Friday, January 19, 2007

Buried treasure

There are a few sayings, parables and stories by Jesus about buried or hidden treasure. One of them is about how someone finds something of great value and sells all that he has in order to acquire the land with the hidden treasure. It's a message about giving up everything in order to take hold of the treasure of the Gospel.

But there are two intriguing stories about a man who is given something of value and then buries it.

The two stories are similar and some scholars have argued that they are simply two different accounts of the same story, remembered differently by the Gospel-writers. In my opinion they are two similar yet different stories, spoken around the same time but with slightly different details and possibly a slightly different message.

Matthew tells the story of the 'parable of the talents' (25:14-30) as a parable about the kingdom of heaven; and Luke has a similar 'parable of the pounds [or, minas]' (19:11-27) "because they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately" (v. 11).

In both stories a man travels into a far country, and before going he divides some money amongst his servants (in Luke's story they each receive one mina, and in Matthew's they receive a varying number of 'talents'). When he returns he calls them all to account to see how they have done. He commends the servants who have traded or invested well, and condemns one servant who did nothing with the mina or talent he was given. In Luke's story the last servant to give account says he hid the money wrapped in a handkerchief, while in Matthew's story the last servant reports how he buried it in the ground.

Both stories end with the owner of the money reprimanding the 'lazy' servant and telling him he ought to have at least put the money in the bank so he could have gained some interest.

The point of both stories is fairly obvious - we ought to put the talents, resources and opportunities we have been given to good use so that they produce something worthwhile for our Master. In both stories the master shows that he is delighted by a ten-fold increase, or even a doubling of what he has given on trust, but that he is extremely annoyed to simply receive back what he has entrusted. In Matthew's story the 'lazy' servant argues that he has kept 'safe' what he has been given. Both stories have this servant saying "I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed [Matt and Lk], and collecting what you did not deposit [Lk]".

There are two important things to note here.

1. First we should note the attitude of the various servants to their master;

2. Then we should note the attitude of the 'lazy' [Matt] or 'wicked' [Lk] servant to what was entrusted to him.

The lazy servant says "I knew you to be a hard man ..." John Wesley, in his Notes on the New Testament, observes that "he never knew Christ who thinks him to be a hard master". This is a valuable observation. The servant who said "I knew you ..." was the servant who didn't know his master at all. On the other hand, the other servants put to good use what had been entrusted to them and produced outstanding results. In one story they double their money, while in the other they increase it 5 or 10 times! These servants didn't produce such a good return on their investment by good luck. They too had observed their master over the years, noted how he'd produced amazing results (apparently "reaping where he had not sowed"), and no doubt they had used some of the same manners and methods they'd observed in their successful and prosperous master. They were ultimately successful because they had imitated their master.

The lazy servant didn't know his master, nor did he know what was in his hand. Rather than see its potential to achieve some wonderful results he saw it as an onerous responsibility, a burden to be carried. Rather than see it as life-giving (when the master said he wanted to see his money back "with interest" the Greek literally means "with children") he saw it as something to be "wrapped up" and "buried". He mummified it!

What are we doing with whatever it is God has entrusted to us? Do we see them as talents, resources and opportunities which can produce amazing and outstanding results if only we imitate our Master's manners and methods? Or do we see it as something to be "preserved" and then handed back "intact" when we are called to account.

I often hear brethren speak of "preserving the Truth" as though all we have to do is to make sure nothing ever changes. These brethren often fight hard to make sure that creeds, dogmas, statements of faith, and other expressions of "the faith" are preserved "intact" and that any challenge to them is resisted and put down. I hear people, especially in the minority 'splinter' groups, boast that they are the closest things to "original Christadelphians" and that nothing with them has changed in 140 years. If this is what God wants then He doesn't really need anyone to help - He can bury it in the sands (like the Dead Sea scrolls) and preserve it for as long as He wants.

But God hasn't called us to "preserve" the truth - He has called us to put it out there so that it can produce children! He has called us to exercise faith, to take risks, to look for challenges and opportunities. If the master in these stories wanted to take the "safe" way, then he would have put his money in the bank. But instead, he put it in the hands of men who really knew him and would follow his example. In my experience it is often the people who think they know the most about Christ are the ones who know Him the least. Like the lazy/wicked servant they think they know Him, but their failure to follow His example, to use His methods and to have a heart for the things and for the people for which he has a heart, they demonstrate that they never knew Him at all.