Sociologists have sold a few books discussing the plight of middle children, haven’t they? Apparently they live in the breeding ground for the overlooked. My wife and I are both oldest children, and we only brought two sons into the world, so we haven’t needed much of this literature, but I’ve read enough to feel bad for the one stuck in the middle, somewhere between the drive of the oldest and the attention often given to the youngest. They say, we just can’t pin that middle kid down. We don’t know what he or she will be, supposedly because we’re not watching them as closely.
There’s a man in the Bible we don’t watch very closely either. He’s one of those middle children, well, not exactly. We don’t know how many brothers and sisters he had, but he’s stuck in the middle of a story Jesus told, and most of us end up ignoring him.
The story, found in Matthew 25, is of three servants and the master who left them in charge of his assets while he went on a long journey. It’s a great story about faithfulness, idleness, and the promise that Jesus himself will be coming back someday to take a look at what we’ve done with what He gave us.
The star of the story is the first servant, of course. He’s the top gun, the gifted investor. The master knew this, so he gave him five bags of gold to handle during the story’s long intermission. Five bags was the most given to any one servant, and this guy got the big job because, well, he’s a five talent kind of guy.
Everybody loves this guy. Everybody wants to be this guy. He’s the one that’s good at everything. Name the sport and he’s the team captain. If it’s music, he’s first chair (and probably got to play the trumpet like the other cool kids). He’s the best looking, the most athletic, and gets good grades either because he’s really smart or the teachers just can’t help themselves. In high school, he was so cool and the rest of us wanted his life. Those who hung around him thought they were better than us, and we knew they were probably right.
In our school, his name was Robert. Star of the varsity basketball team, he averaged more than twenty points a game as a freshman, and got better every year. At 5’10” tall, he played center when he wanted to and jumped higher than anyone we ever played. He starred in the classroom too. In fact, he starred in the hallway, and was a virtual celebrity in the lunchroom. His letter jacket draped across his slightly slouched shoulders in a way we all admired. His hair would even do that “feathered-thing” we all wanted in the 1970s. If Fonzie had a son, his name would have been Robert.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit much, but when you’re 5’6” with uncontrollable curly hair and a jump shot your little sister can block, you wish you were a guy like Robert. But after hours spent dangling precariously from a chin up bar, hoping gravity would make me taller, numerous haircuts and styling strategies, and even more hours trying to twist my skinny arms into a palatable jump shot, there was more than enough evidence that no amount of wishing would make me Robert.
Now, I’m not trying to bring up any teenage trauma for you. Actually, Robert and a lot of guys like him are really good guys—okay, great guys, it’s just that for all of our wishing, we’re never going to be him. We’re not “five-talent” guys, and the masters aren’t leaving their five bags of gold with us.
But five-talent guy isn’t the only one getting top billing in this parable. In fact, by the end, one-talent guy steals the show—and wishes he hadn’t. In the story, the master entrusts servant number three with one bag of gold. In the story, Jesus tells us that the master knew this guy and knew better than to trust him with much. Still, he gave him a chance, and the guy blew it.
This is the guy who doesn’t get it. He allows a bad attitude to shape his reality and decides that he’s justified in blowing this assignment. So he conjures up a few excuses to avoid responsibility and tries to pull the master and everyone else down with him. He ends up burying the bag of gold rather than risking any loss, and let’s just say that the master isn’t impressed.
Most of us know to stay clear of slackers like this. We want to succeed and know that friends like this can push us down the wrong path. So we do our best, we manage the responsibilities of our lives with diligence and we live somewhere between the five-talent guy and the one-talent slacker, hoping our efforts are good enough to avoid the kind of attention no one wants from the master.
But there’s a third guy—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 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 fifty years 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? Hey, Robert, they want to talk to you…again.
Still, you have to wonder why the story needed a middle guy. And, like any good Bible student, I’ve got three possible answers we’ll start discussing next time, and each contains a piece of the whole.