I used to think the most misunderstood parable of Jesus was The Prodigal Son.
But now I think the Parable of the Talents might just give it a run for its money in that metric.
A quick summary for the uninitiated. Jesus told this story:
A rich guy goes on a trip, leaving a portion of his wealth with a few individual servants. To one he gives a large amount of money, to the next he gives a moderate amount, and to the last, he gives a small amount.
The guy comes back, and his servants start showing him what they used the money on. The first two servants invested or used the the money in such a way that they doubled their portion. The last one hid his money in order to return it safely to his master. To the first two the master says “Good job! Since you did well here, I’m going to trust you with even more.” To the last one, he says, “You failed. You’re done working for me. Give me back the money.”
In our neat armchair dissection of these verses, we praise the ones who invested and returned a profit. But in practice, we encourage a far more conservative approach.
Let’s take a look at how we run our churches. The Lutheran church denomination I am a part of (AFLC) is made up of individual, self-governing congregations. We are an association rather than a synod. We unite under a common confession, but we are largely independent. This means each church gets to make its own decisions.
As part of this conservative church body, we are known for our rigid adherence to scriptural inerrancy. . . and our resistance to cultural change.
This resistance is not an entirely bad thing. American culture is taking a nosedive by biblical standards—at least in the external ways we pay most attention to.
But that conservative resistance to change also pushes us to play it safe in ways we shouldn’t. It causes us to have an emotional attachment to the past that hampers us from doing present good.
A quick note: In talking about the past, I do not intend to disparage the historical church. We have inherited a rich theology from the reformation and beyond. Many churches have too quickly left this behind. I am not in any way encouraging a separation from the biblical Lutheran theology of the past. Rather, I am encouraging an evaluation of what is theology, and what is merely nostalgia.
Getting back to the parable: What was the final servant’s motive for hanging onto his small sum of money? I don’t think it was greed. He knew he would have to give it back, after all. I think his motive was fear. Fear of losing what was entrusted to him.
How often are we motivated by fear? How often do we miss out on what God has for us because we are afraid to fall on our face—afraid of our pride being bruised.
Congregations within a synod do not have complete control over how they spend their money and resources. In the AFLC, we do. We also emphasize lay (non-pastor) involvement.
This is where I quote Spiderman’s Uncle Ben who said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” To rephrase: With the freedom or the ability to act, comes the duty to act. Or to put it biblically, “To whom much is given, much is required.” (Luke 12:48)
However you want to say it, what does that mean for the “Free and Living Congregations” of the AFLC? It means that “keeping things the way they always were” for the sake of comfort and safety is a poor way to use our God-given wealth, talents, skills, and ideas.
Now, you might say, “We’re not a wealthy church, in money or in talent.” But remember the last servant was also given little. The expectation placed on him was the same: to multiply what he had.
We can complain about declining culture, and declining church attendance, but what if it’s our fault? What if we have not been faithful in how we interact with culture? What if we have not been faithful in how we’ve used our resources? What if, instead of investing our time, our resources, the very Gospel itself, we have instead hidden them all in a hole like the foolish servant?
The wise servant (church) doesn’t build up walls to keep himself protected from the thieves outside; he invests what he is given in the world around him. In the case of the church, returning a profit of souls.
That might mean interacting with culture. It certainly means maintaining our church building and pursuing excellence in the quality and thoughtfulness of the worship service.
If we don’t do this, the little we have may be taken away.