Archives, Pondering

A Hard Master

I have been deeply imbedded in the sin of sloth this past week. No, this blog is not a confession, although it certainly could be. I have been teaching on hope and its opposite, sloth–that most invisible and most pervasive of sins in our contemporary context.

One of the issues surrounding sloth is questioning why it is a sin and not just normal human experience. Doesn’t everybody check out once in a while and take a break? What’s the big deal?

Our culture has squeezed the full meaning of sloth into one of its minor symptoms: laziness, and then dismissed it as irrelevant for our day. But the sin of sloth is not mere laziness. It is a kind of spiritual sorrow that envelopes us when we turn away from the strong and steady gift of hope–that manifestation of the Holy Spirit sent to us to keep us “on the way,” all the way until he returns or calls us home. Caught in sloth, we believe we will not have what it takes to endure to the end.

Soon before Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, he spent some time with his disciples talking about the last days on earth before his appearing. He tells them the earth is going to groan a great deal, and they will, too. “But he who endures to the end will be saved.” And then he tells them three parables about what endurance will look like while they wait for His return.

The middle parable in Matthew 25 is a familiar one: the parable of the talents. In this story a man goes on a long journey and converts his property into money. He assigns his assets to his servants based on one simple criterion: each according to his ability. This word refers to the servant’s moral character–his capacity to carry the resources entrusted to him. The master looks at each servant individually, weighs all of the factors in their lives, and gives each of them what they can carry, what they can handle well. The master of this parable is one who knows his servants and does not crush them, but does challenge them to be fruitful in accordance with their present character and situation. He does not play games with them, he does not set them up to fail, nor does he treat them as though they were all alike. He wisely divides his property among the servants, each according to his ability.

And then he goes away—for a long time.Two of the servants respond rightly to their master. Entrusted with the gift of their master’s resources, they go to work.They must have had to take some risks. Perhaps they bought fields and tended them, in famine and in flood, in waiting and in harvest. They may well have been disappointed and discouraged at times. But they do their work in the light of two fundamental truths: the Master had not given them more than they could handle, and the Master would return someday.

And in this parable of the coming kingdom, the Master does return to settle his accounts.These two servants eagerly report what they had done with what they received. With child-like delight they come, confident that the Master would be pleased with their efforts. They make no apologies for what they haven’t accomplished. They simply tell the Master what they did accomplish. Perhaps they were thinking, “The work has not always been easy, but I have always believed that you would not give me more than I could handle, and that You would come back with a heart of acceptance and love toward me.” Whatever was going on in their hearts, they heard the words that were consistent with all they knew of the Master who gave to each according to his ability: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

But there is another servant. His Master looks as justly upon him as he had on the others. This servant, too, has been given the small share of His master’s estate that he could rightly handle. But his response is so different. This servant hid the master’s money in the ground. He refuses to accept the challenge. And the “wicked and slothful servant,”then gives us the key to understanding the heart of the sin of sloth. He does not refuse the challenge because he is lazy. His laziness is merely a symptom. Rather, he refuses the challenge because he is afraid, because he has chosen to believe lies about His Master. “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.” In spite of the fact that the Master had only given to each servant what he could handle, and in spite of the reception the Master has given to his faithful servants, the slothful servant tells him, “It was too hard. You gave me more than I can handle, and I don’t trust you.” And the servant is judged by the very lie he has chosen to believe.

The sin of sloth has many symptoms. But its danger lies in the foundational lie beneath them all. In the end, sloth is not a sin because of what we do or fail to do. Sloth is a sin because, when we commit this sin, we are choosing to believe a lie about our loving heavenlyFather: “whether I need Him or not, He is not there for me.”…Sometimes I, too, forget the heart of this Master. I think of all of my failings, the work half-completed, the relationships inadequately tended. And I am  encouraged by Aslan’s interchange with Jill at the end of The Silver Chair. As Aslan’s presence invokes a thorough sweep of Jill’s conscience, we read, “Then the Lion drew them towards him with his eyes, and bent down and touched their pale faces with his tongue, and said: ‘ Think of that no more. I will not always be scolding. You have done the work for which I sent you into Narnia.’” Ah, He is not a hard master.

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