And then there’s the story about the old miser who wanted to be buried with his money; hoarded every red cent he ever made. Even though he was a multimillionaire, he never even spent any money on his wife: never bought her anything or took her anywhere. In fact, he was such a terrible skinflint, he even put a clause in his will that, when it came his time to depart from this mortal sphere, he planned to take all of his money with him.
Finally, when his time did come, at the funeral his widow shared that fact with a dear friend of hers. Her friend was shocked, “You’re not going to honor that ridiculous request, are you? After the way he treated you all those years?”
“Yes, I am,” replied the widow. “I wrote him a check for the full amount.”
You know, I’ve probably read this parable from Matthew a couple of hundred times. I’ll bet I’ve preached on it a couple of dozen times. But this past week, it finally dawned on me what this parable was really all about.
Parables were very structured formulas used by the ancient Hebrews for instruction. They were Jesus’ primary tool for teaching his disciples. Parables typically began by announcing what the lesson would be about, “For the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” They would typically end with a moral.
And somewhere in between – within a contemporary analogy – would be (semi-hidden) the central meaning. The purpose of the parable was meant to be provocative; to get people to think for themselves; work out the lesson in their own minds.
Now, no doubt you have also heard this parable countless times and perhaps think you know what it’s about. You’re thinking: “It’s one of those scripture passages the preacher reads during this time of the year to get more of our money.”
But, even though this parable uses the analogy of `talents’ – talents here referring to a certain amount of money – this parable is not about money. Money is not the great gift God gives us. Nor is it the further reward we reap for being faithful. This is not fodder for a `Prosperity Gospel’ message that suggests that the more money you give away to the church the more money you will be given back in return “in full measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, and placed in your lap.” [Luke 6:38].
Nor is this parable about `talent’ as we tend to define it today: those God-given abilities the church hopes you will share if we cannot get your money.
I think our best clue concerning the meaning of this parable is found in repeated phrase, “Enter into the joy of your master.”
“Enter into the joy of your master.”
That’s the great reward given to the two faithful stewards who went out into the world and traded with the talents they were given; as contrasted to the unfaithful steward who was relegated to a life of `weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
That’s when it occurred to me: maybe this parable is all about being good stewards of God’s great gift of joy. Think about that a moment.
At one point in his farewell speech to his disciples – as recorded in the Gospel of John [15:11] – Jesus declares, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”
And then here’s the kicker: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
Salvation, itself, is a Gift of God’s grace alone, in Jesus Christ.
But the great gift with which God rewards us for our faithful obedience, to then share with others, is the joy of our salvation.
“Make a joyful noise to the Lord,” the Psalmist [100:1] exhorts.
“Praise the Lord all you peoples . . . for great is his love toward us” [Ps. 117].
“Clap your hands, all you nations, shout to God with cries of joy” [Ps. 47:1].
“Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our Salvation, let us come before him with thanksgiving and praise him with music and song” [Ps. 95:1 – 2].
Again and again the Bible encourages God’s people to lift up their hearts, and their voices, in joyful praise in response to the blessings, mercy, justice and love of God.
But why does that seem to be such a difficult task for us? Why do we so often bury our joy beneath resentment or bitterness or pride or fear, or grief.
It seems like we spend so much of our lives striving for happiness in this country. It’s even firmly mandated in our nation’s founding documents.
We pursue it through the accumulation of money, the achievement of success, the acquisition of stuff, the accolades of notoriety.
As C. S. Lewis put it, we live out personal cottage industries focused on engendering our own happiness through every means other than obedience to God’s law of love; and falsely substitute momentary pleasures for true joy. And maybe that’s because, “Joy is never in our power,” wrote Lewis, “and pleasure often is.”
Even religion itself oftentimes contributes, unwittingly, to this vain pursuit.
In his autobiography, God Was in the Laughter, the late David Read, longtime pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, tells about growing up in Scotland and his Aunt Belle, his most religious relative, who looked like Queen Victoria. “It was difficult to avoid God in her home,” Read remembered, and it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience.
“Morning and evening prayers, endless church services to be endured.” God, he said, was formidable, to regarded with awe if not outright fear. His Scots Presbyterianism was very serious business.
He cites a Christopher Marley novel in which one of the characters refers to Presbyterians and their religion, “It don’t prevent them from committing all the sins there is, but it keeps them from getting any fun out of it.”[i]
We Presbyterians have been (arguably aptly) called `God’s Frozen Chosen.’
We have a very hard time, suggests scholar Conrad Hyers, thinking about God and humor, God and laughter, God and gaiety. “Our God is infinite in gravity,” he says, “and we think we are most religious when we are at our dreariest and dullest.”[ii]
There was a matriarch in the first church I served – a very austere and proper lady of French descent – who did not like laughter in the church. Now, you know me well enough by now to know that that was going to be a problem. And, indeed, it was. This dear lady – who had been a member of that church for decades – ultimately left because the worship services were too light hearted. Too much laughter. Too much good humor. It made me wonder what in the world that church was like all those years previous to my arrival.
William Sloane Coffin (referring to Jesus’ miracle at the wedding of Cana) reminds us, “Jesus first visits people not in their sorrow, but in their joy . . . What does this say to gloomy Christians? Mind you, I’m not suggesting that all, or even most, of the sourpusses in the world are to be found in the churches. But there are an awful lot who seem to forget that if only one tenth of what we Christians believe were true, we still ought to be ten times as excited as we are.”[iii]
“I have told you this,” said Jesus, “so that my joy may be in your and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” [John 15:11 – 13].
Diane was telling me about a movie she saw on the Hallmark channel the other evening called The Christmas Choir. The story was about a young accountant, Peter, who’s obsessed with a successful career and making money. He’s hard at it late one day, when his secretary reminds him that he is late for a dinner date with his fiancée. “Oh my gosh!” he cries and hurries out to meet her. That evening, however, his fiancée – tired of Peter being a workaholic and emotionally detached – breaks off the engagement.
Downhearted, Peter goes to a lounge to drown his sorrows with soda water; where he’s noticed by Bob, a blues piano player singing there for tips. Feeling a bit sorry for Peter, Bob invites him to come back to his place for dinner. It turns out that Bob lives in a Catholic Shelter for the homeless. Peter watches in amazement as the residents of the shelter share their vast musical talents.
Before he leaves, Peter writes a sizable check for the shelter.
Peter goes home, but still finds he is unhappy with his life; and now he can’t stop thinking about the people at the homeless shelter. He keeps going back to visit and to help serve the meals.
Eventually, Peter decides that the best way to help the folks at the shelter is to form a choir. Gradually – through many ups and downs and personal struggles – the choir gets better and better, and they all become trusted friends.
And the moral of this modern day parable is that Peter finds true happiness, not through success or money, but through serving the community by sharing his own joy of music.
“Joy bursts in on our lives,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “when we go about doing the good at hand and not trying to manipulate things and times to achieve joy.”
“Joy is home,” writes Fred Buechner, “God created us in joy and created us for joy, and in the long run not all the darkness there is in the world and in ourselves can separate us from that joy, because whatever else it means to say that God created us in his image, I think it means that even when we cannot believe in him, even when we feel most spiritually bankrupt and deserted by him, his mark is deep within us. We have God’s joy in our blood.”[iv]
Perhaps the greatest irony about God’s gift of joy is that it increases as we give it away.
“Now enter into the joy of your master.”
That is Jesus speaking to you. To me. To all who seek to serve him faithfully.
I realize that it’s a challenge sometimes, to accept that joy; to receive it wholeheartedly. When we consider the circumstances of our lives in this world; when we see the disarray the world seems to be today; when we see the suffering of those far and near; when we see those most dear to us going through hardship and difficulty. It’s hard to be joyful.
But let me suggest this: the deep joy of faith is not always about being happy or laughing. And sometimes it specifically means laughing in the very face of death.
Dr. R. A. Torrey was one of the great Bible teachers of the past generation. Dr. Torrey and his wife when through a time of great heartache when their twelve-year-old daughter was accidentally killed. The funeral was hold on a gloomy, miserable, rainy day. They stood around the grave and watched as the body of their little girl was lower into the ground.
As they turned away, Mrs. Torrey said, “I’m so glad that Elisabeth is with the Lord, and not in that box.”
But, of course, even knowing this to be true, their hearts were broken. Dr. Torrey recalled that the next day, as he was walking down the street, the whole thing broke anew—the loneliness of the years ahead without her presence, the heartbreak of an empty house, and all the other implications of his daughter’s death. He was so burdened by this that he pleaded to the Lord for help.
“And just then,” Torrey recalled in his memoirs, “this fountain, the Holy Spirit that I had in my heart, broke forth with such power as I think I had never experienced before, and it was the most joyful moment I had ever known in my life! Oh, how wonderful is the joy of the Holy Ghost! It is an unspeakable glorious thing to have your joy not in things around you, not even in your most dearly loved friends, but to have within you a fountain ever springing up, springing up, springing up, always springing up three hundred and sixty-five days in every years, springing up under all circumstances unto everlasting life!”[v]
The joy we have in life does not depend on our life’s situations or the world’s circumstances; it comes from knowing that we are loved by a gracious, just, and merciful God; a God who, one bright day, will make all things right. Through Jesus Christ.
[i] Read, David H. C., God Was in the Laughter, 2005.
[ii] Hyers, Conrad, And God Created Laughter: The Bible as Divine Comedy, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1988.
[iii] Coffin, Randy Wilson (ed.), “On Turning Water to Wine”, The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: Vol. 1, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008.
[iv] Buechner, Frederick, “The Great Dance”, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, HarperCollins, 2007.
[v] Green, Michael P. (ed.), 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, Baker Books, 1989.