Sunday, November 13, 2011

Fear, Love, and Faith

Matthew 25:14-30

 John Wesley, in his sermon "The Nature of Enthusiasm", had this to say: "Beware of imagining you shall obtain the end without using the means conducive to it.  God can give the end without any means at all; but you have no reason to think He will.  Therefore constantly and carefully use all those means which he has appointed to be the ordinary channels of His grace.  Use every means which either reason or Scripture recommends, as conducive ... to the obtaining or the increasing any of the gifts of God.  Thus expect a daily growth in that pure and holy religion which is ... the 'wisdom' of God and the 'power' of God."

In patriotic American language, then, the saying is sure: "Freedom is not free".  There is always a 'cost' related to that which we receive whether it is the "blessings of liberty", "free" health care, or "free" samples of a particular product; there is always a 'price' to be paid - it is only a matter of who actually pays the price.  More than this, however, is the word "free" in absolute terms: we are a freed people, but I don't think we really understand what that means - AND - how it relates to our connection to our God.  I also think we are never truly "free" - I submit that we are now, always have been, and always will be beholden to something either imposed or freely - if absent-mindedly - entered into.

When John Wesley relates to the "wisdom of God" and the "power of God", he must surely use these terms in their appropriate biblical context: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;”  Psalm 111:10 ... and ... “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).  Everything we have and everything we are is devoted to that love - OR - it is not.  There is no gray area, and there is no in-between.

In the 16th century Machiavelli asked this question in a piece he wrote that still is looked upon today in political philosophy and governing a people: "Is it better to be feared ... or to be loved?"  He was asking the question in terms of what it would take for a prince to govern effectively.  Italy was being overrun by barbarians; and popes, kings, and queens were battling for supremacy in the various regions.  Based on his political and military experiences and observations, he was writing about what it would take in order for a prince to gain control - AND - maintain control.  “A prince should wish for both [fear and love]”, he says, “but because it is difficult to reconcile [the two], I hold that it is much more secure to be feared than to be loved if one of them must be given up.”

This leads us to the Parable of the Talents ... and particularly the third slave who had what seemed to be the appropriate level of "fear".  In fact he says so: "I was afraid".  But what we can also see as clearly is that the third slave's "fear" of his lord all but paralyzed him so much so that he was unable to fully engage in a relationship with his master.  There was only one element of his master's being that he was familiar with: "Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed ..."  So because of his ignorance of his master's overall being, he failed to do with what little had been entrusted to his care what his master would have expected from him.

The first two slaves did not have that problem.  They took what was given to them - "each according to his ability" - and they made the most of it.  It should be notable, as well, that the second slave did not begrudge the reality that the first slave had been given more.  The second slave did not look around to see who had what or who had more; he was, like the first slave, entirely about the business of his master as it pertained to him and the master's expectations from him.  Because of his faithfulness, then, his reward was equal to that of the first slave: "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, so I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master."

So what?  We are not 'slaves'.  We are not 'owned' by anyone or anything.  Or are we?  Is the 'freedom' we perceive to be our own for real, or is it only a self-indulgent illusion?  And within this concept of 'freedom', be it spiritual or "Amur-kin", can we really appreciate "fear" in its truest sense - AND - can we embrace "love" in the fullness of its terms?  The short answer is - NO, we cannot; and the reason we cannot is because our knowledge of our Master tends to be one-dimensional.  That is to say, we can more reasonably appreciate only one attribute of the Master's being because we pick and choose what we will and will not do, think, or believe.  It doesn't seem to matter that it is written right before us in Scripture.  If "it" does not fit into our lives, personal preferences, and conditions of culture, we dismiss it in the name of "grace".

The same cannot be said of the Master's knowledge of us, and Jesus seems to make this point as well when He points out that before the master left on his journey he entrusted to his slaves what was precious to him - the talents - "to each according to his ability".  So the master knew these slaves well enough that he knew who could be entrusted with more and who should not be so overburdened.  There is no indication the master thought less of the slave who received only one talent; he only gave him what he was confident the third slave could handle.

Now in order to fully appreciate the utter failure of the third slave, we should understand the "talent" as a unit of currency.  It was said to be equal to roughly 6000 denarii; a single denarius was about equal to a day's wage for the typical worker.  So even though the third slave got only "one" talent, we need to appreciate the contextual reality of the enormous sum he had been entrusted with.  Though it was less than the others, the one talent nevertheless required the utmost "respect".

How does this translate to us?  Clearly we can see that Jesus is referring to His eventual Ascension into Heaven - and inevitable return.  Once He was to leave this earth, He would entrust to His followers - those who claimed to "love" Him - something of immeasurable value; something from which the Lord will expect a reasonable return ... and notice this in today's monetary terms.  If we could not somehow double our Master's investment according to what has been entrusted to our care, He would be ok with our handing it over to the bank where it would draw "interest".  Not much in terms of what we know today of a simple savings account return, but it is a return nonetheless.  It is certainly better than nothing!

We cannot forget Jesus' restoration of Peter as recorded in John 21.  Recall that Peter had failed Jesus in His final hours on this earth.  The last Jesus had seen of Peter involved Peter cursing and denying his relationship with Jesus, and the last Peter had seen of Jesus was His being handed over in shackles like a common criminal.  When perhaps Jesus needed Peter the most, Peter failed.  And then he fled.

So the Resurrected Christ is sitting on the shore after Peter and the others had had a bad night of fishing.  Jesus instructed them to cast the net on the "right side" of the boat, "and they were not able to draw the net in because of the multitude of fish".  Once they all realized Who this was standing on the shore, Peter jumped into the sea in his haste to hurry and get to Jesus!  The others, of course, brought the boat and the net full of fish in. 

After they ate, Jesus then posed His question to Peter: "Do you love Me?"  Peter says yes, of course, and Jesus instructs him to "feed My lambs", "tend My sheep", and the third time Jesus asks Peter if he loves the Lord, Jesus says, "feed My sheep".  Through this we can see the "rubber meeting the road"; that is, Peter is being handed his measure of "talent".  He is being told specifically - and yet in non-specific terms - what is to be expected of him in the Lord's absence. 

So it is not enough to merely say "I love you, Lord" and feel that love only in terms of what we can expect in return - Peter obviously needed to be absolved of his failure during Jesus' trial and was willing to do anything to assuage his guilt.  There is a necessary element of "fear" involved - by what "fear" compels us to do in terms of "respect".  He is the Lord, the Almighty.  He is the Prince of Heaven itself, and He will return one day to claim His own.  And when that Day comes - not "if" - there will be a reckoning.  And the simple account is going to be in terms of whether we "loved" the Lord enough to "respect" His command to "feed" and "tend" His sheep, His flock with the "talents" entrusted to our care.

Peter's accounting of what had been entrusted to him will be the Church itself.  What will be ours?    

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