FROM AN ADDRESS GIVEN AT THE CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS CONFERENCE
Waverley Christian College
16th July, 2001
I am grateful for the opportunity of addressing you today because I believe that Christian teachers have a strategic role in our community today. You have a great opportunity and responsibility in helping to form young lives, to help shape their world view and to help shape their characters, particularly by the example of your own lives.
As Christians we live in very challenging times. As Hugh McKay has put it, “we are reinventing Australia,” reinventing just about every aspect of our lives – the way we shop, the way we eat, the way we bank, the way we arrange our family, the roles that we have in society as men and women. All these things are being radically changed and transformed as we watch. The change has accelerated to warp speed. But it is not only these kinds of changes and all the wonderful whizz bang technological changes that we face – something more profound than that is happening. The moral and intellectual landscape of Australia is changing. It is being radically transformed by the impact of post modernity. Our culture is being radically reshaped.
For hundreds of years three of the most powerful influences that formed culture were first: relationships, that is the family or the tribe, the community, the way people related to each other, that was the first force. The second force was what people believed about the world, about reality. Whether they believed there were spirits in rocks or whether they believed in God. The third force was commerce, the way people grew things and made things and exchanged them.
What has happened in our own time is that the third force, commerce, has married a number of other enormously powerful contemporary forces – electronic media, IT, the entertainment industry and popular media, advertising and consumerism – these things have come together in an incredibly powerful alliance and that alliance now overpowers and overshadows the other two ancient forces that formed culture – what people believed and the way they related to each other, the family, the tribe and community.
Where there was once a balance between those three forces, now we have this enormous juggernaut of the third force, that is transforming the way people think, transforming their values, transforming the way they think about reality and the world. This is the most powerful force the world has ever seen. This is the challenge to the Christian worldview. It is perhaps the greatest we have ever faced – greater than persecution and physical violence; greater than oppressive governments – because this reprograms the software of the mind. You teachers are at the frontline of this battle.
This morning you may find my choice of scripture strange in the light of this introduction. I trust by the end you will see why. My aim is to take us back to the core, to the foundation. The passage of scripture I have chosen for us to think about at the beginning of our conference is Matthew 25:14-30, known to us as the parable of the talents. The title is not in the original text, but is one that has been put in by the editors. I prefer to think about this parable as the ‘venture capital parable’, or ‘the parable to the investment opportunity of a lifetime’. The punch line of this story is ‘show me the money.’ When Jesus returns, he is going to say to each one of us ‘show me the money.’
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’
His master replied, ‘Well-done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!
The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’
His master replied, ‘Well-done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
Then the man who had received the one talent came. *Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
His master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
This is a story about an opportunity grasped and an opportunity lost. Three people are given a great opportunity. They are entrusted with someone else’s resources and given the opportunity to develop them, to multiply them, to grow them. Two people rise to the occasion, and one doesn’t. In the end, the one who doesn’t loses what he has. The question is ‘why’? Why does one person fail to grasp the opportunity? The answer is given to us in one word in verse 25: “I was afraid and went and hid your talent in the ground.” The Greek word here is the word ‘phobia’.
Fear is one of the most crippling of all emotions faced in life. Fear stops us from trying new things and meeting new people, going to new places. Fear stops us from growing and developing and learning new skills. Fear stops us from taking risks. Fear is the greatest emotional barrier to change, both personally and corporately.
I recently wrote a little book called ‘Change and the Church’. It’s about helping local congregations grapple with the issues of change and to do it constructively. One of the interesting things I have discovered in my work with churches is that people’s first reaction to change is not rational, it is emotional. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a plumber or a PHd – it makes very little difference.
Change agents come along with all these wonderful reasons very carefully and logically worked out which they present to a group of people, and people listen and then say ‘no’. The change agent thinks ‘what’s wrong with these people, have they left their brains behind?’ The answer is ‘yes’ in a way. Their first reaction to change is emotional and it’s true for all of us.
Every one of us in this room – even if we think we are good at adjusting to change, will have some areas of our lives where we are reacting emotionally to change. Often the first emotional reaction to change is fear. Fear of breaking up the familiar, fear of loss of valued things, fear of damage to the organisation if it doesn’t work, fear of the unknown and the untried, fear of loss of tradition and the loss of identity, and so it goes on.
Fear is a very powerful emotion. Some people have fears that are so severe that we have labelled them with that Greek word ‘phobias’ – fear of heights, fear of enclosed spaces, fear of crowds – such terrible fears that people are immobilised and paralysed. Most of us don’t suffer from these fortunately. But almost all of us suffer from the fear of failure.
Where does it originate? Sometimes it originates from some childhood experience when crushed through constant negative comments – ‘you dummy’, ‘you idiot’, ‘you clumsy girl’, ‘when will you ever learn?’ Parents and teachers have a great responsibility to encourage and not to crush confidence and creativity.
My wife is an artist and teaches watercolour painting. It is interesting that she often has women and some men who come to her in the middle part of their life, late 40’s, early 50’s, family are off their hands, and they have decided that they want to learn to paint. Often, when they begin the class, they say “Well of course, I’m no good at this. I was bad at this at school. I’m not very artistic.” They make all these excuses and really it is coming out of a tremendous lack of confidence. Somewhere along the line the artistic potential got crushed and it has to be reignited again so that people can begin again to express themselves.
Two years ago, our faithful old dog died that we had for 14 years. We got a new dog, which was a mistake! The second mistake was that we decided that we couldn’t cope with the puppy stage all over again, so we went to the RSPCA and we got a dog that was grown, a young stray about 18 months old. But this poor little dog had obviously been very badly treated – fearful and timid and it has taken us quite a while to draw it out and get it under control.
Some people are like that. They have been so badly treated that they are full of fears.
Over the years I have seen so many people fail to realise their potential, fail to develop and use their abilities because they were afraid. Afraid of failure. Afraid they wouldn’t be perfect and afraid of people’s negative reactions. Afraid of looking foolish, afraid of loss of control. And so the work of the kingdom is held back by people’s fears.
I am in the second half of my life, and you would think that as we grow older, as we get into the second half, that we would be willing to take more risks. After all, we now have experience. We now have some maturity, possibly some wisdom, surely more confidence. But new fears appear: fear of diminishing energy, fear of getting too involved, and the demands on us growing too discomforting. We become too comfortable with our ordered world. We turn healthy boundaries into barriers against discomforts that might actually grow us, and possibly grow the kingdom.
A group of 90-year-olds were asked if they had their life over again, what would they do? Their answers came back, around these three statements: “Firstly, I’d reflect more.” Next they said “I’d put my energy into things that last”, and thirdly they said “I’d risk more”.
Anyone here who is in the second half, let me ask you to listen to these words of the great South American Christian, Dom Helda Camira, “Pilgrim, when your ship, long moored in harbour gives you the illusion of being a house, when your ship begins to put down roots in the stagnant water by the quay, put out to sea. Save your boat’s journeying soul and your own pilgrim soul, cost what it may.”
I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground! Is there something you are afraid of that causes you to bury your talents and not develop them? Face the fear. Confront it and put out to sea.
There is of course another reason why we bury our talents. It is also related to fear, but it is really self-interest. Self-interest is related to fear because we are afraid that we will have our own personal agenda derailed. And so in whatever passage of life we are in or passing through, we all claim to have no time. In the years when we are studying, we are so busy studying. When we are building our careers and families and have the demands of small children, we have got that alibi. And then in the middle years when we have heavy responsibilities in our work and have risen to positions of influence, we have got too much responsibility. Then in the period when children have left the nest and we feel that we deserve a rest and a little self-indulgence, we have got that alibi. Then in retirement, we feel justified at having done our bit. Finally, the period of our ageing and frailty, we can’t do very much because we are too old. At every passage in life, you can construct an alibi, an alibi for self-interest. I have heard them all and none of them are convincing. I have used them myself. But Jesus is going to say to every one of us, in spite of our alibis, “show me the money”.
Let’s run through the story again and note some key things.
First, remember the context. It comes towards the end of Jesus’ ministry. The cross is rapidly approaching. In chapter 24, Jesus had been speaking about his Second Coming in power to judge the world. This parable is one of three that are clustered together, for they are all about judgement and the end of this world. There is the parable of the Ten Virgins and their lamps; the separation of the sheep from the goats; and this parable, which is called the Parable of the Talents. So the emphasis is clear. The master will return; it may be after a long time; but he will return, and when he does there will be a settling of accounts. The big question will come: “What have you done with what you have been given?”
What are these talents? Originally a talent was a measure of weight, but it became the description of a measure of money. In the NIV footnote, it says a talent was worth more than $1,000. The NIV was translated some years ago and that was American dollars, so it is probably a great deal more than that now. To translate it into Australian dollars, we can double it again! In Luke 19, which is the parallel passage, it is called ‘Ten Minas’. A ‘mina’ was three months wages. If you multiply 10 by 3, you get 30 months, which is 2 12 years’ wages. So, whatever figure you want to put on it, the point Jesus is making is that it is a lot of money that has been given and very valuable.
In verse 19, it says, “After a long time, the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.” It is easy to be lulled into a sense of smugness and confidence when you are waiting for the consummation of the Kingdom. There are times when you wish it would just come because the pain and the suffering of the world seem so bad, but at other times we just kind of tick along. We believe in accountability, but we are not really expecting it. But the master eventually returns and the three people are confronted. The people who have used their talents are rewarded. Then comes the man who received the one talent. He comes with his excuse and says he was afraid and hid the talent in the ground and gives it back just as he had received it. The master replies with very strong words; “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed. Then you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers”. The Greek word means a table on which the money was changed. This same word is above the banks in Athens today. Then come the harsh words in verses 28 – 30, words of judgement.
How are we to interpret the talents?
Traditionally, they have been interpreted as all those various resources that God has given to each of us in varying degrees – our abilities and gifts, natural and spiritual; things that God has allowed us to acquire; our education, training, knowledge, skills, experience; our material resources; our money; the things that we have acquired; our time; our energy. Yes, God is going to say one day, “What have you done with this?” Have you used your resources to multiply the work of the kingdom? This I believe is the legitimate and proper interpretation.
But there is another resource that must be included on the list. It is surprising that we don’t include it. It is a resource that has been given to all of us whom God has called to know and trust Christ. It is a piece of venture capital that we are all given and it is the most precious of all – it is the gospel of grace. Romans chapter 5: “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” It is what we do with this gift, this piece of venture capital that I want to focus on, because this I believe takes us back to the core, the fundamentals. Whether we are a teacher, a parent, whatever role, this is fundamental, particularly in these difficult and changing times.
In a gathering like this, if I were to ask you the question “Do you promote grace?” you would all reply “Of course, I believe with all my heart in God’s grace to me in Christ. My life is grounded in this truth.” But do you actually promote it? Does your life promote it? Does the way you live promote it? Does the way you teach promote grace? Does the way you relate to one another as staff in a school promote that? Does your attitude to others promote grace? Does your behaviour promote grace? Does the way you live and speak and treat other people draw attention to grace or undermine it? You see, you can believe in grace and still undermine it. Do you bury grace underneath ungracious attitudes, negativity, being judgemental, having an unforgiving spirit?
I read this quotation the other day. “He who cannot forgive another breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.” Jesus said to pray like this, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” All of us must pass over the bridge of forgiveness or we do not cross into God’s kingdom.
U2 are arguably one of the great rock bands of the world. Recently they released a new CD and among the songs on the CD is a song by Bono called “Grace,” a beautiful hymn of grace. It is a great pleasure to think that thousands, millions of people will hear this song – “Grace, she takes the blame, she covers the shame. When she walks on the street, you can hear the strings because grace finds goodness in everything.”
The people of our fractured and confused 21st century long for grace, the people that you and I live amongst every day hunger for it. They may not be able to name it or even describe it, but they know it when they see it and experience it. So many contemporary films have this theme of the quest for grace and redemption. Why is that? It is a hunger in the heart of the world. And yet in spite of this hunger for grace, we so often miss the opportunity. I have heard preaching that was doctrinally immaculate but so hard and ungracious, so lacking in personal identification with people’s frailty and brokenness that people could not hear it. I have seen Christian parenting so narrow and tight and rigid, parents who were so slow to apologise to their own children that their kids could never hear the gospel of grace even though it was taught to them in words.
Let’s determine to make our lives and speech more grace filled. Let’s determine to multiply this grace that we have been given by being more gracious, more hospitable, more generous, more forgiving, more understanding of other’s brokenness, more willing to tell the story of God’s grace to us. Let’s go back again and again to our own personal experience of grace to us. Try and get in touch with what it was like to feel that first sweet touch of total forgiveness and God’s loving grace.
Let’s be determined to build Christian schools, Christian churches, and Christian homes that are oases of grace, where the story of grace can be heard and seen and experienced. Let’s be constantly asking ourselves – “What undermines grace in my life?” “’What is it we do in this place that actually undermines grace?” Deal with it and get rid of it.
What could we do that would multiply this talent? Let’s name and overcome in ourselves the fears that stop us from multiplying it. Let’s have a fresh determination to pass on the story.
Let me ask you this question: When was the last time you told someone the story of God’s grace to us, and told it with such excitement because you knew that this was the most unique and precious information that you could ever pass on?
This is the core and foundation that we must return to if we are to have any impact on the forces that are reshaping the interior world and the mental landscape of our nation. So much of what is being created by the forces in society is ugly. You just have to look at television – these appalling ‘Reality TV’ shows that focus on the worst in human nature, pandering to our voyeurism. But underneath, there is still the image of God that we were created in, this is still a longing for grace.
Some years ago after the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, there was a great celebration at a huge concert in Wembley stadium and various musical groups, particularly heavy rock bands had gathered together, but for some reason the promoters had also asked an opera singer, Jessie Norman to perform as the closing act. For 12 hours the concert went on and then eventually Jessie Norman came on the stage. She walked on the stage, no backup band, no group of singers. She is a tall African / American woman, a very dignified looking figure. Hardly anyone in the crowd knew who she was. The crowd was restless and the scene was getting a little ugly. Then Jessie Norman began to sing “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me?” A remarkable thing happened when she sang – 70,000 raucous fans began to fall silent. By the time Jesse reached the second verse “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear”, 70,000 fans were digging back into long forgotten memories of words they had heard before. One observer who was there said a power descended on Wembley stadium – and I think I know why. When grace descends, the world falls silent. Teachers, parents, citizens – don’t hoard it. Multiply, promote grace. Become multipliers of grace, promoters of grace. The world is thirsty for grace.
(The Wembley Stadium story is from Phillip Yancey.)