One aspect that has long stood out to me regarding the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 is the motivation for the wicked servant. What drove him to literally bury his portion instead of using it to produce more for his master? What caused him to sit on his hands until his master returned? Quite simply: fear. He was afraid of his master. He was afraid that he might use the portion unwisely, and end up squandering an incredible opportunity. He was so afraid of what would happen if he took any risks, that he did the one thing his master apparently disliked the most – nothing.
Fear is a powerful emotion, isn’t it? It can be a great motivator, but more often than not it is a barrier. It prevents us from making important moves, sometimes moves we even want to make. For much of my youth I was this way when it came to the opposite sex. There were so many girls I wanted to talk to, to spend time with, to ask out … and I did nothing. My reward? Singlehood. My fear of rejection determined a large part of my teenage years.
Fear can also determine a large part of our walk with God if we let it. I have seen this in the church many times. An idea is proposed and there may be all sorts of great reasons to try it out, but some person or group of people is afraid of what might happen if you do. If you try that, well who knows what might happen! Someone might misunderstand what we believe. People might start arguing. We might slide down the slippery slope into full blown heresy. Might, it turns out, isn’t such a mighty word after all. It turns into an opportunity to let fear control us. Sure, that idea could be really fruitful, but it could also cause problems, and “better to be safe than sorry.”
I bet that’s exactly what the wicked servant of Matthew 25 was thinking as he dug the hole and placed the money inside. “Better safe than sorry.” True, the money was safe, but it certainly did not prevent him from being sorry.
I wonder what would have happened had the servant attempted to use the money and failed. What if he had truly done his best and worked hard and things just didn’t work out? The parable doesn’t say, but I’m inclined to believe there would have been more mercy for that than for his failure to do anything at all.
Either way, there’s an important lesson in here for the church. So many times we allow legalism and fear to control much of what we do. We are so focused on getting everything exactly right, that we are terrified of what will happen if we make a mistake. Naturally, it’s a lot easier to just do nothing. The real irony though is that this fear actually causes us to make mistakes. It leads to poor exegesis. It leads to fights and splits. It leads us to a place where our evangelistic potential is severely stunted. It keeps us from being the fruitful servants that we are intended to be.
Certainly we should have fear and respect for God. Our God is, after all, a consuming fire! That’s an analogy we ought to take seriously. But that fear and respect should motivate us to take risks and work harder to please him, rather than to bury our talents in the sand and hope it’s enough when the time comes. Especially as Christians who have grace through Jesus Christ, there is even less of an excuse to stay within the confines of our personal comfort zones.
The master of this parable says an interesting thing towards the end. While reprimanding the wicked servant, he says that the servant should have invested the money. But investment is, by it’s nature, a risk. In other words, the master expected his servants to take risks. But risks don’t happen if we are gripped with fear. And that is why God does not give us a spirit of fear, but rather one of “power and love and self-control.”
Fear has its place in our lives and within the church. But its place should be as a servant, not a master. When we let fear determine our steps; when we let fear of what might happen keep us from dreaming of what might happen, we fail to live up to the potential God has given us. Our talents are not our own, they belong to God. May we never bury them out of fear. May we always use them out of love. May we always be good and faithful servants.