I have read the Parable of the Talents many times, and have understood it in different ways at different times in my life. During my last read, I came across a commentary concerning the man who was given only one talent, which he chose to bury. Author Ellen White writes: The Lord desires His people to reach the highest round of the ladder that they may glorify Him by possessing the ability He is willing to bestow.
Although someone who is unfamiliar with the Christian lexicon might find the concept of salvation as ”surrendering one’s heart to God” difficult to grasp, most practising Christians feel at home with such an understanding. They expect that God wants them to joyfully surrender their whole life to Him, like a child who trustingly shares his favourite toy with his father. The child knows that the father will not keep it for himself, but give it back improved, or show the child a better, more exciting way to play with it.
In my earlier experience, however, I failed to see surrender as something other than simple sacrifice. I saw it as something I needed to do in order to please God and His perfect standard. It was something I never did perfectly, and never truly believed I could do perfectly. I still tried though, because I felt I had no other reasonable option.
Point of confusion
By definition, surrender is a passive action. Someone else is claiming possession over something of yours, and you give up any right to it. But in the religious environment, surrendering is something rather active, concerning something we think we control, but do not in fact own. And here is where things might get confusing. I know they got confusing for me.
It was very difficult for me to understand surrender as something other than a ”deed”, something we ought to do in order to seal our salvation. The joy of surrendering was missing, and my faith was flickering (what else could one expect from a faulty understanding?). There seemed to be nothing I could do about it apart from carrying on, religion as usual.
The Parable of the Talents has many layers of meaning. Salvation is one of them.
In the Parable of the Talents, before leaving, the master gives clear instructions to his men: “Do business till I come” (Luke 19:13). The third servant already had feelings of resentment towards his master (Luke 19:14), and so he began to see his master as an authoritarian, and an unjust leader. He did not rebel outright. He was not a corrupt employee. If he had been, he might have stolen the talent and used it for his own purposes. He could’ve joined all the other people who hated the master and, like them, hoped he did not return to his estate. But the man did not steal. He still respected the dominion of his master, only he did so in a stagnant, inactive way. And that inaction fully contradicted his master’s command.
Nevertheless, it’s quite possible the man was just being honest when he said: “I feared you, because you are an austere man. You collect what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” Because he had such a harsh impression of his boss, he might have become fearful of making any risky commercial move with the talent he was given. What if he made a mistake and lost a portion of what was entrusted to him? What if he totally failed? That would surely be unacceptable and unforgivable in the eyes of his powerful master. “Sure, he’s rich, but he’d still be loath to lose a fraction of his wealth needlessly.”
I felt the need to question my suspicion of the third man’s honesty—his assumption of his master’s harshness—a little more. I was someone who had understood God as an austere God, demanding untainted love from naturally selfish humans, and complete surrender from a person endowed with free will. The question, “Why give me free will only to ask that I go through the pain of surrendering it?”, often played on my mind.
But honesty is just one of the steps we take towards understanding. It’s never enough by itself. My understanding did not reach far enough to notice that the Son of God Himself surrendered His will to the Father. One can be honest, and still be wrong.
Judged by our paradigms
However, when the master came back, he did not fight the feelings of the man. He doesn’t start by saying: “You should not have been fearful of my dominion!” What he says is: “Fear should’ve made you wise! OK, you felt I was a despot, but you still didn’t do anything to appease me, like putting my money in the bank, to earn me interest!”. This is proof that the master is to the man what the man thinks he is. He does not take offence that the man thinks this of him. He expects the man to be consistent, even if he makes poor assumptions.
We all have different backgrounds. Some of us may lack education, others may lack access to theological knowledge, while others still may even feel they lack the power of understanding. The man in the parable had his own disability: fear. Just like him, we too might neglect to rejoice in the salvation we were given, for fear of losing it.
After all, we’ve learned very well by now that our deceitful hearts cannot be trusted. We are the child giving the toy to their father, and then suddenly grabbing it back. We know that this is what is in our hearts. Some of us respond by trying to be extra-cautious: we ask for God’s forgiveness, then we scrutinise our own deeds, and whenever we make a mistake, whenever we show stubbornness, we conclude that our initial surrender was not authentic. In our minds, this makes our surrender invalid, and we are still lost. Some of us might then change our approach and try to settle in a seemingly safer space, fenced with scrupulously detailed rules. Those rules become a sort of ‘holiness standard’, even a kind of idol. We live to abide by the rules and nothing else. We bury our salvation. We die.
It’s in the trying
”The Lord desires His people to reach the highest round of the ladder that they may glorify Him by possessing the ability He is willing to bestow.” God may sometimes ask us to passively surrender to Him because holding our own dominion over our lives would mean total failure (John 15:5). But other times, He may ask for an active form of surrender, that is to be fearless in faith, because faith inspires courage (Mark 4:40): courage to create, whether it be new habits, or new lives. Courage to take responsibility for our actions, not in a stoic, teeth-grinding, independent way, but in a loving, relationship-oriented way. The courage, even, to make mistakes along the way, not fearing that they will have the power to change God’s mind about us. He already knows us at our worst—better than we know ourselves. He knows our past and future. And yet, He died for us!
He doesn’t reject our efforts, the same way a mother does not rebuke her baby for hurting her while trying to caress her, because she knows that her child hasn’t mastered the movement yet.
God never gives up on us. He fights for us when we stop fighting for ourselves. His loving sacrifice on the cross came long before we were even born. And even if our gravest sin is still somewhere in the future, God’s Son died to atone for it, too. The only condition for this atonement is for us to still be willing to receive it. And that is a willingness that is never easily manifested. God’s goodness is never a license to be irresponsible, to be spiritually negligent, to be cripplingly ambivalent, or inactive. We do, at times, need to be shaken up and confronted. But that is never the whole story of salvation.
God’s intricate ways
With the exception of Jesus, every single hero of the Bible kept on making selfish mistakes even after having deep encounters with God.
With the exception of Jesus, every single hero of the Bible continued to make selfish mistakes even after having deep encounters with God. To a plain thinker, that might seem to cheapen grace. That God would forgive sinners even if they showed little interest in Him and His Law—His character—seems wrong. But that is simply not true, because the salvation stories in the Bible are all relational. When the heroes of our faith sinned, their sin did not end the story. The Bible shows clearly that many of them repented, as in the case of King David, or Peter.
We can only guess at the transformation Abraham’s faith must have gone through. From the time he met God and innocently bargained with Him for Sodom, to the time he let fear guide him to expose Sarah to the risk of being raped by Abimelech, to the time he actively trusted God with his most treasured possession—his son—Abraham saw God’s character in many different ways. The Bible doesn’t X-ray the patriarch’s heart for a reason why he stayed faithful. Maybe it is for the best. Maybe we ought not to be searching for that linear conversion story that we as contemporary Christians are so used to (a story such as: ”Before I met God, I used to steal and kill, do drugs and sleep around, but after hearing a Bible verse, I said a prayer and miraculously became the perfect Christian”). The Bible shows us the undeterred reverence Abraham had towards God, even in his troubled times.
Likewise, King David would curse his enemies for their cruel torture of him, but he did so in prayer—in the psalms. God can work with that. God can work with anything we bring to the relationship, as long as we actively stay in the relationship. And many times, even if we don’t, God does not give up on us. Take Elijah, so inexplicably depressed after his miraculous success against Baal’s prophets that he wished to die. God took care of him and spoke softly to his fearful heart, bringing it back to Him.
So, our post-surrender sins do not take Him by surprise and should not take us by surprise, either. Nor should they dishearten us, as such sins are found throughout the Bible.
Sometimes we are left with absolutely no information on the way God worked upon the heart of a faith hero, but we are told faith eventually won. In Samson’s mysterious case, are we to doubt his faith? Only if we consider ourselves more enlightened than Paul, who places him among the faithful ones (Hebrews 11:32). The lesson here is the same one that Jesus taught Nicodemus: we can distinguish the precise ways in which the Holy Spirit appeals to our hearts no better than a first century Pharisee could tell the origin and direction of the wind (John 3:8).
God makes room for our mistakes in the spiritual rehabilitation program we often call ”the plan of Salvation”. God does not expect absolute perfection from us, but He yearns for us to truly love it and honestly strive for perfection all along (Matthew 5:48). We will never reach it through our efforts alone. It is He who will eventually gift it to us, like He gifted us His sacrifice. Until then, we should do everything in our power to shake off laziness (Matthew 25:26), and prevent fear from engulfing our whole lives. Let us never keep ourselves from giving glory to God by a grateful possession of the gifts He has given us.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.