Choose to Be Brave

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

Life may be thought of as a series of big decisions and little decisions.

The big ones seem to predominate: Where will you live, and what line of work will you pursue?  Will you seek higher education, get married, or remain single?  What groups or associations will you join, and what projects will occupy your time? 

Ultimately you’ll generate a list of “been-there-and-done-that” accomplishments which the master of ceremonies will recite if you’re ever invited to speak before the local Rotary club.   

The average life, however, features many more little decisions than big decisions.  They hardly ever make headlines.  But they are the ones that shape your character.  Roughly speaking, life’s big decisions direct what you do.  Little decisions determine who you are

Every day you get to decide: Will I tell the truth?  Will I keep my promises?  Will I overlook an offense or hold a grudge?  Will I choose the path of love or bitterness?  Such little decisions may not show up on your resume, but they will be what everyone’s thinking about at your funeral.  Character decisions are far more indicative of a life well-lived than the so-called big decisions.   

Then there’s the crossroads you’re likely to face every day. 

What do you do when you’re confronted with a difficult situation?  Do you face it head-on or wimp out?  Do you take risks and take action, or play it safe and run away?

During the last decades of the 20th century, a great many authors, educators, preachers, and talk show hosts announced that giving children the gift of self-esteem – through stickers, applause, participation trophies, recognition, and higher grades – would assure them of happier lives and make the world a better place.  But subsequent research has demonstrated just the opposite.  Self-esteem cannot be given away like Hershey’s bars to trick-or-treaters.  Self-esteem is chiefly a gift that we give to ourselves.

It’s a gift that becomes ours when we choose to be brave instead of being afraid, when we choose to face problems instead of running in the opposite direction.

A pattern of avoidance gradually crushes our inner sense of esteem.  Whenever we courageously face a difficult situation head-on, we’re likely to feel a little rush of joy.  But whenever we back down or back off, we die a little.  

The fascinating thing is that even if things do not work out – even if the risk doesn’t yield the hoped-for results – we still end up growing.  This is simply the way God has hardwired human hearts.

That truth is front and center in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, which appears in Matthew 25:14-30.  He begins: “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.  To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability.  Then he went on his journey.” 

Jesus is reminding us that we are God’s servants who have been entrusted with God’s property.  A “talent,” in the first century, was a large sum of money.  But the wider teaching of Scripture allows us to infer that he is also talking about five-talent, two-talent, and one-talent people when it comes to other things – like availability, energy, or being uniquely positioned to make a difference in some regard.

Whether it’s the ability to solve differential equations, to work with wood, to be exceptionally patient with young children, or to lead an important meeting, God’s gifts have not been distributed equally.  That’s what it means to belong to God’s household.

But even while we don’t receive equal gifts, we are equally responsible for what we do next with what we have. 

In the story, the servant who has received five talents immediately goes to work – digging, scratching, investing, and risking – and presents the master with an additional five talents.  “Well done, good and faithful servant,” the master (God, that is) responds.  “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”

An identical experience awaits the servant who transforms the two talents that he has been given into two more.  Significantly, the master doesn’t say, “So why didn’t you come up with five talents?”  Servants are accountable not for what they don’t have, but for what they do have.  Are we willing to step up and step out, for God’s sake, with our gifts?

Then comes the drama.

The third servant says to the master, “I know that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  So I was afraid [notice those words] and went out and hid your talent in the ground.  See, here is what belongs to you.” 

It seems evident at this moment that the third servant expects applause.  He awaits his attaboy.  His mission is accomplished:  Despite everything that could possibly have gone wrong, at least he didn’t fail.  He made sure of that.

What a shock he receives.  The master erupts, “Why didn’t you at least put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest?” 

Why is the master so disappointed?  It’s not because the servant was a management failure.  In fact, failure would have been fine.  Failure would have implied that some action had been taken. 

Instead, the third servant is rebuked for attempting nothing.  Because he was afraid of taking a risk, he played it safe.  He even rationalized that he had done the master a favor by not losing what he had been given – thereby failing to grasp that the essence of life is to risk the resources, opportunities, gifts, and challenges that God continues to place before us.

You’d think that God would most value those who play it safe and don’t take chances, who never get carried away by stepping out.  But it isn’t so.

There is a Day coming, Jesus announces, when each of us is going to have a conversation with him as to what we did with our lives.  It won’t be just about the big decisions.  What did we do with the myriad of little decisions, the ones that even now are shaping our character? 

Fear whispers that God isn’t big enough to handle what we have to face today.   He isn’t going to show up.  We’re not really safe in God’s hands. 

But we can choose to be brave. 

Don’t bury your talents.  Unless we take risks, we will never find out whether God’s presence and power are all we really need. 

When you think about it, that’s the one thing in life truly worth finding out.

And “Well done, good and faithful servant,” are the only words ultimately worth hearing.