I think that it's more important for our purposes to look at the positive example of the first two.
A born again Christian risks their resources for the kingdom
Jesus wants us to know that there is a direct connection between our lives now and our lives then. He's telling us that if we're faithful in risking what he's given us in order to advance his kingdom, he will reward us with something far beyond what we can imagine.
Even though it's unwise to push the specifics of the parables too far, I'm convinced that this story shows us that heaven means greater responsibility, greater adventure, and incredible joy for those who are faithful here on earth. The first two servants in the story got that, risked their resources, proved their faith, and were greatly rewarded. I'm stating the obvious when I say it is simply wisdom to do the same thing they did.
A few years ago, I read a biography of George Whitefield; he was a combination of Billy Graham and Taylor Swift because everyone knew who he was. Ninety to ninety five percent of colonists heard Whitefield preach. I was challenged by his commitment to Christ and how he lived his life. He rode thousands of miles on horseback, preached hundreds of sermons, gave his money away, started an orphanage, and influenced untold numbers of people.
After I finished reading the biography, I told a close friend about it and said, "If Whitefield looked at our lives, I wonder what he'd say to you and me?" My friend said, "Scott, he'd probably tell us the same thing he told people then: 'You must be born again!'"
If we're truly born again, we're going to risk our resources for the Savior. We'll find new ways to reach lost people with gospel. We'll be more than willing to sacrifice our time and energy in prayer and in serving others. We'll care deeply about reaching out to new people when they come to our church and will find ways to enfold them into the church. Our hearts will break for the poor, for the homeless, the abused, the orphans, and the most vulnerable of all—the unborn.
People who are born again by the Spirit of Jesus risk their resources and in the process prove their profession of faith. Using your time, talents, and treasures for ministry gives credibility to your Christianity. Let me show us how that works.
(Read Matthew 25:34-40)
Teddy Stollard certainly qualified as one of the least of these. Miss Thompson, his teacher, was a Christian and said she loved the students in her class, but deep down it wasn't true. Whenever she marked Teddy's papers, she got a certain perverse satisfaction out of putting Fs at the top. She should have known better; she had Teddy's records, and she knew more about him than she cared to admit
Christmas came and Teddy's Christmas gift to Miss Thompson was a gaudy bracelet and a bottle of cheap perfume wrapped in an old brown bag held together with tape. The students laughed, but Miss Thompson had enough sense to hold up the bracelet and say how beautiful it was. After all the students left, Teddy hung around and said softly, "Miss Thompson, you smell real nice, just like my mom. The bracelet looks real nice on you, too." When Teddy left, Miss Thompson got down on her knees and asked God to forgive her because she knew she had been holding back from sharing her resources with Teddy. When the students came to school after Christmas, they were met by a different person. Miss Thompson was now no longer just a teacher, she was an agent of Jesus of Nazareth. She gave herself to all the children, but especially to the slow ones and to Teddy Stollard. By the end of the year, Teddy showed dramatic progress. In fact, he caught up with most of the kids and even surpassed a few.
People who won't risk their time, talent, and treasure for Christ and others can never have an influence like that. With them it's always safety first instead of Savior first; it's always business first instead of blessing first, and it's always career first rather than Christ first. They never recognize that we serve a great God who wants us risk the resources he's given us rather than squandering them on things that are just chaff in the wind.
As a favorite preacher of mine used to say,
There are a lot of folks who have planned their lives out very carefully: Nice little job, nice little marriage, two nice little kids, and a nice little boy and a nice little girl. Nice little retirement plan. Nice little house with a nice little two-car garage with a nice little car in each half of it. Nice little place to go in the summer or, if you prefer, a nice little place to go in the winter. You know what the end of that story is? It's a nice little hill with a nice little mound on it and a nice little stone at the top of the mound with your name on it and a few nice little dates underneath. You know what will have happened? You will have pampered yourself into mediocrity when you could have risked your way into immortality.
Don't do that. Instead, give credibility to your Christianity. Risk your resources for Jesus and prove your profession of faith in him.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.