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Out my window…again

Last time, we began discussing what it’s like to be overlooked. You know, that feeling you get when your efforts don’t get the attention you know they deserve. Frankly, most of us live our lives just beyond the edges of the limelight. And that can occasionally lead us to feel less valued or our work less significant.

You see, a lot of us live in life’s middle–more than the number living anywhere else. We’re never called on to pastor the biggest churches or manage the mega-budgets. We live more anonymously, and sometimes feel the sting of such a hidden life. Sure, maybe it feels like my ceiling is someone else’s countertop, but being unable to reach as high as others doesn’t excuse me from reaching for my best. Those positioned more in life’s middle don’t exist just to hold up those at the top of the pyramid. There’s some big stuff we’re supposed to do too.

As we saw in our first look at this issue. there’s a man in the story Jesus told of three servants (the so-called Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25), that we never talk about, but His role in the story is no less important than others. Still, somehow, he comes across as the least important.

And yet, if there’s a guy in the story we can identify with, it’s him!

Honestly, it’s not the first servant – he’s the top gun; big success story. He’s the guy we wish we were, but many of us know we’re not. He’s the guy who sets the curve for the class; Everything he touches works—the best looking, most athletic, the superstar of the organization. In high school he was so cool—we wanted his life. Those who hung with him thought they were better than us, but our spot in the lunchroom wasn’t at his table.

For most of us, the key guy in the story’s not the last servant either – he’s the failure. He’s the guy that doesn’t get it; the guy that’s allowed attitude to block truth. He’s the guy who finds excuses to avoid his responsibilities, and he tries to pull everyone else down with him. Most of us know to stay away from the slackers. We can’t afford the failure he will lead us to.

So we live somewhere in the middle and that’s where servant 2 starts looking familiar. He’s the guy for the masses in the middle and yet we never talk about him. But, there are truths in his story we absolutely must grasp.

Truth is the story isn’t really about him. It’s more about the Master and the failure of the 3rd servant. The previous parable also highlights those who aren’t ready for the Master’s return. Like the foolish virgins, he’s not ready—the third servant’s failed his mission.

But there’s this other guy. He’s the third guy we think of, though he’s actually he’s the second guy, and you have to wonder why he’s even in the story. I mean, if this is a story about faithfulness and doing your best, the five-talent guy’s got that covered, right? And if it’s a story about avoiding idleness, the 3rd guy with the shovel gets that across, doesn’t he?

What’s the point of adding a two-talent guy to the mix? He’s not going to outdo the first guy or be left holding the bag like the third guy (sorry, bad pun). Why would Jesus include a guy like this in His parable?

I’m not really sure, except that most of us are that guy, aren’t we? We live somewhere between superstar and slacker, trying to do our best with what we’ve been given, even though it’s not as much as some and maybe a bit more than others.

If you’re a pastor or church leader who feels like you’re living somewhere in the middle, then this is our guy!

In more than 50 yrs of Sunday school, I can’t remember ever focusing on this guy. Since I wrote a bunch of those lessons, I can’t really blame anybody, but it seems we have looked passed this guy for years, maybe even centuries.

No, he’s not compelling; he doesn’t lead the league in investment success. Five-talent guy had five extra bags of gold when the master returned and this guy had parlayed his two bags into two more. The stats guys will call his performance an equal success, but we all know who will be interviewed during the post-game show, don’t we?

Still, you have to wonder why the story needed a middle guy. And, like any good Bible student, I’ve got three possible answers and each contains a piece of the whole.

Well, let’s pick up our discussion with the second point:

B. Differing Expectation – 16 Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. 17 And likewise he who had received two gained two more also.

Expectations are the backbone of effort—we want to know them because when we know the expectations, we can aim more effectively. For example, when I play golf, I want to know what “par” is on each hole. Par is the expected score for an accomplished golfer. I’m not one of those, but par still shapes the challenge for me. So a par 3 hole means a small stick and a carefully planned shot, while a par 5 means getting out the big stick and swinging big.

Our lives are shaped by expectations too, though usually we don’t have sticks. And when we know what’s expected on job, in marriage, we then know what we are to do. So, what are the Master’s expectations here? We’re not really told, are we? But we can infer some understanding of his expectations from their performance and his subsequent responses.

We know that servant #3 didn’t meet expectations, but that guy #1 & #2 clearly did.            And yet, even between them, the expectation must have been different.

I want you to see what was not expected of our new friend. He was not expected to turn his two talents into five. He was not going to be graded on the curve set by servant #1, but instead by what he did with what he had been given.

Here again, I see some in smaller churches getting lost in numbers. They seem to think that their achievements matter less when their numbers can’t match the bigger places. “Well, if we can’t compete with them & their resources,” or “I wish we were like them” somehow turns into the idea that “Jesus expects us to be like them.”

But they have misjudged the Master’s intent in His investment. When the Master addresses the second servant in this story, there’s no “Well, just do your best. I know you’ll never be…” in the Master’s words. There’s an intentional investment and a matching expectation, and the fulfillment of that purpose is no less critical.

Here’s a mystery I need help solving: My home church has been plateaued or six decades. Attendance today hovers in roughly the same place it did in the early 1960s, the decade of my birth. And those numbers haven’t climbed or dipped, despite the town’s explosive growth. In fact, a church we helped start around 1970 just a few miles away, today runs about 3,000 each Sunday.

Looking from the outside, you’d find room to wonder, even criticize. Why didn’t dozens fill our Sunday schools, teachers draw big crowds? What was wrong with those who taught in our classes? But if you take a closer look, you discover that there are dozens of us serving in full-time ministry today and there are deacons and teachers and vital volunteers from that small place that dot both the U.S. and World maps today.

Sure, one church may look amazing and more important, but the smaller one produced some great things as well. So…maybe we should stop comparing ourselves—or maybe even judging ourselves—by the achievements of others. Maybe we need to remember that our mission could be just as critical, just as essential to the full plan of what God wants to do.

There’s one more idea from this story that you need to see, and it will help cement our point. So don’t miss the third installment of this conversation next week!

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