work it or lose it

StatsSA, in their 2001 census report and 2016 Community Survey tell us that almost 80% of the South African population adheres to the Christian faith, which means 8 out of 10 people reading this post are born again Christians or culturally identify as Christians. Most people who have been to a church have at least on one occasion listened to a sermon from this passage of scriptures, even if at present they stopped going to church.

Here are the scriptures. 

Matthew 25:14-28 (NLT)

Again, the Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone. He gave five bags of silver to one, two bags of silver to another, and one bag of silver to the last—dividing it in proportion to their abilities. He then left on his trip.

The servant who received the five bags of silver began to invest the money and earned five more. The servant with two bags of silver also went to work and earned two more. But the servant who received the one bag of silver dug a hole in the ground and hid the Master’s money. After a long time, their Master returned from his trip and called them to give an account of how they had used his money.

The servant to whom he had entrusted the five bags of silver came forward with five more and said, ‘Master, you gave me five bags of silver to invest, and I have earned five more. The Master was full of praise. ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!

The servant who had received the two bags of silver came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two bags of silver to invest, and I have earned two more. The Master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!

Then the servant with the one bag of silver came and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a harsh man, harvesting crops you didn’t plant and gathering crops you didn’t cultivate. I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth. Look, here is your money back.

But the Master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! If you knew I harvested crops I didn’t plant and gathered crops I didn’t cultivate, why didn’t you deposit my money in the bank? At least I could have gotten some interest on it.

Then he ordered, ‘Take the money from this servant, and give it to the one with the ten bags of silver. To those who use well what they are given, even more, will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I’m sure that while I read these scriptures, you went like, oh, I’ve heard those before. I remember. Very familiar.

Traditionally, this is how these scriptures have been interpreted. 

God has given each one of us talents, spiritual gifts, opportunities, and resources. God has freely given us all these things according to our abilities. Our abilities may mean the capacity to exert ourselves, so these talents, spiritual gifts, opportunities, and resources multiply. When you exert yourself, when you maximize your talents, spiritual gifts, opportunities, and resources, God will add more to you, God will increase your levels of responsibilities. 

Like the two guys, if you do well, you will be rewarded with more responsibilities. 

Conversely, if you don’t exert yourself or maximize your opportunities, God will take what you have and give them to those who have exerted themselves and maximized their opportunities. And if you don’t use your gifts well, God will get angry at you and throw you to hell.

So, like the last guy, if you are lazy, what you have will be given to those who have more. 

This way of interpreting these scriptures runs into one major hurdle. 

All the gifts of God are free; however, in this story, it seems you have to make sure those you work well with those gifts and when you do, God will reward you with more. If you don’t do well, God will get rid of you. Verse 30. 

Do you notice the contradiction? If it’s free, why do I have to work to keep it?

Now let’s go on a rabbit trail. 

The global economic system of capitalism as we know it is built on this idea. America, the land of the free and brave, captures this idea very clearly. During his State of the Union address to Congress, President Obama said, “if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America.” Americans believe that you will live the American dream if you work hard if you maximize your opportunities. And the reverse is true. If you are lazy, you will be left behind. 

The global economic system is built on winning and losing. Winners take it all. Losers are left holding the bag. The rich get richer, and the poorer get poorer. 

Darwin’s evolution theory has this idea too. Darwinism simply is survival of the fittest. When you employ your maximum efforts at the root of evolution theory, your chances of survival are high when you maximize your opportunities. So those who have the means and maximize those means are rewarded with more and more. Those who are weak are left to die off. 

If we follow the traditional interpretation, then the Christian faith operates the same way the world does. It seems then with God; there are winners and losers, and our standing before God is determined by how well we do. 

Nothing could be further from the truth!

All through the years, when I listened to messages or talks that interpreted these scriptures this way, I have had these experiences.  

Pride and self-righteousness 

In areas of my life where I had excelled, where I was doing well morally and spiritually and was making the most of my opportunities, I would feel good about myself. But then, I would become very proud and self-righteous and look down on those who weren’t doing well. I would say, “if only they worked harder. If only they exerted themselves, they would get what I have. Look at me. Look at how well I’m doing.” 

Guilt and condemnation.

In areas of my life that I had wasted opportunities, I wasn’t exerting myself and was lazy; I would feel guilty and condemned, resulting in me becoming restless, fearful and anxious. I would feel sorry for myself. The funny thing is that I would then get angry at those who were doing well and accuse them of being prideful.

When I was doing good, I would be proud and self-righteous. When I was doing wrong, wow, I would have feelings of guilt and condemnation.

I have noticed this is the same with most Christians. 

The Christians who have lived good spiritual lives are proud and self-righteous. They look down on others, so no one wants to be around them. 

Could it be that people don’t want to be around you because you are pompous, harsh and proud? After all, when they come close to you, all they hear is how good you are, how spiritual you are, how obedient you are?  

Other Christians who struggle with guilt and condemnation because they believe they have not exerted themselves maximized their talents, gifts, opportunities, and resources walk away from the Christian faith because they felt their standing before God was based on how well they had performed. 

Have you heard of deconversion stories? Deconversion stories are stories by long term Christians who walked away from the faith. Deconversion stories go like this – I was a Christian for a long, long time, and I served in the church. I did my best. But after many years, the Christian faith did not make sense to me. I gave up. 

Could it be you are tired, anxious and afraid because you have tried, tried and tried, and when you think you did enough, you were told you have to do it again and again? You have to exert yourself. Remember the guy who refused to invest his monies? What happened to him? Do you want the same to happen to you? So, keep working. 

So, on the one hand, those who do well become proud and self-righteous, and those who fail feel guilty and condemned and loathe themselves. 

Eleven years ago, I stumbled on a revelation or idea that changed my life. I heard this statement that “The Bible is all about Jesus and his finished work for us”. I listened to this statement from various preachers and teachers, and this idea changed my life. Before this, I knew that the Bible was about Jesus, but this idea or revelation hadn’t gripped my heart the way it did 11 years ago.

Before that, I read the Bible through the lens of what I have to do. When I read Matthew 25:14-28 and other scriptures, I studied what I was supposed to do. The Bible was there to instruct me on what to do – what I need to do to become successful. If I applied these principles, I would be successful beyond my wildest dreams. 

But I was wrong.

The Bible has to be studied through the lens of Jesus and his finished work for us. We have to learn it in that context. Context means you have to consider the audience, location and reason why Jesus gave this story. 

So let’s dig in.

In Matthew 25:14-28

Who is Jesus talking to? His disciples – Chapter 24:3

His audience gives us a clue as to the reason why he gave the story. 

Jesus was primarily speaking to a Jewish audience. His audience was steeped in the Old Covenant. 

God gave the Jewish people the Ten Commandments – the Old Covenant. This was the basis of his relationship with them. The Old Covenant simply said this – if you obey, you are blessed. If you disobey, you are cursed. 

In essence, Jesus told his disciples that you are the people or nation I gave the law, promises, and covenants. Those who do well are rewarded, and those who don’t suffer punishment. 

The two men were blessed with more because they had worked with what they had and increased it. Conversely, the cursed man had been given something but refused to improve it; therefore, he was condemned.

The two men were blessed based on their performance, and the one man was cursed based on his lack of performance. 

Jesus placed before the disciples the Law of Moses. Only a Jew steeped in the Torah understood what Jesus meant.

In telling them these stories, Jesus was also showing the full extent of the law. And their inability to keep the law. This is the purpose of the law. The law is to show you up and reveal your failure to obey it. 

So then, should we throw away such scriptures because they are not written to us? No, we don’t. We study and apply such through the finished work of Jesus.

This is how we do it.

In Matthew 25:14-28, Jesus takes the place of all these guys.

  • In the gospel of grace, Jesus is the two guys who invested their bags of money and were rewarded. Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law. (Matthew 5:17-18) This is still not good news because this sets a benchmark for us. We automatically think that because Jesus has done it, we need to go and do it too. Jesus then becomes a moral example. Why? We are creatures of performance. We want to do something. 

This is good news when we know that Jesus’ success is imputed to us. Imputation is the idea that we are given what we didn’t have before. So, in the gospel, God credits Jesus’ obedience to us and now sees us as if we were always obedient. God sees us as if we always exerted ourselves, maximized our talents, gifts, opportunities, and resources. 

  • Jesus, although sinless, obeyed God; nonetheless, his father treated him like the man who was lazy and slothful – the man who refused to invest his monies. Jesus became that man. God punished Jesus as if he were the man who failed – as if Jesus had refused to obey. Therefore, in areas of our lives where we have been lazy, where we have not done well, we have not exerted ourselves, we have not maximized our gifts and talents, the punishment that was supposed to come on us came upon Jesus. 

It is all Jesus’ doing. Where Jesus succeeded, his success is imputed to us. And where we fail, Jesus took our punishment for us.

When we look at these scriptures through the lens of Jesus and his finished work for us, two things happen. One becomes humble and confident.

If I know Jesus succeed in my place and his success has been credited to me, that humbles me because I attribute my success to Jesus and his work. 

And also gives me confidence because even when I fail, even when I don’t obey or do everything, he asked me, my sins were judged in the body of Jesus; therefore, God will never judge me for what he has already judged me for in the work of Jesus on the cross for me. I can come boldly into the presence of God. I can live life knowing God is not holding against me. 

This is the beauty of the gospel of grace. This is what makes Jesus beautiful. This is what makes the Christian faith unique.

If you knew what Jesus has done for you, how would you live?

  1. Would you put yourself under pressure to be perfect?
  2. Wouldn’t you go easy on yourself?
  3. Wouldn’t you go easy on your kids?
  4. Wouldn’t you be a joy to be around?
  5. What about your salvation? Wouldn’t you enjoy being a Christian because you know Jesus’ performance has eternally secured your salvation? 

Hey, I’m just a simple guy telling you to relax. Take it easy. Jesus did it all for you. Relax. Put the tools down. Lift your head. Jesus has done it all for you. His success was imputed to you, and your failures were imputed to him. You now have nothing else to do but to receive what Jesus has done for you.

Christian, your life can become beautiful and attractive or what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:16, a life-giving perfume when you rest in what Jesus has done for you. 

Lastly, remember what the Master said to the two guys – he said, Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!

In Jesus and his finished work, you will hear good and faithful servant not because you were good and faithful but because Jesus was good and faithful and his goodness and faithfulness were imputed to you.

In Jesus and his finished work, you will hear good and faithful servant not because you were good and faithful but because Jesus was good and faithful and his goodness and faithfulness were imputed to you.

I end with the lyrics of this song. 


TEXT: William Cowper

MUSIC: Kevin Twit

Chorus: To see the Law by Christ fulfilled,

To hear His pardoning voice,

Changes a slave into a child

And duty into choice.

That’s what grace looks like.

Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash