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Daring to Risk

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Daring to Risk

Willingness to risk—that's the way the gospel was born.

For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.

And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.

Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.

But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money.

After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.

And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.

His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.

His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many tilings: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:

And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.

His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:

Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.

Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.

For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

And cast ye the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 25:14-30 KJV

If I were to ask you the point of the parable of the talents, what would you reply? This parable is so familiar, so much a part of our Christian education and heritage, that the question seems silly—and the answer obvious.

But what if I were to tell you the real point of this parable was not that we should use the innate "talents" we've been given? What if I said that Christ had another more important, exciting, life-shaping truth in mind as He told this familiar story?

Well, that is exactly what I think. I believe that this famous parable is really about something quite a bit deeper than an admonition to use our God-given talents. This parable is about taking risks. And the question it ultimately raises is the kind meant to shape our idea of following Christ And that question is this:

How Willing Are We to Take a Risk for the Sake of Christ?

Risking. What is it about the idea of taking risks that excites us at the very same time it strikes fear into our hearts? We seem to be in love with the idea—if somebody else is taking the risk. While only a brave, or crazy, minority are daring enough to take chances, the rest of us watch in awe, shaking our heads and exclaiming, "Boy, look at that!"

Recently, I was reading about Dr. Frank Farley, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, who has spent twenty years studying risk-taking personalities. His research has identified what he calls the "T" factor. Those who have this "T" factor are those who are willing to risk, either positively or negatively—that is, willing to risk honestly, for the contribution of humanity or self, or willing to risk dishonestly, to the detriment of society through crime.

It's amazing what people like these will do. In the summer of 1985, 150,000 people risked themselves shooting the rapids down the Colorado River, for instance (U.S. News and World Report, Aug. 10, 1986, p. 64). And since 1970, 45,000 people have taken up the hobby of hang-gliding—that's strapping gossamer wings on your back and running off the top of a mountain in hopes the air catches you.

And what about the people who take other kinds of risks? There are supposedly 4,000 new people a day entering the stock market. In places like Denver, Colorado, school teachers have brought in stock brokers during the school's lunch break to give them advice on how to pool their money and buy penny stocks—stocks that may triple in a matter of days or just disappear within that same amount of time (U.S. News and World Report, May 25, 1985, p. 61). One Georgia wheat farmer recently put $30,000 into wheat futures and within six months, made $300,000. Of course, that caused a rush of others willing to risk in the future of wheat, too. And then there are the state lotteries, where you can risk a little in the chance to reap a lot. In one recent year the New York State lottery (Time, May 28, 1984, p. 42) had a pot of 22.1 million dollars. Even Governor Mario Cuomo waited in line 30 minutes to buy $5.00 worth of chances. Yet, believe it or not, those lottery players are three and a half times more likely to be struck by lightning than they are of winning. Maybe those of us who risk like the adrenalin rush it brings—or maybe it's the feeling of escaping the ordinary we are looking for. Whatever the reason, we like the idea of taking risks... to a certain extent, that is. Most of us are really committed to a lifestyle built on playing it safe. We hedge our bets, cover our tracks, we dig in. From anesthetized surgery to homogenized milk, from the womb to the tomb, most of us work hard at avoiding risk as much as possible. And this is where Jesus' story intersects life for most of today.

Use It or Lose It?

The parable of the talents has been subjected to so much lameness, tameness, and sameness that it's almost become the story of the bland leading the bland. We've watered it down, as if Jesus were only teaching a trite moral like, "God gives you talents. Use your talents or you may lose them."

Now, there is truth in such a moral, of course. But that's certainly not all Jesus had to say in this parable. There's so much more—just as there is in all His parables. Christ's parables are not lame little stories with lame little morals. They are outrageous stories about outrageous characters. Think about them—a man who invites strangers to a feast, a woman who bugs a judge, a man who builds his house on sand. These creations of Jesus do bizarre and eccentric things to wake you and me to the realization that the Christian life is not meant to be predictable or conventional.

So, in the parable of the talents, Jesus Christ is not just talking about what we should do with our talents. He's also challenging us. He's saying, "To follow Me is to be willing to risk—to live a lifetime of risk." And that concept speaks of a life of action, taking chances, adventure, expansion, all for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Learning to be open to risks, though, may be one of the hardest growing pains we can experience as Christians. But at the same time, such a lesson carries with it the potential of astonishing growth, too. Still, it seems against our nature. Our aversion to anything new, anything risky isn't a new attitude. By the time Matthew had collected this story of Jesus into his book, the history of the church shows that things had begun to settle down. The followers of Jesus had decided they would begin leading a conventional, quiet, predictable sort of life as they waited for Jesus to bring in His kingdom.

Yet this story should have stabbed them into a heightened awareness, a vision of the sort of willingness Christ expects from anyone who follows Him. Looking at the parable of the talents from this perspective sheds a whole new light on every part of the story.

The Real Star

First, the five-talent servant and the two-talent servant in the parable are essentially window dressing. They're stage properties to set off more starkly the real star—the servant who was handed one talent of his lord's money and did nothing with it

Make no mistake. Even holding one talent was an enormous responsibility. A gold talent in New Testament times was worth about $30,000. The five-talent man, then, had to cart away $150,000, the two-talent man $60,000, and the one-talent man $30,000. What makes these amounts even more incredible is comparing them to the standard of living in that day. The daily pay of the wage earner in Jesus' day was a whopping 15 denarii.

But even though he had less than the others, the focus of the parable is on the one-talent servant who refused to risk what his lord had given him—even though the lord made it quite plain that he was given the money for that expressed purpose.

But the servant could not bring himself to act. He seemed paralyzed, immobilized with fear. Because of the heavy responsibility his lord had given him, he couldn't budge. Like so many of us today, he was the typical spectator, the bench-warmer. He stood on the sidelines, never participating in what his lord was doing.

The Timid Sailor

A famous theologian, Reinhold Neibuhr, tells a parable about this parable. It is the story of a young man who left his home in Kansas to be a sailor on a tall-masted sailing ship. On the third day out to sea, the new sailor was commanded to take the watch in the crow's nest, high up the mast. After climbing about halfway up the mast, though, he stopped. He was frozen to the big mast, not able to finish climbing up, and too proud to slink back down and admit he was afraid of heights in front of the seasoned sailors watching. So he took an option that was no option. He simply clutched at the mast and did nothing with the responsibility that he had been given.

The comparison between the sailor and the one-talent servant is obvious. The servant who was given the stuff of life and told to invest it, to risk it for the sake of his lord, could not bring himself to do anything. He froze. He took an option that was no option. He only clutched the talent, never giving it, or himself, a chance.

If we had never heard the parable of the talents and its applications, we might be tempted to think this servant did something commendable or prudent by not taking any risks. After all, he didn't lose what he had. It was a dangerous world out there, and he had no idea whether the prevailing "market" was going up or down. At least he was honest enough to hand back to his lord the exact amount he was given. We might even have expected the lord would understand, pat him on the head, and say something like, "Well, you did the best you could." With that the master would tell him to trot along.

But not so. Jesus had no sympathy for this character in his story. The servant's lord spoke scathing words of judgment against this man who was prudent—but useless. "You wicked and slothful servant!" he yelled at the servant. Then in verse 30, he tells the others to "cast this unprofitable servant out."

The Servant's Sin

What did this poor servant do that was so bad? The lord said to the servant, "You are evil!" The Greek word used here refers to the devil himself. But the really chilling word in this parable is not "evil." It's the word "useless." It is a word which carries with it the idea that the man had become simply a gap, a blank space on the horizon of life. He was null and void, a zero. And all because he was simply unwilling to risk anything for the sake of his lord's kingdom.

So, since he was unwilling to be a "gambler," his lord said, "You've become a zero to me, and I'm going to take your opportunity and give it to someone who is willing."

We can't help having sympathy for this man's plight, though. And we can guess the excuses he used, because we are so much like him. We can almost see him stroke his chin as he looks Over at the five-talent servant and thinks, Sure, he can risk himself. His father is Rabbi So-and-so, head of the synagogue. If I had the connections he had, I could take risks, too. He's got a nice little safety net to catch him. Or maybe he looks at the two-talent servant and thinks, Well, if I had his personality and ability, I could risk something too. Why, he's always able to land on his feet. And so, bitter and cynical, he explains away why others can take risks in the kingdom of the master while he does not.

But the worst aspect of his "spectating" was that it warped his perspective of the master himself. In verse 24, the servant says, "Lord, I know that you are a hard man. You reap where you've not sown, you gather where you've not trod." In Jesus' day, sometimes the seed where a landowner sowed would fall over into the next pasture. Since there weren't any well-marked boundaries or fences set, a really grasping man, at harvest time, would cut a great swath into the field of his neighbor, rationalizing that some of the grain might be his.

The Master's True Nature

But this man's lord was anything but that sort of man. He was a kindly lord who at the end of the day liked to nod at his faithful servants and say, "Well done! You've been faithful." But the one-talent servant could no longer see that side of his master. Since he was not throwing himself into what his master was doing, he became blinded by his spectator's view. And he found himself frozen with fear.

We really aren't much different than the one-talent servant, are we? Many of us have become spectators looking on at what God is doing in the church, in the city, and in the world. Our detached view has blinded us to the true nature of our Lord. He slowly begins to look like a hard taskmaster, rather than a Heavenly Father, because we've become a "watcher," rather than a "doer," in God's program.

The sorriest perspective from which to view anything is that of the passive spectator. How do you know what's really happening if you aren't in the game? A fan is forever on the fringe of the real perspective, ignorant of the inside scoop—no matter how dedicated a cheerleader or critic he is of the players. And having a warped perspective, not truly understanding what you are watching, can affect your actions out of all proportion to reality.

In one of his short stories, Edgar Allen Poe tells of a rural farm family for whom the big event of the year was the arrival of the mail order catalog. Every year they would order one gift for the entire family from its pages. This particular year, they ordered a collapsible telescope, and after several long months, the package finally came. Quickly, they unwrapped it, set it up in front of a window, and trained the lens toward a distant building... and what they saw horrified them. Before their telescopic lens was a hideous, grotesque monster. Unanimously, they decided it must be doomsday, so they quickly locked the doors and fastened the windows and pulled down the shades, then huddled together waiting for the end. After a long while, the smallest boy in the family noticed that what they saw through the telescopic lens was not a hideous monster on a distant building at all—it was simply a praying mantis on the screen right outside the window.

Here was reality magnified out of all proportion. They saw, but because they had only a spectator's grasp of what they were viewing, their perspective was warped and they drew the wrong conclusions. Have you noticed yourself griping and grumbling lately about what God is doing in the world or about the state of your Christian life? Could it be that you've become a watcher, a spectator, a bench-warmer rather than someone who is actively, eagerly throwing himself or herself into what God is doing? This parable contains that kind of challenge. It is asking, what is your level of risk? And if we are honest, it forces us to ponder the far-reaching answer.

How willing are we to take a risk at some level in our lives? Are we willing to march off the map in terms of our own lives? It doesn't take that much to begin—just the willingness to be open to change, to gamble a little. And maybe in doing so, grow a lot. Risk is deciding to involve ourselves in ways we've never done before, asking what the need is and how we can fill it.

Yet, we hesitate. And maybe for good reason. If we could just understand Jesus' use of this story, especially the harsh treatment of the character, a little better. Not one of us wants to be a zero. And none of us want to misunderstand the reason for the parable. Was the servant treated unfairly? He might not have risked anything, but he didn't lose anything either. To our cautious way of thinking, his punishment doesn't fit the "crime." The man wasn't a thief or adulterer or murderer.

Another Version of the Story

That's probably the sort of reaction that the people who first heard this parable would have had, too. Maybe they had heard a similar parable told by the rabbis of their day in which a certain man went on a long journey and divided his goods among his servants, too. One of the servants put his share of goods in exchange and lost it; the other one held on to his share, doing nothing with it at all. When the lord of the servants returned, he rewarded the one who did nothing with the money, holding onto his share. That servant became head of the household. And the man who risked his share and lost? He was rewarded with capital punishment!

Quite a bit of difference from Christ's story, isn't it? To our cautious minds, though, the rabbi's story makes more sense. No wonder, after hearing Jesus' stories, the people exclaimed, "We've never heard stories like this before!" Jesus turned their stories upside down. He made their heroes His villains and their villains His heroes. He replaced all the white hats with black ones, and the black ones with white ones—and the people were thunderstruck.

But what was He really saying to these people—and to us—with such outlandish stories? He was saying, "Look, if you follow Me, yet still believe in safety first, then your values are different from Mine." Jesus' words and actions were meant to shake us up, to shake the world up. Yet we don't hear Jesus' parables describing the kingdom of heaven like that at all. They sound somewhat soothing to our "over-trained" ears. The kingdom of heaven is like... what? Like a man who dozed by his fireplace....

No, soothing us wasn't Jesus' intention at all. Instead of peaceful images, He gave us brilliant pictures of risk-takers—of people who weren't afraid to give it everything. He said the kingdom of heaven is like a man who found one pearl of great price and was so captured by the beauty of that pearl, so taken by its value, that he liquidated everything he had. He sold out and risked it all in order that he could own that one pearl. That's not soothing—it's exciting, and very risky. Our Lord said that following Him has far more to do with taking that kind of chance than it does simply believing in safety first at all costs.

Yet our churches, made up of believers like you and me, seem to be the least-likely candidates for taking any risk at all. When asked to point out people and organizations that are risk-takers, we point excitedly at the entrepreneur building a big development, or we point to the investor who risks financially on something of value. How often do we point to the church and say, "Look at those people! Look at what they're risking for the sake of Christ!" We as the church are probably the very last ones in the community to risk anything at all. We become too comfortable, too settled to consider change—and in so being, risk becoming zeros, useless bench-warmers, grumbling and mumbling so much that we ultimately miss the action.

Our Lady of Risk

In his little book on the parables, George Buttry tells of visiting an ancient abbey on the coast of France named "Our Lady of the Risk." Unable to figure out why medieval Catholics would name a religious residence hall something like that, he asked the people why. They told him the name "Our Lady of the Risk" was given to the abbey to commemorate the fact that the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, in reality, took the ultimate risk for a young woman of her age. She was willing to accept the idea, brought by an angel, that she would conceive and give birth to the Messiah—without help from a husband.

We forget today how truly ultimate that risk was for that young woman. In first-century Jewish society, a teenage girl, with child and without husband, took more than the risk of being ostracized. She also risked being stoned.

Yet the gospel began, humanly speaking, when that quiet, godly Jewish girl was willing to look at that angel and say, "Yes. So be it unto me, according to your word. I'm willing to take the risk, for the sake of the kingdom of God." Willingness to risk—that's the way the gospel was born.

When we compare Mary's story and the risk she was willing to take with Christianity today, our lifestyle does look awfully lame and same and tame. How conventional, predictable, our Christian living has become. But, what should such a comparison mean for us individually? Are the spotlights on me? we may begin to wonder. "Does Christ expect me—normal, average me—to risk something for him?" we ask.

The answer is yes. Of all people, Christ knew what risk was—and He knew the magnitude of being willing to risk. When He died on the cross, in a very real way, He took the ultimate risk. He hung there from about 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon only because He believed, with His whole being, that God would keep faith with Him and raise Him on the third day. How did He know? Did He have a guarantee? A signed, notarized piece of paper saying, "Yes, My Son, I agree to raise You on the third day"? He had nothing—nothing but the willingness to risk and the only guarantee we all have, the word of the Father that if we risk for Him, He will honor it. But that was enough for Christ. With that assurance alone, He took the chance of the cross by saying, "I'm willing to risk the cost for the sake of the world, because I believe in the word of the Father."

Where Do We Fit In?

What can we do? How can we change? There's a place where we can move away from the commonness, and risk the unusual for Christ. Somewhere in our routine, somewhere in our daily lives is the place where God wants us to make a detour. It could be a road He wants us to cross, an encounter He wants us to have, a confrontation He wants us to face, a word He wants us to speak, a deed He wants us to do. To us, it looks like a risk. Our first response is, "I've never done that before..." But that may be the very place where Christ wants us to step out in faith and risk that something different for Him.

I'm willing, but... what if I fail? we think. The parable of the talents closes with an answer. It deals with the importance of taking responsibility instead of passing the buck. In verse 19, we see a biblical image of judgment when the lord returns and beckons his servants to him. The Lord Jesus Christ is coming back, it seems to say, just as the lord in this parable came back after a long time away. And what is the first thing the lord in the parable does? He made his servants answer one question: Had they been willing to risk for the sake of his kingdom while he was gone?

"Well done!" the master said to the five-talent servant and the two-talent servant. And then he rewarded them even more. And then the focus changes to the one-talent man who played it safe. And what is the servant's first response? One we all know intimately. He immediately began to make excuses. His first excuse was fear. He said, "I was afraid, so I went and hid it."

Of what was he really afraid? We know he was afraid of the tough image he had conjured up for his lord. But could there have been something else? Could he have been afraid that if he had given his best, it wouldn't have been as good as the five-talent servant's or the two-talent man's? After all, he only had one talent. Very easily, his fear may have been that instead of going off like a Roman candle and lighting up the whole sky for his lord, he might have fizzled out.

We can all identify with that fear. Actually, more than anything else, this fear may be what keeps us from risking. It's not that we don't want to give our best. We're worried that our best won't be good enough.

But Christ didn't tell us that we have to succeed. He did tell us that we need to risk in whatever way He asks, at whatever level He asks. So many of us are willing, but we just don't think what we could do will be as good as what others will do. So what happens? Nothing. Nothing at all. For fear of not doing the best, we freeze and simply do nothing. We're immobilized with the fear that our best won't be good enough, and that God will agree.

A Self-fulfilling Prophecy

When the one-talent man said, "I knew that you were a hard man," he had visualized himself as a victim. And that's always a self-fulfilling prophecy. He said, "I knew this wouldn't work out. I knew I couldn't please you, so I didn't do anything." But while he was mumbling, he missed two very important truths about his lord and about those who risk.

First, all of those willing to risk for the sake of Christ belong to the same order of heroes. That's worthy of repeating: All who are willing to risk for the sake of Christ belong to the same order of heroes. God knows our capacity to risk, and He knows our capacities vary. That's why He gave varied abilities, some five talents, some two, and some one. But notice that the words to the five-talent servant are exactly the same words the lord used to praise the two-talent servant. "Well done, good and faithful servant," he said to both. "Welcome, I'm going to give you more."

The Point of the Parable

And that's the ultimate point of the parable. To risk to your potential makes us heroes in the sight of our Lord. How is that possible? It's because God has already tilted the game of life in favor of those who risk for Him. We don't live in a universe that's controlled by an impersonal computer. We live in a universe where the game has already been tilted by a nail-scarred hand. If we're willing to risk our potential, we'll find we won't always win, but in the end, we'll find it all to be tilted our way.

And how do we find our potential? Everyone has a different threshold of risk. And it is that threshold the Lord wants us to cross. He is the Lord of risk. So the goal is to discover what our threshold is. What line do I have to cross which takes all my spiritual stamina? It could be just crossing the street, or crossing the hall, or it could be crossing the world—using our five talents, our two talents, or our one. But the only way to find out is to gamble, to risk that first step. To take the dare. "If you seek to save your life, you'll lose it," the Lord of risk said. "If you lose it for My sake, you'll find it." The life of the Christian shouldn't be boring or predictable. It should be an ever-changing panorama of challenge and excitement

The parable of the talents shows us how—and more importantly—why.

Growing Pains of the Soul.

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