Following the ways of God can feel brutally hard.
In the classic novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald explores the connections between personal wealth and self-esteem. One character, named Daisy, was born into an affluent family. Throughout her life, her major decisions revolved around the ability to maintain an opulent lifestyle. She marries a man named Tom, not because of his character, but because of his inherited wealth. And although she maintains a relatively unhappy existence (Tom is openly having an affair), the thought of living without his money is a risk she is unwilling to consider. Eventually her pursuit of abundance leads her to commit murder and ultimately leads to the death of the man she really loves. Fitzgerald sums up Daisy and Tom’s lives by saying,
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy— they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness…and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
Fitzgerald’s summarization is true of millions of Americans who worship at the altar of money. In pursuit of the American Dream, cash is hunted and hoarded recklessly, to the detriment of the entire society. With frightening regularity, we trade the real joys and love of life for the perceived safety of wealth.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus tells numerous stories about the false security of wealth. In fact, he talks more about this subject than he does about heaven or hell. Pointedly, Jesus himself is a man who “has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). He, by choice, has no home. So while his perspective on wealth may not match the American Dream, he understands the weight of this issue. He knows what money means to our families. He clearly comprehends how heavily this subject impacts our daily decisions.
In one instance, Jesus tells a story of a very wealthy man who entrusts three of his servants with some of his money. To the first servant, he entrusts a sum of five talents, the second receives two, and to the third, he hands over one talent. For all three men, this is probably more money than they have ever held at one time. The wealthy owner instructs the servants to handle the money wisely, and he prepares to go out of town.
The first two servants decide that in order to please the master, they need to take some calculated risks. In one way or another, they invest the money that they have received.
I don’t know about you, but there are times in the Bible when I wish we had a little more detail. This is one of those points. I wish Jesus would have told us what type of risks these servants took. I wish I knew how far out on the financial limb they wandered. But Jesus does not give those details. All we know is that risk—and conquering the fear that accompanies risk— was necessary to please the owner.
We know that much with certainty, because the third servant did not take any risks. He promptly went out and buried the money. He took fear out of the equation. The money was hidden. Loss was virtually impossible. Fear was restrained.
Many of us have the mind of the third servant. When it comes to handling money, especially the money of the church, we hold safety as the highest value. The absence of risk is known as financial wisdom.
Apparently, this is not the mindset of the master. When he came back into town, he settled his accounts with the servants. The first two, which had taken risks and doubled their money, were told,
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! (Matthew 25:21, 23)
The servant who avoided fear and avoided risk heard a dramatically different response; 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 (Matthew 25:26-30).
Wicked and lazy are two words that we do not throw around lightly. Can you remember the last time you called someone wicked and lazy…to their face? John Ortberg says these words are indications of “the sin of unrealized potential…the willful refusal to choose risk and obedience and to choose comfort and safety instead.” The master calls this man lazy and wicked as a result of his fear.
Further, we can infer from other places in the Bible that God is not simply pleased by the positive financial results of the first two servants. Instead, he is delighted by their willingness to take a risk for him.
This is not the easy road. Risk – especially financial risk – is inherently difficult for us. But God is apparently more willing to walk the narrow path of loss than he is to walk the wide road of playing it safe. Apparently, this mindset of risk is obligatory for those who would call themselves disciples of Jesus.
Philip Yancey captures the heart of our struggle well. Speaking on a personal level, he says,
I feel pulled in opposite directions over the money issue. Sometimes I want to sell all that I own, join a Christian commune, and live out my days in intentional poverty. At other times, I want to rid myself of guilt and enjoy the fruits of our nation’s prosperity.
Although F. Scott Fitzgerald may not have experienced the “pull toward intentional poverty,” it is clear that he knew the ravages of following man’s ways. Maybe we would be wise to take the next step. We might be well served to go where The Great Gatsby stops short and follow God’s path into risky generosity.