Matthew 25:20-21: “The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’”
I wonder if God knew what He was starting when He gave us these two verses: Generations of Christians consumed with performance anxiety, trying to please their heavenly Father.
Maybe it’s just me, but when I read this parable I want to be the servant receiving praise more than just about anything else in the world. Now that I think about it, I’ve heard motivational speaker Zig Ziglar and other folks say the same thing. We, His disciples, want to use our time, talent, and treasure for the glory of God, and we want to be praised for it.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong or self-serving about desiring praise from God; Jesus explicitly says in several places that we will be rewarded in heaven for surrendering our wealth on earth. I doubt He would have admonished us in this way if we were not to want a reward from our Father. The problem for me (and for many of you too, I imagine) is not wanting a reward, but wanting God’s approval. The difference is subtle, but profound. Consider the differences in your emotional reactions as you read the following two stories:
- A first-century man from Jerusalem hears about a radical Rabbi teaching in the countryside, and one day he decides to travel several miles to listen to this Teacher speak. The Teacher tells a story about placing trust in God rather than worldly wealth. The man is quite moved by the story and makes a sizable donation to feed the poor. As the man turns to begin his journey home, somewhat bewildered by his own generosity, someone behind him places their hand on his shoulder. He turns around; it is the Teacher, who reassures him that today he has stored up great treasure in heaven.
- Another first-century man, this one from Bethlehem, has become a disciple of the same holy man from Nazareth. The holy man is different from any other Rabbi he has ever known; he speaks with authority and performs many miracles. Something inside the man from Bethlehem compelled him to give up his life as a shepherd and follow this Rabbi around the countryside. One day the Rabbi sends this man out, along with seventy-one other disciples, to heal the sick and tell of the coming kingdom of God. After the journey is complete the Rabbi speaks to the man from Bethlehem to learn about his trip; the former shepherd gives an honest, humble story about his trials and successes. When he finishes the Rabbi looks him in the eye and says, “Well done.”
I don’t know about you, but my reaction to these two stories is very different. To the first story I hear my heart say, “Oh, that’s nice. I’m glad I’ve stored up treasure in heaven…though I’m thankful just to go.”
To the second story my heart cries out, “Yes! That is what I want more than all the treasure in heaven or on earth!” I honestly don’t know if that is a healthy reaction or not. I am concerned about the danger of my heart-desire for God turning into an attitude that I must work for God’s approval. I worry that in reading Matthew 25:20-21 I, and many others, see ‘proof’ that we must work for God’s approval. Perhaps that is correct, but to me it feels performance-driven; it feels like perfectionism masked as piety. And it reminds me that when Jesus was baptized, before He had accomplished any part of Hministry, our Father was pleased with His Son.
What are your thoughts on this subject?