The problem with ministers, Bible teachers and religion writers is that we’re human.
The problem with being human – one of the many problems – is the we read and interpret passages of scripture through different prisms, depending on our experiences, past teachings, even our sinful bents. Sometimes we make the Bible say what we want it to say.
It fascinates me how two people can read the same passage and come away with sometimes opposite interpretations.
Earlier this summer I visited a church where the pastor preached about a parable Jesus told about a master who had three servants. The master distributed “talents,” which in those days was a measure of money, to each of his servants, and then went away on a trip.
Two of the servants invested their talents, but the third one dug a hole and buried his because he thought the master was a mean, cruel monster.
As the parable goes, when the master returned he rewarded the first two servants who invested their talents and made a profit, saying to them, “Well done, guys! You’ve been faithful with a few things so I’m going to put you in charge of big stuff.”
But to the third servant the master called him wicked and lazy and threw him out into the darkness where there’s “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:14-30, my paraphrase).
The preacher that morning said some ministers and teachers say this parable is for Christians and is all about living up to your potential. Being all you can be, using your talents and your strengths and the gifts and resources God has given you, investing them in furthering the kingdom of God so that at the final judgment when we all stand before God and he asks, “What did you do with what I gave you?” we can show him.
Then, depending on our return or profit, he’ll either say, “Well done good and faithful servant” or he’ll cast us away from his presence and we’ll join those who are weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth and sweating in a very hot place.
The preacher said his mother used to hold this parable over his head all the time when he was a boy, saying, “You’re not living up to your potential,” and “Don’t you want God to say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’?”
He said it was also a favorite manipulation tool of his childhood Sunday school teachers to keep rowdy little boys in line, scaring the “hell” out of them and heaven into them.
Preachers and teachers of grown ups use that, too, sometimes.
But that contradicts the gospel of grace, the preacher said. It sounds like Jesus is saying entrance into heaven is based on what we do.
The preacher added, “When you study the Bible, if a passage of scripture contradicts what God has clearly revealed in his Word, don’t junk the text – go deeper.”
He said the clear teaching of grace is that no one is accepted or rejected by God based on whether or not he or she makes a profit with talents and gifts. Personal performance is not an issue for entering the kingdom, only the performance of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection.
If that’s true, then I never have to fear the outer darkness and my teeth will be free from gnashing, my mascara won’t run from weeping and wailing.
There’s no pressure to perform. If I’m trusting in Jesus, I’m already welcome. I’ve got my golden ticket.
Then what is this parable about? What was Jesus trying to say?
The preacher said if you read the chapters leading up to this passage you’ll see that Jesus had been sparring with the religious leaders who heaped rules and regulations on the people, making following God a burden and a chore, not a delight.
Jesus was pointing out that they were misrepresenting his Father to the people, causing them to believe he is a cruel monster.
The preacher said Jesus was telling the religious leaders to stop burying the good news of the gospel or else they would be in danger of being cast away. It was their gnashing teeth he was referring to.
“If you’re his, you will hear the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ even if you never do a thing,” the preacher said. “It’s not about doing, it’s about dancing – with him and because of him.”
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” wrote the apostle Paul (Galatians 5:1).
It’s something to think about.
Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria - I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927, Monday through Thursday, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.