Sunday, July 21, 2013

Thoughts on the worthless servant

Matthew 25:14-30 (NIV)

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 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 things; 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!’

“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. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! 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.

“ ‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
I’ll be blunt: I don’t always understand what Jesus is talking about. While this parable doesn’t neatly translate into a parenting lesson, it does make me think about my job as one of the most important early figures in my children’s encounters with the Bible. Specifically, it leaves me scratching my head about the intended lesson and what, if anything, I’d be able to say to any of my boys if they ask me for an explanation.

When the lesson is “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” I know what to tell the boys about the moral and can already think of instances where it might be useful. But when the bottom line, as it is here, boils down to “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance,” I’m at something of a loss.

Isn’t the master the bad guy here? He harvests crops he hasn’t planted — that sounds like theft to me — and somehow he feels his habitual robbery means his servant should have known precisely what to do with his bag of money? He only trusted the guy with one bag in the first place and made it clear he didn’t expect him to be as productive as the servants whom he trusted with five and two bags. Ultimately there weren’t any losses: the master got his money back, it just hadn’t grown in his absence. Still, the third servant is dubbed worthless and cast into the darkness.

I understand the message of rewarding the servants who did what their master expected and being entrusted with more responsibilities. But they weren’t serving a benevolent master, they were under the rule of a thief and a jerk. Why is increasing his wealth conveyed positively?

Maybe I’m missing something painfully obvious. If my children ever do come to me with a sincere question about this passage, or any other one I can’t reconcile, we’re going, together, to seek out the advice of a trusted pastor. Together we can all explore the scripture and hopefully come away with a deeper understanding. It’s all part of the process of learning about faith and how to interact with the Bible.

My takeaway from this is a commitment to avoid two behaviors. The first is to simply force my beliefs on my kids. I will explain honestly how I feel and answer any questions they have, but I will teach them to be critical thinkers and to come to their own conclusions. Their beliefs have to be theirs and not mine, otherwise they won’t be of any use.

The second is to be the kind of dad who says, “Well, figure it out yourself.” There are times when nudging the kids toward learning a lesson through firsthand experience maximizes the benefit. I am thinking here of tying a necktie or changing a flat tire. But if I don’t know a certain answer, wouldn’t it just be better for us to seek together? We might learn something about the source material — and each other. That would be doubly rewarding.

A prayer for July 21:

Lord, thank you for the reminders I am not as smart as I might think. I know I try to be modest and especially to be humble as it relates to you — but I also know I am not always as meek as I ought to be. Frankly, my bubble needs to be burst every so often, and I appreciate it when those moments of being brought low are handled with comfort and kindness. I apologize for my bouts of egotism and seek your forgiveness. Amen.

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