Reading Matthew 25 And Not Achieving to Be Worthy

Jesus speaks of a world where your value isn’t based on what you can get but on what you give. A world where your value isn’t based on what you can gain for those on top of society but what you can do for those on the bottom of society. A world where value isn’t assigned based on what you do but what you do for. 

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I recently read Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short.  #summerreading 

It was a fascinating look at the money managers who sniffed out problems in the U.S. housing market and used that insight to make a bunch of money. And of course, for the economy to crash.

In reading the book what befell all these men was something that can happen to all of us at one time or another–once you see something you can’t unsee it. 

You read The Big Short, and the way that Lewis presents the information, and it’s like this is so simple how did no one else see this? These guys were looking at the same data that everyone else was looking at. They just happened to see a little something in it, something different. 

Lewis details what it was about their personalities, their backgrounds, their makeups that allowed them to see it. But basically once they saw it, they couldn’t unsee it. They couldn’t leave it alone. And for two years they became obsessed with what they had seen, mainly because what they had seen ran so counter to the basic fundamentals of what people thought about the economy. They were dogged. And it paid off. Literally.

I’ve learned something new that I simply cannot unsee. It involves a parable Jesus told. One of those popular ones. 

But here’s the thing, to my knowledge no one else agrees with me. 

You may not agree with me. But here’s the good news. Unlike in The Big Short if at the end of this you disagree with me, the economy will not crash. People won’t lose savings and houses and jobs. Your salvation will not be in jeopardy if you disagree with me. So there’s very little at stake here. Hopefully you will at the very least find this interesting.

The parable is found in Matthew 25:14-30. It’s generally called the Parable of Talents.

So if you’ve heard or read this parable before likely here’s what you’ve taken it to mean:

  • God gives each of us talents. 
  • God has invested in each of us. 
  • God has given us each unique gifts, unique strengths. 
  • God has equipped us. 

All of this has an orientation, all of this has a purpose. We are gifted so that we can use our gifts to increase the Kingdom of God.  We are called to serve in the church and to serve in the world. We are called to be like the first two servants who took the talents from their master and gave the master a return on His investment. We aren’t to be like the last one who didn’t put his talent to work. That would be to waste what God has given us. 

We believe this is a parable about God and us and the way the Kingdom of God comes into the world. And there are a few translations who begin this parable by saying The Kingdom of God is like… They begin the story by naming it’s about the Kingdom. So we think this is about how we participate in the growing of God’s Kingdom.

But what if I told you that the phrase Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven is not included in the Greek?

And what if I told you I don’t think this parable is about God at all?

If you look at the Greek, you’d see that the NRSV translates the opening the best when it begins the parable: “For it is as if…” No mention of the Kingdom of Heaven. Just an ambiguous it. Which begs the question: What is the it?

I hope this it ISN’T about God because of how the master relates to the servants. In the case of the first two servants the master rewards them for the work they have done. But clearly his affection is based directly upon their performance managing his wealth. The master rewards them, the master praises them, the master loves them because of work they have done.

This runs counter to our understanding of God’s love for us. God loves us not because we do things for God. God loves us because that is who God is. Whether or not we do good work. Whether or not we perform. Whether or not we make a return on investment. God loves us. To position God as someone whose love is dependent on our good works runs anathema to the God we meet in Jesus Christ.

The kicker for me, however, was in how the master treats the third servant. When he comes back with only the one talent he was given, the master throws him out into the street. He gives up on him and sends him away. He exiles him.

This is not who God is to me. Or how I see God in scripture.

I figure if a parable’s depiction of God would cause me to question who God is on a fundamental level perhaps it wasn’t the parable that was wrong but merely how it was interpreted. So I began to wonder what could this be about?  If this wasn’t about God, what is this about? 

Then I thought some more about the whole dismissing the servant who didn’t get a return on investment. And I thought I know that doesn’t sound like God, but it does sound like someone. It sounds like a CEO.  It sounds like the villains in The Big Short. People who will give bonuses to those who perform and will fire those who don’t? That’s totally familiar to us.

That’s when it hit me (and I can’t look back). This parable isn’t about God and His Kingdom. It’s about our world. It’s about what life is like here and now. Right now when we are hurt and crushed by the fact that this isn’t what God wanted.

If we think of this parable in this way, what follows in Matthew 25 takes on a whole new meaning.

What follows in Matthew 25:31-46 is also an oft-quoted part of the Bible. This is the part about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the needy, going to prison and doing all of this as you are doing it for Jesus.

I’ve preached on this portion of Scripture a lot. Mostly because I want to lead a church that does this. I have to tell you though there’s always been a part of this that’s bugged me. It’s the whole bit at the end about those that didn’t help the least of these getting thrown into eternal punishment. I’m a good Protestant and so reading that I’m like, “Hey, Jesus, did you forget about grace alone?  Now it’s about works?”

Now I see it. And I can’t unsee it.

Traditionally when we talk about this parable we talk about how it shows our need to serve, our need to be in ministry to those less fortunate than us. Which is what it’s about to be sure. But when I read these two parables together I get the sense that Jesus isn’t simply giving his disciples a call to arms to serve. He isn’t simply trying not fire them up for ministry. He’s doing something more. 

I think Jesus is describing an entirely different world. One that only God in Jesus Christ can see. One that God is working to make our reality.

The first parable is describing the way the world is. It’s a world where people’s values are determined solely in how much money they can make for their master. How much wealth they can accumulate. Your worth is determined by your usefulness within the economy.

We can sub out other things here. The world has told each and every one of you that there’s some sort of measuring stick that determines your worth. Maybe it’s career advancement. Maybe it’s how clean and together you have your house, your life, your family. Maybe it’s what college your kid goes to or how they do in sports. Maybe it’s how full you can keep your schedule, how busy you can make yourself. There’s something that you have internalized as what makes you worthy. What brings you praise. What makes you good.

And you believe that if you don’t live up to that standard you’ll be cast out. You’ll be alone. You’ll be seen as not good enough.

And so you hustle. You try as hard as you can to live up to that standard. That standard the world has told you that will make you worthy. And you probably wind up exhausted. And you resent the master who is making you run ragged in the vain attempt at measuring up.

Here’s the gospel. There’s another way. There’s another world. We just need God to imagine it for us. 

Jesus speaks of a world where your value isn’t based on what you can get but on what you give. A world where your value isn’t based on what you can gain for those on top of society but what you can do for those on the bottom of society. A world where value isn’t assigned based on what you do but what you do for. 

Jesus says in his kingdom it’s not going to be about hustling and trying to meet impossible standards in an exhaustive attempt to feel worthy.

Instead it’s going to be based on what you can do for others, what you can give away, how you can help, how you can serve.

Instead of value based on achievement, it’s value based on service.

Instead of value based on wealth, it’s value based on generosity.

This world is not the world we live in. But, boy, do I wish it was.

For me this resolves the end part about punishment in our second parable. I don’t believe God punishes us based on what we do or don’t do. Protestant. Grace alone.

I think this part about punishment is included because punishment is something we face in the world. 

In the first parable and in the world, we are punished if we don’t achieve enough, if we don’t make enough, if we aren’t valuable as the world defines value. Jesus is applying that same punishment/reward schema but is applying a different standard for who goes where. It’s a way of hammering home what truly matters in God’s world.

So what I see happening here isn’t so much Jesus trying to encourage his followers–and us–to help others. Rather I see him describing a new world. And a new world order. The new world and new world order that God desires to make real here and now. It’s not so much that we are invited to discreet acts of service as we are invited to imagine and live in this world. 

To me these parables don’t so much seek to change our behavior as they seek to show how God wants to change all of it. And invite us to think of ways that we can begin to live in God’s new world. This comes as grace to me. Because deep down I want to serve more, I want to be more generous. But I’m worried about how I can be generous AND measure up in the ways the world values. I’m worried about how I can serve others AND achieve all that the world has conditioned me to believe I need to achieve to be worthy. 

It is good news to hear there’s a world–God’s world–where the things that deep down I desire to do are the things that are of ultimate importance. 

If you’re like me then perhaps you can find that you are freed. You are freed from the things this world has taught you to believe are important. Things you find yourself exhausted trying to live up to.  You are freed to do the things you know deep down are the things worth your time, worth your effort, worth you devotion. 

God is making a new world in our midst. A new world formed on new values.

You are invited to take your place in that new world. 

Matt Benton, husband, father, and pastor of Spirit & Life Church, and Brenda’s boss.