I don’t normally divulge the meaning behind the stories that I’ve written, partly because I don’t want to prejudice the reader and partly because I’m a contrary so-and-so, but let’s talk about the story ‘Border Control’. This one appears in The Second Listening Book and, as usual, I had something deliberate in mind when I wrote it. Read more
My family and I were part of Cornerstone Community for about eight years. For those of you who don’t know, Cornerstone is an Australian mission and discipling movement, and it’s been going for about as long as I’ve been alive. It’s far from perfect, but it must have been doing something right. There are countless well-meaning Christian communities that have imploded within their first five years. Why has God kept Cornerstone around? What is the magic ingredient?
I wonder if one of the things that God enjoys about Cornerstone is that, fundamentally, it’s a risk-taking venture. I’m sure those who are responsible for the organisation’s accounts will agree with me, but others might not be so sure. Well, trust me. I’ve been involved in local church leadership and been a member of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, so I know what I’m talking about. There are churches that consider themselves ‘edgy’ because they’ve recently changed the time of their evening service. There has always been a touch of the Mad Scientist about Cornerstone – “Well, if Jesus really said that, what happens if we try this..?” I think God likes it. I’m not sure there’s a risk-free way to build bridges to heaven.
There’s a lot of theology you can be wrong about, and still be a Christian. Predestination, women in leadership, the Rapture, what worship really is, the role of Israel in God’s plans, what the point of the Sabbath is, whether or not Donald Trump is the Antichrist etc. I used to think that my position on some of those things was really important. Now I’m not so sure. However, I do know that there are plenty of churches where the stuff about Jesus being God and dying for our sins and all that is just a given, and that the real meat and drink is in the kind of stuff that I’ve just listed – and you’d better make sure that you believe the right things. I know of at least one church where ministers are selected based on their response to a grilling from the congregation about these kind of issues (maybe not the Donald Trump one).
The thing is, what happens if you subconsciously create a church environment where it’s a terrible crime to believe the wrong thing about these topics? What if everyone has to be on the same page about everything, or they’re persona non grata? What if what you’ve communicated over the years is not actually the gospel, but rather the message that the worst sin in the world is to get it wrong? What happens to a church like that? It won’t be a risk-taking church, because the problem with risks is that sometimes you can get it very wrong.
I remember taking a very specific risk once, and it going wrong. I crashed and burned in a humiliating way. The scars from that failure are still with me – all these years later and I still haven’t totally recovered. But I don’t regret it for a second, because I know that if God ever brings it up in conversation I can say, “Sure God, it didn’t work out brilliantly, but at least I tried.” I’m sure that God’s response will be to smile, because He is a risk-taking God and has a soft spot for risk-taking children. I remember hearing a story once about a woman who criticised D.L. Moody for the way that he evangelised. His response: “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it”. I think that God agrees.
When I read ‘The Parable of the Talents’ another thought that I can’t get out of my head is that there are no rewards, no prizes in heaven for caution. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sometimes, as I read it, I wonder what the master’s response would have been if the servant with five talents had lost them all in his investment scheme. I like to think that he would still had more time for that servant than for the one who sat on his hands. I don’t know for sure, and such speculation doesn’t really have a place in the interpretation of parables anyway. Jesus told it to make a specific point, and a different point would have required a different parable altogether. Maybe if he’d been surrounded by reckless, careless disciples he would have told a parable about a man who suffered because of a foolish risk, but as it is he told a parable about a man who was rejected by his master because he was too cautious and not risk-taking enough. I wonder why he felt the need to tell us that one?
Ah, Matthew 25:14-30. ‘The Parable of the Talents’ practically writes its own sermon. “So, in conclusion, God wants us to use our gifts for Him. Coincidentally, we need people to help lead the Sunday School. There’s a sign-up sheet at the back.” I did mention that I’m cynical, right?
I remember sitting in a classroom, waiting for the lecturer to arrive. He came in and, out of the blue, went off on a rant that had nothing to do with the session that was scheduled. “Some of you,” he said, “are frustrating God because you’re not using your gifts”. Having delivered this message, he calmed down and got on with the lecture that we were supposed to have. I suspect that, years later, he wouldn’t even remember that he’d done this and I’m certain that he has no idea that he was talking to me. Make no mistake, he was talking to me. That random little outburst changed my life. There would be no The Listening Book if he hadn’t been obedient enough to vent on the Holy Spirit’s behalf.
If Jesus had wanted the message of this parable to be ‘God wants you to use your gifts’ then he probably would have finished at verse 25, but he didn’t. Verses 26 to 30 bring the story to its chilling conclusion. The servant who buried the money loses the little that he was entrusted with and is thrown into the sinister ‘Outer Darkness’. No wonder we don’t dwell on that bit. After all, you can understand why the servant did what he did, right? Would a little empathy have killed the master? And before you check, Luke’s version isn’t much better.
These days, when I read this parable I think about the times that I diligently prepared sermons, carefully making the message of Jesus a little more palatable for my congregation. Perhaps it was because I’m a sensitive, pastoral soul, or maybe it was because I was labouring under the mistaken belief that you can make a rose more beautiful by removing its thorns. These days I am even more committed to taking responsibility for how I am communicating, but I am equally aware that I am not doing God some great favour by coming up with eloquent and clever ways to de-fang the Gospel.
What if Jesus’s message here isn’t ‘God wants you to use your gifts’, but rather that ‘Waste makes God angry’?
If that’s true, what do you make of that?