Why bother with being a Christian?

March 23, 2012

Some of us were sitting around over lunch having the kind of conversation that can be appreciated only by nuclear physicists and theologians (not that I consider myself a theologian). Anyway, one of the difficulties is that the science guys are a generally lot smarter than the God squad. Nonetheless, we plodded on trying to sort out universalism, the Gospels, and salvation. Finally , there was a very good (and an extraordinarily brave question. After all the hard work of being a Christian, and the tremendous personal struggles with evil, considering everything the Christian gives up (insert your favorite sin here), and what do we get in return anyway? We fast, we pray, we pretend to get along with people we really despise. Our opinions sometimes get us in trouble. We are in a never-ending conflict with the fleshy instincts – the very sensations that provide so much physical pleasure.

God does not seem even slightly impressed with our sacrifices made to his honor and in obedience to his law. You would think that he would feel some sense of obligation to, at least from time to time, come across with that healing, or the job, or the relationship we so seek and for which we fervently pray. But, no. Sometimes it’s “yes” and sometimes it’s ‘no.” Why do we put ourselves through the trouble? Of course, I sprang to my feet with the correct answer.

Some of us just have to be first. That really impresses the teacher. It’s all about hell. If you don’t want to end up in the ever burning pit of unrelenting torment, you better get with the program, drop to your knees, repent all those pesky shortcomings, and start following the rules. It’s simple Christianity is the way we stay out of Gehenna fire. Case closed.

Well, the problem with your basic heathen American skeptic is the old “kind and gracious God” argument. You’ve heard it. Why would a loving God send some people into eternal punishment? You bet I have a disrespectful and flip answer, but it would probably do a lot more good to take this one on directly and show some respect for the typical person who has heard of Jesus and rejected him. Why not begin by considering this idea of Christian religion as a kind of fire insurance. There is a character in the gospels who is the subject of a parable that is related twice and who has a very similar viewpoint.

In Matthew’s telling, the account is placed immediately after the parable of the ten virgins, in which, after having delayed his arrival, the bridegroom appears suddenly. This takes five virgins by surprise. The warning is unmistakable. “Watch therefore for you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13). That is fairly persuasive for the hellfire crowd with which I often associate myself. Here is where we find the hopelessness of those caught unprepared. Matthew presents the passage immediately before the final judgment and the separation of the sheep from the goats (25:31). This context is strongly eschatological. That is a $10.00 theological word meaning “the last things.”

In the Luke’s gospel, the story of Zacchaeus is placed before the portion concerning the minas (19:1-10). Zacchaeus is the short tax collector who climbs a tree in order to see Jesus. In his promise to restore all that that was gained by fraud, the restitution far exceeds the Mosaic Laws’ demands and demonstrates the social benefits of Christianity Luke follows the parable of the minas with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, envisioned by the evangelist as a “city of destiny” and a place where God would accomplish the work of redemption. Now, stay with me.

Both the story of the talents and of the minas deal allegorically with a large sum of currency entrusted to servants by a wealthy master before taking a lengthy trip. The Robert H. Mounce commentary on Matthew proposes that the purpose of this parable is to emphasize the importance of using the interval before Jesus’ return wisel. Robert Gundry’s New Testament Survey suggests that the passage “teaches good works as proof of the true discipleship” and that “talents” “stand for opportunities given according to ability.

Two individuals traded profitably and were well rewarded. One, however, buried his precious talent (25:18). Mounce suggests the safe approach might be seen as an attempt to excuse the servant of liability. Gundry pointedly argues that the man’s defensive words suggest he anticipated no personal gain because the master would take both the principal and the profit.

You can see the fearful servant just trying to keep from getting noticed. The king is a harsh man and very apt to toss me straight into hell. He will take everything I have if I come up empty handed, so this is no time to take any risks. Stay inside and lock the doors. On the other hand, the good servants got out in the world and had relationships that resulted in commercial gain for the master. Could we learn something from these parables? According to Mounce, “in context, it means that faithfulness is rewarded by expanded opportunities, whereas the lack of fidelity leads to impoverishment. The law of spiritual atrophy is that when gifts are not exercised they are withdrawn.”.

Luke’s telling of a similar parable (19:11-27) contains several notable variations. The text provides two explicit reasons for telling this story. First, Jesus and his disciples are approaching Jerusalem, the center of God’s plan of salvation. What is this thing called “salvation?” Could it be more than being spared for everlasting torture? The second purpose is a corrective for those who believed “the kingdom of God was to appear immediately (v. 11). Another feature missing from the Matthew text is that the local citizens hate the master (v. 14).

The nobleman explicitly requires the servants to do business with his assets. In Luke’s telling there are ten servants, not three, and the productive servants are rewarded by being granted authority over cities. Here, the wicked man hides the currency in a handkerchief. As is the case with the individual who buried his talent, the slacker discovers at a most inopportune moment that there is no such thing as safe discipleship. Luke’s telling of this parable of the minas concludes with the wealthy man’s enemies being slaughtered in his presence (v. 27). That certainly makes a point, does it not?

But the message is not mainly directed to the enemies of God, those who outright reject his message of reconcilliation. The lesson is a note to the followers of Jesus Christ, the faithful. Take up your cross. There is no hiding place. Believers encounter the world with all of its dangers and disappointments. That is the test, for sure. There is more, however.

Life is our purgatory. We are tried and purified when we go out to do business for the great ruler. We rise and fall. There is failure and humiliation and we learn trust along the way. The reward is becoming worthy to rule with the King of Kings. That is why we follow Jesus Christ. We cannot do this without his grace, but these transactions are the good works for which we are created. These are the same good works that change society and make the world better because of our deeds and testimony,.

One may call God’s endowments “abilities,” “gifts,” “talents,” or “intelligences.” The capabilities given to individual Christian are of tremendous value, as exemplified by the “talents” and the “minas.” While the return of Christ is anxiously awaited, the believer is advised to be a wise steward not only of material and intellectual resources, but, most importantly, the very time available to spread the kingdom of God. Believers are judged individually with two possible outcomes. While the language of the parallel parables may diverge somewhat in this aspect, “the joy of your master” and being made ruler over cities may rightly be taken to mean being part of the Kingdom of God.

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