Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Talents and the Pounds


Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27

There are considerable differences between The Parable of the Talents and The Parable of the Pounds. Plummer has set forth the differences between these parables: "1. In the Talents we have a householder leaving home for a time, in the Pounds a nobleman going in quest of a crown; 2. The Talents are unequally distributed, the Pounds equally; 3. The sums entrusted differ enormously in amount; 4. In the Talents the rewards are the same, in the Pounds they differ and are proportionate to what has been gained; 5. in the Talents the unprofitable servant is severely punished, in the Pounds he is merely deprived of his pound. 1 Yet these parables teach the same basic lesson. While we may be differently endowed, God expects us to be faithful in the use of our talents whether we have many or few.

The parable of the talents follows the parable of the ten virgins that in turn follows the chapter on the signs of the second coming of Christ. The context is the second advent of Christ. The parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the talents describe the ways in which we need to prepare for his coming. Trench has pointed out the two different ways of waiting:

While the virgins were represented as waiting for their Lord, we have here the servants working for Him. There the inward spiritual life of the faithful was described, here, their external activity. There, by the fate of the foolish virgins, we were warned against negligences and decays in the inner life; here, by the doom of the slothful servant, against indolence in our outward vocation and work. That parable enforced the need of keeping the heart with all diligence; this of putting all diligence also into our outward service, if we would give our account at the last with joy and not with sorrow. Very fitly, therefore, that precedes, and this follows, since the maintenance of the life of God in the heart is the sole condition of a profitable outward activity for the kingdom of God. 2

The sums mentioned in these parables are considerable. The modern word “talent” that means a natural ability to do something well should not be confused with the biblical word. A “talent” was enough money to pay a laborer for fifteen years of work. Ten talents, was enough money to pay laborers for 150 work-years. A “pound” or “mina” was equivalent to about three months' wages.

These parables teach us four important lessons. First, men and women do not have equal abilities and/or equal chances to be counted successful in this life.

The second lesson to be learned is that we will not be judged by the accomplishments of others. God evaluates us individually by comparing our achievements with our potential. All who strive to live up to their potential receive the same reward. "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master."

This parable contains a third lesson. All of us are expected to strive to be the best stewards of God’s gifts that we can be, regardless of our innate abilities and our fears. The fear of failure that caused the slave to bury his “talent”, earned the condemnation of his master. This slave’s first mistake was in perceiving his master to be harsh and severe, ready and willing to punish even responsible attempts to increase his master’s wealth that were unsuccessful. His second mistake was succumbing to his fear of failure. Even a very “safe” investment of his talent would have earned interest for his master.

Even the most successful person has had to overcome failure. Robert Fulghum tells the story of a man who paid a visit to a rabbi because he considered himself a failure. "More than half the time I do not succeed in doing what I must do," he explained. The rabbi told him to look on page 930 of The New York Times Almanac for 1970. The man hurriedly went to the library to check the reference. What he found was a list of the lifetime batting averages of all the greatest hitters of all time. Ty Cobb was listed first with an average of .367.

The man couldn't understand why he was asked to look up this reference. "Ty Cobb--.367--that's it?" "Right," said the rabbi. "Ty Cobb--.367. He got a hit once out of every three times at bat. He didn't even bat .500--so what can you expect already?" 3

The slave’s third mistake was assuming that his master would appreciate the fact that his money had not been lost. He failed to understand that stewardship implies effort. Because he wasn’t given as much money as the other slaves, he might have reasoned that his master didn’t believe he was capable of investing it successfully. And if he were even modestly successful, it wouldn’t really matter.

John Warr was a shoemaker's apprentice, and as far as we know continued in that trade throughout his life. Another younger apprentice came to that shop to work. He was at a crucial point in his life and was in danger of abandoning his Christian lifestyle. John Warr continually urged him to give his life to Christ. The younger apprentice finally did at the age of eighteen. This younger apprentice was William Carey. 4 Carey became the founder of modern mission work. He went to India as a Christian missionary in 1793 and served his Lord for forty-one years. What if John Warr felt he was just a shoemaker's apprentice and what he did was not noticed or important? One talent people have an important role in God's scheme of things.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul compares the members of the church to a human body. No part of that body is without value. Sidney Lanier was not only a poet but also a flutist who played in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra while a student at Johns Hopkins University. One day during rehearsal when the orchestra was playing fortissimo, he thought no one would know if he stopped playing while holding his flute to his mouth. Instantly the conductor stopped the orchestra and asked, "Where is the flute?" The sound of his flute had been missed. Its absence affected the total harmony of the piece. God needs our flute and our one talent.

In the parable it is the one talent slave who fails to produce, but in real life there are just as many five or ten talent persons who fail the Master. Because it is so much easier to keep ahead of the crowd without too much effort, these people can become complacent and too easily satisfied with results that are far below their capability. Some of those entrusted with many talents are the greatest disappointments and failures in life. On the other hand, others, like the slave who is entrusted with only two talents, become successful through self-discipline and hard work. Buttrick imagines this slave as

a blunt and honest man with none of the finesse and mental quickness of his more talented neighbor. He plodded away at his task. If his money was invested in farming, he drove his oxen hard If a vineyard was his to tend, he pruned or tied or gathered diligently, working from sunrise to sundown. So by the sheer fidelity of toil he made his two talents yield four. 5

This parable teaches a fourth lesson. Those who produce up to his or her capability gain capability, and those who don’t lose the capability they were born with. For this reason the master commands, "Take the talent from him [the slave with one talent], and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away". At first this seems harsh and arbitrary. However, this is not as much an arbitrary command as a law of life. Those who use their talents faithfully develop other talents, while those who fail to use the gifts they have been entrusted with lose them.

One day we shall be called upon to give an account of our stewardship. God is not unreasonable. However, he expects us to meet the requirements of successful stewardship described in these two parables.

1 Plummer, Alfred, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke, 1901, p. 437.

2 Trench, Richard Chevenix, Notes on the Parables of our Lord (Popular ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1948), p. 270. Reprint of the 1861 edition.

3 Fulghum, Robert, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (New York: Villard Books, 1989), pp. 165-166.

4 Branch, p. 71.

5 Buttrick, p. 243.

The Ten Virgins


Matthew 25:1-13

A modern version of this story would go something like this. A man offered to guide two of his friends to his new cabin in a forested area outside the city. The friends arranged to meet him as he walked home, each at a different place in the forest. Darkness set in. The friends realized that their rendezvous could only occur after dark, and that their guide could only locate them using the light from their flashlights. They also know that they could not find the cabin alone. As they waited, the lights from their flashlights grew dimmer and dimmer.

When their guide was delayed, they both realized that they needed new batteries. The first friend replaced his depleted batteries with new ones, and the guide saw his light and joined him. Meanwhile, the second friend who had forgotten to bring extra batteries had to return to his car to get new ones. When he returned to his meeting place, the guide and his friend had gone ahead without him. Since he did not know where the new cabin was located, he was forced to return home.

Jesus’ story of the wedding feast is found in Matthew 25:1-13. According to Middle East custom, wedding feasts take place at nightfall after a day of festivities and dancing. Then the bride, accompanied by women with lamps, is escorted to the house of the bridegroom. Finally, a messenger announces the coming of the bridegroom. The women then leave the bride and go with their lighted lamps to meet him.

In this parable ten virgins carried the lamps and awaited the coming of the bridegroom. Ellen White comments, "All had lamps, and vessels for their oil. For a time there was seen no difference between them. So with the church that lives just before Christ's second coming. All have a knowledge of the Scriptures. All have heard the message of Christ's near approach, and confidently expect His appearing.” 1 "The foolish virgins are not hypocrites. They have a regard for the truth, they have advocated the truth, they are attracted to those who believe the truth; but they have not yielded themselves to the Holy Spirit's working." 2

Jesus described the virgins as wise and foolish rather than righteous and wicked. It was wise to have an extra supply of oil. It was foolish not to have one, particularly when no one is quite sure when the bridegroom is coming. On another occasion Jesus spoke about the wise man that built his house upon the rock and foolish man who built his house upon the sand. What is implied is that we don't have to be wicked in order to be lost; we only need to be foolish. Remember the rich farmer who prepared for a long easy life on the earth but not for eternity and certain judgment.

In the parable, all the virgins “slumbered and slept” because the bridegroom delayed his coming. Obviously there was nothing wrong in sleeping in this context. We cannot live in a constant condition of expectancy. What was wrong was going to sleep without proper preparation. The five wise virgins slept prepared because they had brought extra oil in their jars. The foolish five went to sleep without replenishing their supply of oil.

When the foolish virgins discovered that they were out of oil, they went to the wise virgins and asked them to share their oil. The reply of the wise virgins may, on the surface, seem harsh and self-centered. “No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you; instead go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.” However, Jesus is making the point that one cannot buy the sense of preparedness from another. Preparedness cannot be transferred. The experience of readiness cannot be bought or sold.

Character is not transferable. No man can believe for another. No man can receive the Spirit for another. No man can impart to another the character which is the fruit of the Spirit's working. “Though Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it [the land], as I live, saith the Lord God, they shall deliver neither son nor daughter; they shall but deliver their own souls by their righteousness.”

It is in a crisis that character is revealed. When the earnest voice proclaimed at midnight, `Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him,' and when the sleeping virgins were roused from their slumbers, it was seen who had made preparation for the event. Both parties were taken unawares; but one was prepared for the emergency, and the other was found without preparation." 3

When examination time comes, the student is either prepared or unprepared. If she is unprepared, she cannot go to the student who is prepared and buy readiness. It is the same when it comes to running. If one man had trained for the mile run and another had not, it is not possible for the one who is trained to sell his readiness to the one who has not. Preparedness is something each individual must achieve through his own experience and preparedness.

The people who were prepared were inside and the people who were unprepared were outside forever. There is finality to the statement, "And the door was shut.” Then the warning words of Jesus follow: "Therefore, keep watch because you do not know the day or the hour."

The point of the parable is that we should be ready. When we are ready there will be no fear, but a calm assurance in the Lord. We have to be ready while we carry on with our daily duties, while we work in our offices or teach in our classrooms, while we work in shops or cook meals, wash dishes or launder our clothes.

In May, 1780, the famous dark day occurred in New England. Men felt the Judgment Hour had come and senators rushed from the senate chambers to the meetinghouse to pray, had not Senator Davenport prevailed over them:

Bring in the lights: let us be found
Doing our duty's common round.
Bring in the candles: keep to the task:
What more can Judgment Angels ask?" 4

The fact of the matter is that the coming of Jesus is an occurrence in every person's life even though it still remains an occurrence in history. Even though the historical event may not happen in our lifetimes, Jesus “comes” for us at the moment we die. Consequently, we need to have a daily living dynamic growing relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. We need genuine inward spiritual power, an inner life that is in constant communion with the Spirit of God who brings light, warmth and value to the externals of religion.

When the flood came people were caught unprepared. Perhaps even Noah’s neighbors didn’t have time to get on board the ark. In Sodom and Gomorrah there must have been good people who were not quite ready to leave their homes. The five virgins who were ready went in with the bridegroom to the wedding banquet, and the door was shut. The others were buying oil and were left outside. "Therefore, keep watch because you do not know the day or the hour."

1 White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 408.

2 Ibid, p.141.

3 Ibid, p. 412.

4 Markham, Edwin, “A Judgment Hour” (Gates of Paradise,” Doubleday, Page and Company), quoted in Buttrick, pp. 236-237.

The Unjust Steward


Luke 16:1-13

In this parable Jesus tells the story of a rich man who had a trusted, highly paid steward who was dishonest and squandered the rich man's wealth. When the rich man asked the steward to give an account of his missing funds, the rich man told him that he would be dismissed because he could not account for the missing assets. The steward then reasoned that when others found out about his situation, he would find himself in desperate straits. Either he would have to earn a living by hard labor or resort to begging. Since neither of these options appealed to him, he devised a scheme that would ensure his future.

His master had a lot of debtors, and he reasoned that if he could reduce their debts, they would be obligated to him. So before the debtors discovered that he was about to be fired, he offered to reduce their debts. Since the money involved was considerable, the debtors accepted his offer.

According to Jeremias, the first debtor owed the yield of 146 olive trees, or about 1,000 denarii, the equivalent of three years of labor. The second debtor owed the yield of about 100 acres of wheat or the equivalent of 2,500 denarii seven years of labor. 1 The steward reduced the first person's debt by fifty percent and the second by twenty percent, thus reducing their debts by an equal amount. The steward reasoned that his offer would put the rich man’s debtors in his debt so that when he was fired, they would be obliged to take care of him.

When the steward was dismissed, the rich man discovered the scheme too late to undo it. While he knew that he had been swindled, he could not help but admire the cleverness of his former steward.

On the surface, the parable may imply that we can scheme our way into the kingdom, but obviously that is not the point that Jesus was making. He was talking about using wealth wisely in the light of the judgment. Buttrick put it this way:

But did this lord commend the deceitful underling? Verily, but not for his deceit! He commended him for his astuteness. Every one at times singles from an unprincipled character some trait for admiration. . . . This parable approves not the fraudulence of the Unjust Steward, but his foresight. Then did Jesus use such a man as an example? Yes--as an example in resource, not as an example in point of corruption. 2

The parable also implies that when future events are known, we should prepare for them.

Jesus is not saying to the uncommitted that they should use money to earn their salvation, but he is telling those who already are his followers that they must demonstrate the fruits befitting repentance even (or perhaps especially) in the area of worldly wealth. 3

Eugene Lang is a graduate of East Harlem's PS 121 in New York City. Today he is a wealthy industrialist. One hot day he went to PS 121 and made a promise to the graduating sixth graders that if they graduated from high school, he would pay their way through college. The low-income black and Hispanic students in this school had a dropout rate of seventy-five percent.

Of the fifty-four students in that sixth grade class, forty-four have graduated and thirty-four are attending college. This singular gesture led to the establishment of the I Have a Dream Foundation funded by corporations and individuals, which provides funds for 8000 students in twenty-five cities.

Our money should be used for the furtherance of God's kingdom here on earth. It means that when we invest our money in people by providing opportunities for them to grow spiritually, psychologically, and socially, we become more Christ like, more generous and less covetous. This is laying up treasure in heaven because character is the only thing we can take with us into the kingdom. Jesus said, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21)

Money does not earn us salvation, but how we use money is an indication of where our values lie. Luke 16:10-13 emphasizes the importance of the use of money. "If then you have not been faithful with wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?"

In this parable Jesus asks us to face the reality of a future reckoning. Then he calls us to secure our future by using the money we have been entrusted with to extend Christ’s kingdom on earth and to assist us in developing characters required for heavenly citizenship.

1 Jeremias, p. 181.

2 Buttrick, p. 118.

3 Blomberg, p. 244

The Watchmen, the Steward, and the Thief


(1) Mark 13:34-36; Luke 12:35-38 (2) Matthew 24:42-44; Luke 12:39-40 (3) Matthew 24:45-51; Luke 12:42-46

Three different parables are discussed in this chapter. Their theme is vigilance with regard to the Second Coming of Christ. The first parable in Mark is somewhat general. The master goes away and is coming back at an unannounced hour. He expects those he has left behind to be prepared at any time for his return. In a variant of this parable In Luke, the master has gone to a wedding banquet and he expects his slaves to "open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks" (Luke 12:36). They know where he has gone and while they do not know the exact time, they know approximately when he will return. "If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves" (Luke 12:38). An interesting feature in this parable is the fact that if the master finds them alert and ready, he will gird himself and serve them their meal. In those days, this was highly unusual conduct

but significant, because this is exactly how Jesus portrays the kingdom of God elsewhere, notably through his acted parable of washing the disciples' feet at the last supper (in John 13:1-17) and also through his words explaining his own death as the model of Christian service and the antithesis of worldly styles of leadership (see Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:25-27). The kingdom of God is all to do with the unbelievable generosity and condescension on the part of `the Lord' to his servants. Our parable speaks of this in looking forward to the coming feast of the kingdom; Jesus demonstrated it at the feast of the last supper and in his death, and he called his disciples to do the same. 1

The second parable deals with a thief who comes at an unexpected hour. The unexpectedness of the coming of Christ will be like that of a thief. A thief does not schedule his activity and announce it to his victims. His success is wholly dependent on the element of surprise. Unlike a robber who overcomes his victims by threat and force, the thief operates on the sly. He slips into people's homes when they are not at home or when they don't expect him. It is very difficult if not impossible, therefore, to be ready for the coming of a thief. Is the Lord expecting the impossible?

The third parable deals with a manager who is appointed by his master to take care of his slaves and property. He expects the manager to be a faithful steward who will see that everyone does his work efficiently and is paid properly. If he continues his faithful and efficient work until the master returns, the manager will be blessed and given even greater responsibilities. However, it turns out that he is simply a hireling. He works hard only when the master is present but when he is gone the manager begins to take advantage of the power he has been given. He figures the master won't be coming back very soon so he beats the other slaves, he unlocks the cupboards where all the good food and wine are stored and begins to eat and get drunk. He is having the time of his life. His plan is to stop doing this and put everything in order before the master comes back, but while he is away, the manager is going to have a good time. Unfortunately for him, the master comes when the manager doesn’t expect him. The master is outraged at his behavior and punishes him accordingly. In Luke, the severity of the punishment depends upon the extent of the manager’s responsibilities.)

What is common to all three parables is the necessity of vigilance. Jesus is emphasizing the need to be alert and watchful at all times because we do not know when he will return. The uncertainty of the time of his return is described as "during the middle of the night, or near dawn" (Luke 12:3;8), "at an unexpected hour" like that of a thief, and "at an hour that he [the manager] does not know" (Luke 12:46).

Why this uncertainty? Why does Jesus not simply let us know when he is coming and let us prepare for him? Suppose his coming was announced at A.D. 2006, how would people react who were living at the time the story was told? They could very well have said, “It's so distant that we need not concern ourselves.” But what about people living in the year 2006?

The element of uncertainty makes it fair and keeps us all honest. It gives no advantage for those living 2000 years ago or those living now. Both need to relate to the Lord as though he were coming in their time. Both need to relate to the Lord as though he may not be coming for a long time. Christ wants us to be prepared for his coming at every moment not just in the hour or year before he comes. These parables teach that our relationship to him and our relationships with others must be no different whether he is absent or present.

In the second parable Jesus' coming is compared to that of a thief. We indicated that Jesus might be expecting the impossible if he expects us to be as ready for him as for a thief. In First Thessalonians 5, Paul describes that the Lord will come "like a thief in the night", but then goes on to say, "But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness." In other words the Lord comes like a thief only to those who are the children of darkness, those not expecting him. 2

How does one prepare for the master's return when we do not know when it will be? It is obvious that it is dangerous to predict the time of his return the way the manager did in the third parable. Not only did he miscalculate the time of his master’s return, but his planned “readiness” was only a sham designed to fool the master into thinking all was well and that he had behaved responsibly.

It should not make any difference in our conduct whether Christ’s coming is near or distant. We should live urgently and soberly regardless of the time of his coming because it is the right thing to do. And this is what Jesus is stressing in these parables. If we are faithful stewards and managers, we are going to be that way whether he is present or absent, whether he is coming soon or coming late, whether he is delayed or whether he is on time. Our business is to be faithful stewards.

This parable is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. Christ expected those who lived in his day to be ready even as he expects us to be ready today. The Lord has promised to return, but he has not given us specific information as to the time of his return. He has left us to “manage the store” in his absence but with a clear understanding that even though we do not know when he is coming, his coming is certain. Our conduct must be predicated on the certain proposition that he will return and that we are accountable to him for our stewardship.

1 Wenham, p.74.

2 In 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 3:3, and 16:15, the same imagery of the thief is presented as in this parable. Jesus is coming as a thief presumably to all including believers. In the parable and these passages, however, the point of comparison and the emphasis are on the unexpectedness of the coming rather than the impossibility of being prepared for the coming of a real thief.

The Wise and Foolish Builders


Matthew 7:24-29

Jesus had just presented the Sermon on the Mount in which he set forth the principles by which men should live. He had blessed the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. He had spoken of the necessity of moving beyond the letter of the law to its spirit, beyond action to motive. He called for complete integrity, for non-retaliation, for loving one’s enemies. He denounced doing good for display and encouraged doing good without ulterior motives or thought of reward. He emphasized loyalty to God and laying up treasure in heaven. He denounced destructive criticism, set forth the golden rule, the necessity of taking the narrow gate and the hard road, the bearing of good fruit, and the importance of obedience rather than mere confession.

Having set forth his principles, he advised the people to act on them. Those that did would “be like a wise man who built his house on rock" and those who refused would “be like a foolish man who built his house on sand." Notice the astonishing claim made by Jesus. The person who acted on his principles would stand, would abide, would survive, while the person who did not would fall away, would be swept away, would perish.

"Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes." The crowds sensed the power and authority in Jesus' words. They were different from anything they had heard before, especially from the rabbinic teachers who quoted another venerable rabbi who quoted another earlier rabbi. Jesus simply said, "But I say unto you."

Jesus described those who acted or failed to act to his advice as wise or foolish. Jesus was not dealing with philosophy per se but with religious teachings. Yet he calls the men wise and foolish rather than good and bad or righteous and evil. He did the same thing when he described those who wait for his coming as wise and foolish virgins. He also called the man a fool who built bigger barns but gave no thought of a reckoning. What Jesus stresses here is not our wickedness but our foolishness.

Living a life contrary to God's principles is fundamentally foolish because such a life is in conflict with the way we were designed to function. We were made to walk on our feet, not on our hands. Automobile engines are designed to use oil as a lubricant will self-destruct if water is used as a substitute. E. Stanley Jones writes:

A wolf-child, captured near where I live in India, had lived with wolves from the age of two to the age of eleven. It ran on all fours. Its knee joints were stiff and enlarged from running in this fashion. It would eat only raw meat, and when it was put on a more civilized diet, it took dysentery and died. A human being had lived in a wolf environment on wolf principles, on a wolf diet for nine years. Human nature had so accommodated itself to it that it seemed the natural way to live and our more human ways seemed unnatural. We have lived so long on the wolf-principles of selfishness and competition and strife that the Christian way of unselfishness, of cooperation and love seems to us a foreign way. 1

Thus the words of the Sermon on the Mount may appear foreign and alien to us who live in a world where the blessed are not the meek and the mourners, where we pay back rather than turn the other cheek, where loving the enemy is unthinkable. When Paul and Silas were preaching in Thessalonica, the people shouted, "These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.” (Acts 17:6) That is the way it appears to most of the world, but in reality, Jesus and Paul and Silas were attempting to turn the world right side up.

In this parable, Jesus talks about building a house. If you had the choice of building on a rock or building on the sand, where would you build? You say it’s a no-brainer, yet we read of floods occurring quite regularly in certain parts of our own country. People build along certain rivers and when the floods come their homes are washed away or badly damaged. As soon as the flood subsides, they build again on the same spot. Is it any wonder, that Jesus calls this foolishness? Jesus’ “house” is a metaphor for “character”. It is important then, that we build a character that will stand the test of time and experience. Jesus does not provide other options. Build on the rock or the sand. We have to make a choice; build well or foolishly.

Building a house on the rock of Jesus principles may appear to be too radical—to turn the other cheek, to love the enemy, to be completely transparent and honest, to be wholly committed to his kingdom. If we decide to build a house on land that is neither rock or sand in spite of the fact that Jesus words clearly indicate that there is not a third choice, we are choosing the way of foolishness.

A certain man was going on a world cruise. While he was away he wanted his builder to build a house

“according to my specifications, spare no necessary expense. I want this house to be a good house for a special reason." The builder listened carefully and he had always faithfully served his employer. He always followed all the specifications accurately. Never once did he deviate from the plans. But when the employer left for the cruise, the builder had some second thoughts. He thought of all the years he had served so faithfully but felt that he was not rewarded commensurately. Since he was gone, he thought this would be a good time to recoup some of his reward. The building would be built exactly like the specifications everywhere where it could be seen. But in those places where it could not be seen, he bought cheaper material. The employer would never know, and he would pocket the difference.

When the employer returned, he came to look at the house. At one glance he knew that the builder had done it again. He had built another masterpiece. Everything looked just as he specified. He checked everything and everything looked fine. After he was fully satisfied with the quality of the house and that everything was as it should be he said to the builder, "You have served me well these many years. In reward I planned this house for you. It is yours to own and live in."

When Lot separated from Abraham, he would never have considered building his home in Sodom, a city so wicked that God destroyed it. He would not pitch his tent in Sodom but near it. Initially, Lot believed he was making a sensible compromise, not where Abraham was but not in Sodom either—just toward it, just near it. In the end Lot and his family became city dwellers. This story teaches that it is foolish to make decisions based on the sandy ground of compromised principles.

Jesus appeals to our reason and calls upon us to build our lives upon the “rock”, the eternal principles that governed his life and teaching. It is not enough to read about them; it is not enough to assent to them intellectually. We must translate them into deeds. "The kingdom demands in its hearers not earnestness alone, but earnestness which will translate truth heard and truth pondered into truth lived!" 2

1 Jones, E. Stanley, The Christ of the Mount: A working Philosophy of Life (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Colesbury Press, 1931), p. 15.

2 Buttrick, p. 55.

The Sheep and the Goats


Matthew 25:31-46

The parable of The Sheep and the Goats is only one of the parables included in Matthew’s Gospel that deal with judgment.1 In this parable, Jesus himself is the judge of all the nations 2. But how can this be done if other nations have not yet heard the gospel? Answer: They are judged on the basis of their treatment of those Jesus represents—the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner.

In this parable Jesus separates people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Such mixed flocks were common enough, both because it was economical to work with one herd, but also, apparently, because the more restless goats tended to keep the herd on the move and so to produce more effective grazing in the sparsely vegetated areas. But at night the herdsman would divide up his herd so that the hardier sheep could be left outside and the goats be brought in overnight. 3

The sheep are put at his right hand and are commended and accepted into his kingdom because they have helped those less fortunate than themselves. They are surprised at what Christ tells them because many of them have never heard of him, seen him, or consciously done anything for him. How could Christ say they had fed him, given him drink, welcomed him, cared for him in his illness, or visited him as a prisoner? Christ's answers. "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

On the other hand, Christ has bad news for those on the left hand. “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

While those on his right hand were surprised at Christ's commendation, those on the left hand are surprised because they do not recall ever seeing Christ in need of help. They ask, "When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison?" If Christ had announced himself, they would have dropped everything to serve him. They would have gone hungry to feed him, they would have given him their last drop of water, they would have taken the shirts off their backs to clothe him. After all, he was an important person, the Lord, the one who could reward their good deeds with heaven. But he arrived unannounced, poor, hungry and thirsty, and they ignored him. That was a mistake with eternal consequences!

What does this parable teach us?

1. We will all face the judgment. Whether the gospel has been preached to us or not, we shall be judged. No one can hope to escape the judgment because that they did not recognize Christ when he appears in human form.

2. Different scriptures mention different criteria for judgment, but our treatment of the unfortunate members of society whose influence, wealth, or power cannot be of any advantage to us is a fundamental requirement for citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.

3. Our service to others must be without thought of reward. A stranger came in to look for a room at a hotel where George Holt was the hotel clerk. Because every room was taken, he offered the stranger his own room. The stranger happened to be John Jacob Astor who later built the Waldorf-Astoria. He remembered the kindness of Mr. Holt, looked him up, and hired him. Consequently, George Holt became the most famous hotel manager in America. 4 He was rewarded, like those on the right hand of Christ, because he performed a selfless act without thought of reward.

4. Theological correctness is not as important as spontaneous goodness.

Ellen White writes:

Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them. Even among the heathen are those who have cherished the spirit of kindness; before the words of life had fallen upon their ears, they have befriended the missionaries, even ministering to them at the peril of their own lives. Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God. 5

Leo Tolstoy tells the story of Martin Avdeich, a cobbler in a little town. His shop was in a tiny room in a basement with a window through which he could see the street above. He had lost his wife and children years before and since then he was in constant despair. An old friend of his came to visit him, and Martin told him that he wanted to die, that there was no point in his living.

The friend told Martin that he felt that way because he was only thinking about himself. "Read the Gospels," he admonished him, "and God will tell you what to do." And so Martin bought a Bible and began to read it. One night he read the story of the Pharisee who had invited Jesus to his home but did not show any kindness to him, but the woman who was a sinner washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and poured expensive ointment over them. Martin wondered if the Lord should come to him, whether he would act like the Pharisee or the woman. Then he fell asleep. All of a sudden he heard a voice that woke him up. No one was there but he heard Jesus’ words distinctly. "Martin! Look out into the street tomorrow, for I shall come."

The next day when he started work, he remembered the voice. He kept looking out of the window to see if Jesus would come. He saw Stepanich clearing the snow outside and then rest against the wall. Martin called him in to warm himself and gave him a cup of hot tea. He refilled the cup as often as Stepanich emptied it. Stepanich thanked him and left.

Martin continued stitching a boot but kept looking out the window. He saw a woman poorly dressed with a baby in her arms. She wore thin worn summer clothes and was trying to shield the baby from the cold wind. Martin went out and invited her in. He gave her some bread and hot soup. She told him she was a soldier's wife whose husband had gone off eight months ago, and she had not heard from him since. She had to sell everything she had, even her clothes, since she could not find any work. She finally had to pawn her shawl the day before. Martin gave her an old cloak. The woman took it with gratitude and wrapped the baby in it. Then he gave her some money to get her shawl out of pawn. The woman thanked him and left.

As he returned to his work, he glanced out the window in the hope that Christ would appear, but instead he saw a young boy attempt to steal an apple from an old woman selling apples. The woman seized the boy by his hair. The boy screamed. Martin dashed into the street. The woman threatened to call the police. Martin told the boy to ask for forgiveness. He did and the woman forgave him. Martin took an apple, paid the old woman, and gave it to the boy.

The woman said, "The boy ought to be whipped."

"Oh, Granny," said Martin, "If he should be whipped for stealing an apple, what should be done to us for our sins? God bids us forgive or we shall not be forgiven. We should forgive a thoughtless youngster most of all." As she was lifting her sack on her back, the boy offered to carry it for her.

Martin went back into his shop to work again. His work was done for the day. He swept the place and took the Bible from the shelf and opened it, and when he began to read. He heard footsteps. A voice whispered, "Martin, don't you know me?"

"It is I," said the voice, and Stepanich came from a dark corner and then disappeared.

"It is I," said the voice again, and the woman with the baby in her arms appeared and vanished.

"It is I," said the voice once again. and the old woman and the boy with the apple came forth and disappeared.

Martin continued reading from this Bible, "For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in." And then he read from the bottom of the page, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." 6

And so Martin realized that the Master had really visited him that day, and he had received him three times.

How many times a day does the Savior appear to us? Is he is standing in the food line at a homeless shelter, is she a neighbor who can’t pay her rent, is he an old man who needs help getting into his car, is she is a young woman who needs a job? How do we respond?

1 Others include The Wise and Foolish Builders, The Wheat and the Tares, The Good and Bad Fish, and The Laborers in the Vineyard.

2 In Scripture, sometimes God is referred to as the judge and Jesus is our advocate and other times Jesus himself is the judge as in this parable. In effect it doesn't matter since in both cases we know that the judgment will be fair. Jesus as well as God the Father loves us.

3 Wenham, p. 89.


5 White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, p. 638.

6 Tolstoy, Leo, “Where Love Is,” Reader’s Digest, December, 1982, pp. 112-115. Condensed from a short story in Twenty-three Tales, English translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

Without a Wedding Garment


Mathew 22:1-14

In our previous chapter we dealt with the invited guests' refusal to come to the banquet and discussed the insulting excuses they made for not attending. In Matthew's account of this parable the invitation is to a royal banquet, the kings messengers are killed, and the enraged king sends troops to kill the murderers and burn their city. After this the invitation is sent to other less privileged persons.

Matthew's parable implies that even those who choose to attend the banquet may suffer judgment.

But when the King came to in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are invited, but few are chosen.’

This man’s “failure to dress properly for the occasion is as insulting to his host as was the rudeness of the first guests." 1 "Other men had made light of the kingdom--and stayed away; but he had made light of it--and come! They were at least avowed in their despising of the spiritual--they went to their possessions. But this man accepted the overtures of grace, attended the feast--with a spirit still alien and worldly!" 2 Ultimately it is not whether one is rich or poor, privileged or underprivileged that determines one's destiny. What is crucial is whether we are obedient or disobedient, humble or proud, trusting or presumptuous.

Since those invited from the streets are termed good and bad—

the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad—

it is not surprising that a bad person is discovered among the guests. We do not really know what the customs were regarding such a wedding, but it seems obvious that the king supplied appropriate clothing. The “bad” man, in this case, must have refused to wear the clothing provided. When the garment provided is not worn, the guest shows himself to be arrogant and presumptuous. Consequently, when confronted by the king, he is speechless.

A similar Jewish parable indicates that those who are invited to a feast must be dressed properly. Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai, in the second half of the first century A.D. told this parable:

It is like a king who invited his servants to a feast, but he did not fix any time [for the beginning of the feast]. The wise ones among them arrayed themselves and sat at the entrance of the king's palace. They said: ‘Something is still wanting in the king's palace [i.e. we shall not have long to wait].’ But the foolish ones among them went on with their ordinary work, saying, ‘Is there ever a feast without long waiting?’ Suddenly the king called for his servants. The wise ones among them entered in, fitly arrayed as they were. But the foolish ones entered into his presence all dirty as they were. Then did the king rejoice over the wise ones, but he was wroth with the foolish ones; and he said, "These who arrayed themselves for the feast, let them recline, and eat and drink; but these who did not array themselves for the feast, let them remain standing and watch [the others]." 3

Those who come to the feast have accepted the invitation; they have made no excuses. They want to attend. Among these are those who recognize their unworthiness, who know that they cannot attend the feast without accepting and wearing the freely offered “wedding garment”. Like Joshua they know that they are dressed in filthy clothes. "The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ And to him he said, ‘See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel’” (Zechariah 3:40). They no longer must stand on our own merits, clothed in their own righteousness. "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." (Galatians 3:27).

Charles Dickens the great British novelist of the nineteenth century was also a kind of amateur stage director and actor. He was directing and acting in a play to raise money for the family of one of his friends who died. Queen Victoria indicated an interest in seeing the play, so a special performance was presented for her and her party of about fifty. Victoria asked for Dickens to be presented to her, but he was in a dilemma. How could he refuse such a request, but how could he comply? He was still in costume wearing an absurd wig and red nose? Because he was dressed inappropriately, he graciously refused. He said later, "I could not appear before Her Majesty tired and hot, with the paint still upon my face. . . " 4

Martin Luther sought salvation by works before he understood justification by faith. Luther resolved to perform whatever works were necessary. He sometimes went for three days without food. He prayed more than the regulations required. In winter, he punished his body by not covering himself with blankets and nearly froze to death. He finally realized that he could never do enough to earn salvation based solely on his own efforts.

Too often we act as if it is others who need God’s mercy and grace. We are good upright people who go to church and pay our fair share of the expenses of the kingdom. It’s the drunkards, prostitutes, drug addicts, and the rock-and-rollers that need God’s help, not us.

When we refuse to wear the wedding garment of humility, we show not deference to God. It is as if we arrogantly regard his as an equal. We announce that we are good enough just as we are. Sometimes we think of God as our heavenly buddy, and we fail to understand that God is the wholly other, the Almighty, Omnipotent, Sovereign Creator of the Universe.

1 Wenham, p. 135.

2 Buttrick, p. 229.

3 Oesterley, p. 128.

4 Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), p. 785.

The Wedding Feast and the Banquet


Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24

This story is told twice, and while Matthew and Luke tell it differently, there is a common theme: the important people of a community have been invited to a banquet, and when they refuse to come, others become the “invited” guests. In both cases, the original invitees are members of the privileged class. In Matthew it is a king who invites people to a wedding banquet for his son. In Luke a wealthy person sends out invitations. Excuses for not attending range from the general (Matthew) to the specific (Luke). In Matthew not only were the invitations rejected, but the messengers of the king are murdered and both “good” and “bad” citizens of the community receive invitations. In Luke the messengers invite the poor, crippled, blind, and the lame. In addition, people found traveling in the roads and lanes are compelled to attend. Luke also includes an account of a man coming to the king's banquet without a wedding garment.

The invitation to become citizens of Jesus’ kingdom is compared to inviting people to a banquet. The original invitees are the privileged elite. After they refuse the invitation, outcasts and commoners are invited. While invitations to God’s kingdom are freely given to all, the reason the rich and privileged are not better represented is because they are more likely to have rejected the invitation.

It is fitting that participation in the kingdom is likened to a feast. When we accept God’s invitation, a “feast” of good things follows. In John 10:10, Christ announced that he came so that we may have life and have it abundantly. In addition to the sure knowledge that we are accepted and loved unconditionally by God, we can enjoy life to the fullest—socially, emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually. Not only do we enjoy God's “banquet” of good things here and now, but a future Messianic banquet also awaits us. We can look forward to a heavenly banquet with our Lord in the company of those men and women who have also accepted God’s invitation.

It is highly unusual that the guests invited to the feasts described in the parables, find excuses not to attend. Presumably the initial invitation had been accepted. According to Bailey, 1 the prevailing custom in the Middle East was to offer an initial invitation. Preparation was made according to the number of acceptances received. One or two chickens was slaughtered if two to four guests were expected, a duck for five to eight, a kid for ten to fifteen, a sheep for fifteen to thirty-five, and a calf for thirty-five to seventy-five. Since the meat could not be refrigerated, it was important for those who accepted the invitation to come to avoid insulting the host and creating waste and unnecessary expense. (Obviously emergencies could arise that could occasionally keep a guest from keeping his appointment, but these would be rare.) After all was in readiness and the animal prepared, a second and final invitation was sent to the guests, "Come, for everything is ready now."

In Luke, when the king’s servant presents the first guest with an invitation, he replies, "I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets." Imagining the context allows us to sense the enormity of the insult! The one who invited him was the king. The banquet was in honor of his son, the prince.

Bailey Gillespie is a very busy professor at La Sierra University. He is a frequently invited special speaker for various important occasions. He is also a prolific author. Besides his regular teaching duties, he is involved with students and is actively involved in the daily affairs of his university. One day he was surprised by an invitation to have breakfast with the President of the United States. He didn't consult his calendar before accepting. "Of course, we accepted, at once!" 2

A person in the Middle East, says Bailey, does not purchase a piece of land without thoroughly examining every inch of it. The guest’s excuse was obviously an insult and a lie, and both the servant and the king knew it.

The response of the second person presented with the invitation was also a lie and equally insulting. "I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets." No one would buy oxen without trying them out.

Teams of oxen were tied in a small field if they were being sold in the marketplace or at the farm of the seller. This location enabled the buyer or his servant to yoke the oxen and determine first-hand whether or not the “team” would pull together. No one bought a team of oxen without “trying” them first. The present day analogy would be to decline the President’s invitation because you had to “check out” two second-hand cars that you had bought before you had seen them, driven them, or had them appraised.

The third person excused himself because he has just gotten married. If he had accepted an earlier invitation and gotten married just before the banquet, this reply would have been an obvious insult because either the man had accepted the invitation knowing in advance he would not attend, or he considered the king’s banquet to be an event of little consequence. Additionally, in a culture in which women had very little status, to place a wife’s welfare above a presidential invitation would be like saying to the President, "I cannot attend your dinner, Mister President, because I have to take my hat to the cleaners or my dog to the vet for her shots.”

These excuses have the sin of materialism in common and highlight the enormity of the insult to the King. Additionally, Jesus reminds us to, "Seek first the kingdom of God" because our inclination is to seek first the material things of this world. We, like the rich young ruler who chose wealth over discipleship, are not immune from the magnetism of materialism. When we value our survival, our comforts, our clothes, our food, our cars, and our houses before salvation and membership in God’s kingdom, materialism becomes idolatry.

Gehazi was the servant of the prophet Elisha. He had seen Elisha part the water of the Jordan, seen Elisha make bad water wholesome, watched as Elisha miraculously provided oil for a poor widow, cured a Shunammite woman of her infertility, and raised the dead. Yet even this intimate association with the prophet did not immunize him from the allure of wealth.

When Elisha healed Naaman leprosy and then refused the Aramaean’s generous offer of gifts, Gehazi ran after Naaman and fabricated a story about a company of prophets that needed money and clothing. Naaman complied with Gehazi’s request and gave him more than he asked for. Gehazi thought to keep all of these things for himself, but when Elisha discovered what he had done, the price of Gehazi’s deception was expensive indeed.

Jim grew up in a small town, Muskegon, Michigan. His father was a machinist in a piston-ring plant. Though he was raised in a working class family, he always claimed that he grew up in poverty and lived in ramshackle surroundings. He described his childhood as deprived, Christmas presents were not memorable, and his clothes were hand-me downs. The Assembly of God church he attended was very strict, and the community as a whole did not accept Pentecostals. Dancing and movies were not allowed. The church was the center of his life--prayer meetings on Wednesday, junior choir, Sunday school, camp meeting, and Bible studies took up his time. Guilt and fear dominated his life. When he went to some place forbidden by his church, he would hear a voice asking, "Jim, what are you doing here?"

A traumatic experience was a turning point in his life. Jim and his girlfriend went for a ride during an altar call. In his hurry to return to the church unnoticed, he hit three-year-old Jimmy Summerfield in the parking lot. The child survived, but the event led Jim to consider ministry as his life’s work.

In 1959 he left Muskegon to enroll at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. North Central was a training school for Assembly of God preachers. It had strict rules. First year students could have one date every two weeks, juniors one per week, and seniors two per week. Every date had to be okayed by the dean of women. He fell in with a very religious group called the Holy Joes that sang, prayed, and spoke in tongues. That year Jim didn't have time for studies, dates, or girls.

In his second year he met Tamara Faye La Valley who swept him off his feet. They met, he proposed a month later, and two months later they were married. Students were not allowed to marry while in school so they were expelled.

Tammy came from a poor family of eight children. They had no bathtub or shower and their toilet was an outhouse. She was brought up according to the strict standards of the Assembly of God church, which forbid jewelry, lipstick, powder, fingernail polish, rings, mixed swimming, dancing, movies, tobacco, liquor, gambling, and life insurance. Divorce was taboo. Because her mother was a divorced woman, she was stigmatized by the members of her church.

Since a college education and ordination were not requirements for ministers in the Assembly of God church, Jim began his preaching ministry in North Carolina. As he and Tammy traveled from church to church, they stayed with parishioners or other ministers. People took good care of them. He discovered that if he asked for help, people did more than supply hot meals. He and Tammy found themselves in possession of new clothes, diamond rings, a travel trailer, and an accordion.

According to his bodyguard, Don Hardister, the "material world began to look more useful than sinful." Hardister "noted how Bakker began to practice ‘blab it and grab it’, the ministry of prosperity." "He had a thing about coats in particular. He bought every kind of coat that you could imagine 'cause he didn't have any when he was young. He said he was getting part of his heaven right here on earth."

In time Jim and Tammy owned a fifty-foot houseboat, two Rolls Royces, two 560SEL Mercedes, a Mazda RX7 (for their daughter), fourteen mink coats, and closets full of clothes with the price tags attached. Jim bought $3000 suits and six shirts at a time, each a different color. Jim and Tammy employed a $45,000 a year housekeeper and a $160,000 secretary. Tammy's Saint Bernard inhabited an air-conditioned condo. In 1986 Jim and Tammy’s “needs were supplied” to the tune of $1,900,000. This was quite a change for a couple that had no wedding pictures because a camera broke and no honeymoon pictures because they couldn't afford a honeymoon. (The Bakkers turned down their invitation to the King’s banquet because they had a television empire to run and money to raise for Heritage, USA.)

Jim developed a talent for raising money. After working with Pat Robertson, he launched out on his own and set up his own TV network, PTL, and raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Jim had his face lifted, and Tammy had her breasts enlarged. A struggle for power ensued when members of his work force became jealous. Marriage problems developed. Tammy charged that she was neglected and accused Jim of being a "workaholic”. She began to flirt with a gospel singer who regularly appeared on their television program.

Divorce was unthinkable, so they both acted as though nothing was wrong. "In the thick of their separation the couple flew to Hawaii to conduct a marriage seminar. Then Jim dashed back to Clearwater, Florida, for his legendary ten minutes with Jessica Hahn." A friend accused Bakker of making homosexual advances. 3 Greed and unhappiness eventually destroyed the Bakkers’ financial empire, and Jim ended up in jail.

Because the wealthy guests refused to attend the banquet, the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame were invited to take their places. As Bailey says, "the poor are not invited to banquets, the maimed do not get married, the blind do not go out to examine fields, and the lame do not test oxen." 4 Some ordinary people had to be compelled because ordinarily Orientals would not have accepted an unexpected invitation. (Some scholars believe that this group represented the Gentiles who along with the poor of Israel became guests at God's banquet of salvation.) Jesus makes it clear that God's banquet hall will be filled with guests regardless of how the intellectuals, the nobility, and the wealthy respond to his invitation.

In Matthew, those invited not only refused the invitation but they mistreated and killed the messengers of the king. The king then sent troops to destroy the murderers and burn their city, a clear reference to the destruction of Jerusalem.

In these two parables, Jesus warns us that behavior motivated by materialism and arrogance is in fact a rejection of the invitation to become citizens of Jesus’ kingdom. These parables also make clear that the consequences of rejecting this invitation are catastrophic for both individuals and society.

1 Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, p. 94.

2 V. Bailey Gillespsie, "Breakfast with the President," Pacific Union Recorder, September 21, l992, p. 12.

3 Joe E. Barnhart with Steven Winzenburg, Jim and Tammy: Charismatic Intrigue inside PTL (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988). Material from the paragraphs above comes from this book.

4 Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, p. 100.

The Cruel Vine Dressers


Matthew 21:33-41 (Mark 12:1-9; Luke 20:9-16)

This parable was told after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, during the last week of his life on earth. He had wanted to bring the gospel of salvation to his beloved people during the years of his ministry, but they had not responded. Later the week, he lambasted the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. While they were building tombs for the prophets and decorating them, they were bent on destroying him, the Messiah, the one greater than all the prophets. Finally in exasperation and frustration he lamented the fate of his beloved people and city in words recorded in Matthew 23:37-38. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate."

The parable of the Cruel Vinedressers is reminiscent of the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7. "My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it." Jesus' parable likewise emphasizes the great care shown to the vineyard. The master placed a "fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower." The master had set aside a fertile hill for it, cleared it of stones, built a watchtower and a wine press, and planted choice vines.

In Jesus' parable the master of the vineyard had taken special care and given special attention to the vineyard so that it would be fruitful. This was no ordinary vineyard, and the master expected a fruitful harvest. (This story could have been about parents who had provided for their children all the things necessary for success: love and end encouragement, music lessons, sport camps, top-of-the-line computers, the best private school education, and the money to attend the finest universities. After that lavish care and attention, most parents would find it difficult not to expect that their children "would amount to something".)

The master, after having done everything possible to insure the financial success of his vineyard, leased the vineyard to vinedressers and went to another country. When harvest time came, he sent his servants to collect the produce. He expected a bountiful harvest. Because he had spared no expense in the establishment of his vineyard, he must have chosen his vinedressers with care. Their special skills must have earned them "top dollar", and he had every right to expect that their loyalty and skill, along with his capital investment, would make the vineyard a successful business venture.

In Isaiah's story, the master planted choice vines but harvested wild grapes. In Jesus' parable, three of the master's servants sent to collect the grapes from a bountiful harvest were terribly abused: one was beaten, one stoned, and one killed. Apparently the master tried to excuse the tenants. Perhaps his servants had acted insolently or had done something to provoke them. So he sent another group of servants. But they were abused as badly as the first group.

The story of God's relationship to his Chosen People, as recorded in the Old Testament, is a record of God's patient longsuffering. The story of Hosea and the taking back of his wife who had turned to prostitution is analogous to the story of God's experience with Israel. Apostasy, idol worship, sacred prostitution, child sacrifice and syncretistic worship mark their departure from their own religious laws. Israel's mistreatment of prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Amos, Zechariah, and Jeremiah is symbolized in this parable.

The experience of Jeremiah is typical. Jeremiah lived at the time of Josiah, and he must have supported the young king's religious reformation. However, after Josiah's untimely the death, religious practices took a turn for the worse. Jeremiah preached against superstitious reliance upon the temple to protect the nation from any catastrophe. This earned him a death sentence, but the princes and people came to his defense, and his life was spared. When Jeremiah preached against the evil reign of Jehoiakim, his life was again threatened, and he had to go into hiding. His prophecies against the king were read to him by Jehudi, but as he read a portion of the scroll, it was cut off and thrown into the brazier where the king was warming himself.

When Jeremiah proclaimed the imminent doom of Jerusalem, Pashhur, the priest, beat him and put him in stocks. There were many prophets after the Babylonian invasion that proclaimed Nebuchadnezzar's swift retribution and a speedy return of the Israeli exiles, but Jeremiah gave no such assurance. His was very unpopular, and his message was regarded as unpatriotic, disloyal, and treasonous. He was arrested for desertion, beaten, and placed in prison. Later he was cast into a cistern and left to die before being rescued by friends.

The difficult and unpopular message that Jeremiah proclaimed saved Judah from captivity and later from extinction. Yet his reward was suffering, persecution, imprisonment, and constant opposition. Unfortunately, Jeremiah's experience was typical, not only of the treatment of Israel's prophets but of Jesus, the Messiah. In the Jesus' parable, the master finally decided to send his son saying,

They will respect my son.
But instead the vinedressers rationalized,
This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance. So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
When Jesus asked,
Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?
His listeners replied,
He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.
In Isaiah's story, the master of the vineyard declared,
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

Both warnings were not taken seriously at the times they were delivered. In Jesus' parable, note that God was not dependent on a particular group of people to be his vinedressers, even though he was reluctant to give up on those he employed first. Other tenants can take their places.

While it is clear that the cruel vinedressers and the good vines that produced wild grapes are warnings directed specifically to the nation of Israel, we need to be aware that we, as Christians, are the vinedressers and the choice grape vines of today. In Romans 11:17-22, Paul warns the Gentiles who had been grafted into the vine of Israel.

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, `Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.' That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.

If this warning is appropriate for the Gentiles, it is also appropriate for the Christian church. There was no guarantee for Israel, chosen by God, blessed by God-given laws and the prophets of the Old Testament, with miracles throughout their history, and with the Messiah himself. Consequently, Paul says that Gentiles converts should not be lulled into false security thinking they cannot fail. Surely there is no room for complaisance today.

Let it not be said of us as Isaiah said of the Jewish nation, "For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry."

The Unproductive Fig Tree


Luke 13:6-9

The fig tree is a common fruit tree in Palestine. It is referred to more than sixty times in the Bible. It bore fruit ten months of the year with the early figs emerging in the spring before the leaves appeared. Fruit trees do not ordinarily produce fruit for three years after the young saplings have been put in the ground. Consequently, the three years that figs were expected in the Parable of the Unproductive Fig Tree would be the fourth, fifth, and sixth year after the tree was planted.

The fig tree in this story had produced no fruit for three years. A fig tree is planted not for shade or ornament or for any other purpose other than to bear fruit. So when the owner saw no fruit on it for three successive seasons, he said to the gardener, "See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?"

But the gardener who had cultivated that tree with special care pled in its behalf, "Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down." Even the patient gardener would agree that the tree must be cut down if it failed to bear fruit the next year, especially after giving it additional care.

The parable ends there. We are not told whether the tree bore fruit the next year or not. What is important in this parable is that the fig tree was given special attention. It is also important to note that the fig tree took up precious space in the vineyard. Since only one fig tree is mentioned special care must have been taken to plant it where the fig tree would do well. So not only did the tree reduce the number of grape vines the vineyard could support, this unproductive tree was "wasting the soil", using up its nutrients without producing anything in return.

I have a small garden and in my garden I have planted fruit trees. While these trees are maturing, they receive a great deal of my attention. They are watered, fertilized, pruned and examined carefully for any disease or defect. However, because I have a limited amount of space, if the mature tree produces no timely fruit, I remove it.

The care the gardener planned to give it during the following year was no doubt the care it had during the three previous years. He had cultivated and fertilized it more than he would a mature tree because he was inducing it to produce fruit. In light of his previous efforts, his attitude was astonishing. He volunteered to expend another year of effort on a tree that showed no promise of ever producing fruit. The attitude of the owner was also surprising. He had a great deal to lose in terms of hired labor, fertilizer, and productive land.

The intervention of the gardener and the patience of the owner after three fruitless years are difficult for me to understand. Yet such is the loving concern and patient tolerance of God.

In the parable of the wicked tenants (Matt 21:33-44), Jesus tells the story of the owner of another vineyard who, at great cost to himself, gave his tenants three opportunities to collect the fruit that was rightfully his. This parable, considered at length in the next chapter, gives us a hint as to the fate of the fig tree in the first parable.

The three fruitless years in the first parable and the three opportunities for the tenants to produce the required harvest in the second, represent God's longsuffering attempts to give the nation of Israel a chance to "bear fruit", to demonstrate that a nation could exist governed by the two great principles that provided the foundation of their own, God given legal system: love of God and loving service to humankind. Prophets like Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah faithfully provided a "Thus saith the Lord", but their messages were not heeded. Jesus' words recorded in Matthew 23: 37-38 make clear the consequences of Israel's failure to respond to the Heavenly Landowner's special and patient attention.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate.

One of the adjectives attributed to God in the Bible is "longsuffering". For 1500 years, the time between the Exodus and the time of Jesus, God put up with a great deal from his "chosen people". Discrimination, anarchy, idolatry, arrogance, and legalism are faithfully chronicled in both the Old and New Testament. In spite of these failures, God gave Israel a fourth and final "year".

While these parables speak specifically to the plight of the Jewish nation in the time of Jesus, they have a universal and timeless application. Given the 2000-year history of the world since these parables were recorded, it is obvious that civilization is living in a fourth and final "year". The outcome of this parable depends on our response to God's care and cultivation.

The Rich Man and Lazarus


Luke 16:19-31

In the parable, The Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus adapted a well-known folktale to illustrate an important spiritual truth. This familiar story may have had its source in an Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Si-Osiris to the underworld. It concludes with the words: "He who has been good on earth, will be blessed in the kingdom of the dead, and he who has been evil on earth, will suffer in the kingdom of the dead." (His listeners clearly understood that this "story" did not describe the reality of life after death.)

In a popular version of this story the setting was Palestine. The characters were a poor scholar, and a rich publican. When the poor scholar died, no one noticed; no one came to his funeral. But when the publican died, it was a splendid funeral with many in attendance because, although he was a great sinner, he had done one good deed just before he died. A friend of the poor scholar had a dream in which he saw his friend in paradise, enjoying the water from cool flowing streams. The rich publican was standing on a riverbank unable to reach the flowing water no matter how hard he tried.

Jesus' parable was a variation on this well-known story. It is composed of three scenes. The first scene contrasts the situation of the rich man and that of Lazarus. Everything that is said of one man is in striking contrast to the other. The rich man is well fed, clothed in purple and fine linen. (Purple dye was extremely expensive as was linen, which was imported from Egypt.) He was so wealthy that he had a gate in front of his mansion and so rich that he might have broken the fourth commandment's admonition to work for six days each week. The second man is described as a poor beggar, so diseased and sick that he could not keep dogs from licking his running sores.

It is interesting to look at their descriptions to see exactly what is said and what is not said about these men. The rich man's wealth was not an indicator of immorality. (The wealthy Abraham is in heaven.) And he did not command his servants to drag Lazarus away from his gate. However, his namelessness indicates poverty of character. He was a man that had insulated himself from the needs of the world at his doorstep. He paid no attention to Lazarus. He was busy enjoying himself. Like the rich farmer, he was egocentric. He knew the law and read the prophets, but he failed to conform his life to their admonitions. No, "being rich was not his crime; being rich... was his opportunity."

We must assume that Lazarus was not simply poor. His name means "God helps," and may indicate his reliance upon God. He must have been a righteous man for the angels of God deliver him to Abraham's bosom at his death. It is significant that in this story that the poor man has a name while the rich man has none.

This scene ends, as does the story of the rich farmer, with the sound of God's voice. "This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things which you have prepared, whose will they be?"

Thielicke describes the funeral of the rich man as an occasion where all the wealthy leaders of the community gave their usual eulogies. The rich man, tortured by thirst, sees and hears everything. While alive he had thought about what a splendid affair his funeral would be. There would be long processions of charitable societies, the best preacher in town would praise him to the skies, and long lines of poor people whom he had showered with benefactions would weep because he had died. Now the eulogies and praise increase his agony because they are so at odds with the man he knows himself to be.

In the second scene, the situation is reversed. Lazarus is with Abraham buddy, enjoying all the good things he never had before his death. The rich man is in Hades being tormented in flames of fire. In the first scene Lazarus was poor, begging for the leftovers from the table of the rich man. Now the rich man is begging Lazarus for a drop of water to cool his tongue. The request of the rich man is denied by Abraham who says to him: "Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us."

Death creates the great unbridgeable gulf between those who have followed the teachings of Jesus and those who have refused and followed their own willful, selfish ways. The most terrifying aspect of death is its finality. There can be no more repentance, no more change of heart, no more new resolutions. All we hope to be and to do must be done before the final curtain is drawn. The words, "This very night your life is being demanded of you" will not be frightening if we, through God's grace, have followed Jesus' command to treat others as we would wish to be treated. The denial of the rich man's request ends this scene.

In scene three the rich man realizes that his destiny is fixed and unchangeable, and he resigns himself to that fact. If nothing can be done for him, perhaps his five brothers may still have a chance. "Then father [Abraham], I beg you, to send Lazarus to my father's house--for I have five brothers--that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment." At first glance his request might seem to indicate that the rich man is becoming less selfish; he is beginning to think of others. But it turns out to be the following subtle self-justification. "Father Abraham, if someone had come to me and warned me, I would have changed my ways. I did not have sufficient opportunity."

Abraham is not fooled. "They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them." The rich man doesn't give up easily. "If some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent." But Abraham answers with finality, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one rises from the dead."

In fact a Lazarus was raised from the dead, but the response of the Jewish leaders was not repentance but a strengthening of their determination to kill Jesus. They reasoned, "This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." (John 11:48)

As Buttrick says:

An emissary from the shades of death might arouse our gaping wonder--but conscience lies deeper than the eyes. He might fill us with sharp fear--but the fear would pass, and fear has scant power to change the fiber of our motives. A moral change demands a moral instrument. Only deep can call to deep. Only love can quicken love; and love is its own best evidence. The proof of inner conviction is not an outer marvel, but the courage to trust God and obey! When love accepts its Calvary and dies, the just for the unjust, it has shot its last bolt. Golgotha is the ultimate resource; if that entreaty fails, nothing but flame and torment can bring the soul back to reality.

These words say something very important about the nature of faith. Faith is not based on miraculous events-they can be explained away or misconstrued. Faith is not based on intellectual understanding or the conclusion of a logical syllogism. Faith is a manifestation of trust, and trust is established by a developing relationship that establishes confidence. If trust does not exist, signs or miracles will not engender either the trust or the faith and "inner conviction" that obedience requires.

When Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh asking him to let Israel go, he wanted proof in the form of a miracle that their request was God inspired. So Aaron cast his rod before Pharaoh, and it became a serpent. But Pharaoh did not believe. He called his sorcerers and by some magic they too were able to produce serpents from their rods. But even when Aaron's rod swallowed up their rods, Pharaoh still did not believe; instead he refused to believe them. Miracle after miracle was successively performed, but the result was a persistent hardening of Pharaoh's heart.

This parable reminds us that if we, like the rich man, live apathetic lives, death can put us on the wrong side of the river of life. If we are waiting for some great crisis, some clear-cut sign of Christ's second coming to inspire us to change our lives, we are living dangerously. It is the way we live today that determines our destiny. Now is the day of salvation. Who knows when God shall say, "This very night your life is demanded of you"? Those words only lose their terror if we take to heart, if we trust, if we believe, if we act on the words of Moses and the prophets and Jesus and the apostles.

You and I are the five brothers. God will not send us a messenger from the dead to shock us and awaken us from our lethargy. There will be no voice from heaven, no spectacular miracle. There is, however, this parable and the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit to remind us of the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: 34-40.

The King will say to those on his right hand, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me . . . I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' (Matthew 25: 34-40)

Let us therefore make our salvation sure by words and actions that demonstrate a loving trust, a shining faith, and an unshakable belief that these words are true.

The Rich Fool


Luke 12:13-21

I want to be rich. If I were rich I could help talented but financially disadvantaged students receive a college education; advance the work of needy mission fields by building churches, hospitals, and schools; and support Seventh-day Adventist colleges in the United States with funds that could be used to attract outstanding teachers and provide them with the finest equipment available.

There is nothing wrong with being wealthy. The Bible mentions several wealthy saints. Abraham was one of them. So were Job and Joseph of Arimathea. Being rich however, does not denote a virtuous life; neither does poverty. What is important is how one becomes rich and how one spends those riches.

A certain man asked Jesus about his financial responsibility to his brother. Jesus responded with the parable found in Luke 12:13-21. Jesus' answer overlooked the apparent problem and dealt with the real problem--materialism. Covetousness was destroying the plaintiff's spirituality. "A man's life," Jesus said, "does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

Jesus' message is relevant to our affluent society. In 1948, there was one American billionaire, Henry Ford. It took until the 1970's before there were more than ten billionaires in this country. By 1980, however, there were 94, and now there are close to 200. Whereas a million dollars was once the prize that was out of reach of all but a few, millionaires are now a dime a dozen. Currently, there are 3,500,000 in America.

At the height of the era of excess at the end of the year 1999, there was a giddiness regarding the ease of making money. One headline read, "The Good News Is, You'll Be A Millionaire Soon; The Bad News Is, So Will Everybody Else". In those days, 8,000,000 Americans were millionaires. It was estimated that there were 250.000 millionaires in Silicon Valley alone, and that one third of Microsoft's 30,000 employees were millionaires. People were forecasting that the Dow would reach 100,000.

This feeling of wealth led to lavish consumption. $4,000-a-night suites were booked-up months in advance as were all eighty-four spots on Tavoca World Tours' $38,000-a-head round the world excursions. Luxury cars accounted for twelve percent of all vehicles sold.

Buttrick comments, "When a man who is accustomed to live from hand to mouth finally achieves property, he has reached a critical fork in the road; thereafter he will work either in sturdier manhood or in the folly of an acquisitive life. Possessions may fulfill their perfect work, or they may smother him." 1 Which turn have we Christians taken when faced with this "critical fork"?

In Jesus' story a rich farmer gained his wealth legitimately. He worked hard, and harvested much. His offense lay not in how he obtained his wealth but in what he did with it. He failed to acknowledge that he was God's steward. To recognize this fact is to admit that whatever we possess is entrusted to us by God to be used for his purposes. Consequently, in God's eyes, a poor man can be just as much God's steward as a rich man.

One night, a poor, tired, and hungry Vachel Lindsay asked to stay at a farmhouse. He had no money to pay for his lodging. Instead, he offered to recite some of his own poems. The lady of that house was not interested and pointed him to another house down the road, where he was cordially welcomed. "You may stay if you are willing to put up with what I have," was the offer. The house was very bare--two small rooms, no rugs, and no window shades. The only furniture was a bed, a table, an old stove, and rickety chairs. The famous African-American poet later said of that experience, "That man had nothing and gave me half of it, and we both had abundance." He had met a poor man who was God's steward.

C. L. Paddock, Senior, tells the story of two young, ambitious men who were working their way through Stanford University. Because they needed funds to continue their education, they invited the great Paderewski to give a recital; their profit would provide the money they required. They agreed to pay Paderewski two thousand dollars for his performance and set about promoting the program and selling tickets. Unfortunately, the ticket sales did not live up to their expectations, and when they counted the receipts after the program, they found that they had only sixteen hundred dollars. Disappointed and somewhat ashamed, they went to the great pianist, paid him the sixteen hundred, and gave him a note for four hundred dollars. To their surprise, Paderewski said, "Boys, that will not do." Then he took the four-hundred-dollar note, tore it up, and returned the sixteen hundred dollars to the boys. He then said, "Take out of this amount all your school expenses, and for each of you 10 percent of the balance. Then give me what remains." This was the act of a wealthy man who was God's steward.

But the rich man in Christ's story "thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have nowhere to place my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'"

We can become God's stewards is by using our wealth to extend the kingdom of God in the world. We can expend our wealth to bring people to a knowledge of Christ, to fund educational scholarships, to assist in the building of institutions that alleviate suffering, to support agencies that help the poor and unfortunate.

While Philip Guedella was writing the biography of the Duke of Wellington, he looked at the Duke's old checkbooks to obtain evidence of his true character. In perusing the stubs and cancelled checks, he discovered what things mattered most to the Duke. "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Mathew 6:21). We may not openly say what the rich farmer said about his selfish objectives, but the way we spend our money reveals whose stewards we are.

We can demonstrate heavenly stewardship is to use our funds to develop character in ourselves and in others. We do the former by striving to live in harmony with the life and teaching of Christ. An important aspect of this "striving" is to live lives that attract others to a Christ-like way of living. How we spend what money we have is an important Christian witness, not just to "outsiders" and fellow church members, but members of our families. This is why the poorest of us can be God's stewards and create "treasure in heaven".

Because the rich farmer was concerned with creating treasure on earth, he planned to build bigger barns, thereby creating a retirement "nest egg". But in Christ's parable, God said, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?"

The rich man's problem was not wickedness but foolishness. He had not previously made preparation for sudden death. Death often comes suddenly, unexpectedly, at the most inconvenient times, and the man who does not prepare for his death is a fool, for death is not something alien or unexpected. In addition to bringing an end to our plans and activities, it requires a reckoning of the stewardship of our god-given material possessions.

According to this parable, the wise man prepares for death and lives in such a way that death cannot bankrupt him. He will be able to say with Paul, "As for me I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

Pakhom, a Russian peasant, obsessed with the idea of obtaining more land, discovered that the Bashkirs, a neighboring tribe, was willing to sell for one thousand rubles as much of their territory as he could encircle from sunrise to sunset. However, he had to return to his starting point before sunset or he would lose both the land and his one thousand rubles. At sunrise Pakhom began to run. At midday he decided to return to the starting point in a wide arc in an attempt to enclose as much ground as possible. The thought of the land he would gain inspired a superhuman effort. He fell headlong into a crowd of cheering Bashkirs just as the sun dipped below the horizon.

The Bashkir chief praised Pakhom as a fine fellow who had gained a great deal of land. But Pakhom lay silent on the ground. When the Bashkirs turned him over, they discovered that he was dead. Leo Tolstoy concludes the story. "The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity. They dug a grave long enough for Pakhom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels." That's all the land a man really needs. 2

"For what will it profit them, if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?" (Mathew 16:26) Death cannot take from us what we have laid up in heaven. It cannot take away what we have done to alleviate suffering, to assist the poor and unfortunate. It cannot obliterate a Christ-like character or destroy the influence of Christian stewardship. "For one's life," Jesus said, "does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." We are not what we have but what we are. The rich man lost his "soul," when people thought of him not as a "man" but as a "rich man". Consequently, he became a "nobody" in death.

As long as we function as God's stewards, our "souls" are safe. We are in mortal danger when gaining and maintaining material wealth becomes a preoccupation. "It isn't just what we do with our possessions, it is what our possessions do to us, that may change life for us." 3 That is why Jesus tells us in Mathew 6:19-21,

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

1. Buttrick, p. 127.
2. Leo Tolstoy, "How Much Land a Man Needs," The Complete Works of Count Tolstoy, vol. XVII (New York Press, 1968; reprint of 1902 edition, London: J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd.) pp. 452-469.
3. Forest, p. 50.