In many ways, this month’s meditation is a sequel to last month’s teaching on the seventh man at the well. Both studies follow essentially the same approach in that they are stand-alone investigations of biblical truths while they – at the same time – serve as lessons in how to study the Bible to reveal its not-so obvious truths. In The Seventh Man at the Well, I showcase two principles of biblical interpretation. One technique is using imagination to help step inside the story so as to sense the feelings of the characters and better understand their situation and actions. The other is carefully looking for details that add insights and bring out nuances of the passages that we might normally overlook. In this present study, my focus is on comparing scriptures with other scriptures so as to essentially use other biblical passages as commentaries on the text that we are investigating. By applying these approaches as you study your Bible each day, you will soon find that the passages begin to come alive and seem to pop off the page in three-dimensional reality.
I’d like to ask a question, and I request that you answer it with brutal, gut-level honesty. Have you ever given in an offering at church, responded to an appeal letter from a Christian ministry, or sent a donation to a televangelist after being guaranteed that God would multiply your “seed” thirty, sixty, or a hundred times only to see no increase – and possibly even a decline – in your financial status? Well, if you had the audacity to admit that you see yourself in that scenario, I believe that you are an excellent candidate for the lessons that I want to present in this little study.
Let’s begin with Jesus’ parable about a man who left his wealth in the care of three of his stewards. But let me warn you in advance that – if you look at this story with unbiased eyes – you’ll see it in an entirely new way from how you’ve understood it previously and from how you’ve ever heard it preached before. So, take off your theological glasses, and let’s jump in!
For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:14-30)
Let’s begin with a simple question, “What was each man’s ability?” Since the parable clearly states that the master distributed his goods to his stewards according to their varying abilities, we should try to understand this little clue before trying to piece it into the overall puzzle. There were three men involved. Since the first one was given five talents, we might immediately respond that he had the ability to manage five talents. But as the story goes on, he wound up with ten talents; therefore, it might be said that he actually had ten-talent ability. But even that isn’t the end of the story since he was eventually given the talent that the unworthy servant was originally awarded. Does that mean that he actually had an eleven-talent ability? The second steward was given two talents and was able to increase them to four; therefore, we have to wonder whether he had two-talent ability or four-talent ability. The final man was given only one talent, and it was eventually taken away from him – leaving him empty-handed. So, we question if he had one-talent ability or zero-talent ability. It is this third man’s plight that helps us find the answer to our quandary. It is clearly stated that the master assigned the talents according to each steward’s ability; therefore, it would be impossible that the third servant had zero ability. If he had been devoid of ability, the master would not have given him a talent to manage. So, if “zero” is not the correct answer for the third steward, it would seem logical that neither “ten” or “eleven” would be the correct answer for the first servant and “four” would not be the right answer for the second steward. But does that leave us with the answer that each one’s ability was demonstrated by the number of talents originally handed to them? I would suggest that we keep digging before we make that assumption. Notice that the master commended the first two stewards with the same words, Thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things. The master looked at the handful of coins that these servants rendered to him and evaluated that they were only a few things and then added that he was to make them rulers over many things. Obviously, he would not make them masters of many things if they didn’t have the ability to handle that kind of responsibility. Therefore, we must conclude that the abilities of these servants was not limited to the talents that they were given or the talents that they were able to gain.
The quantity of the resources that they were asked to manage was only a “pilot project” to reveal their true ability. Similarly, we have no way of knowing what the true ability of the third actually was. All we know is that he miserably failed the test. This third servant had unknown potential but was defined as “unprofitable,” “wicked,” and “slothful.” What a tragic evaluation of an individual whom the master originally trusted with at least a portion of his kingdom! And this conclusion brings us to the second question that we should investigate, “What actually disqualified this third servant?”
When the unprofitable servant began to argue his case, he opened with the explanation that he knew that his lord was a hard man who reaped where he did not sow. He continued with the justification that he was afraid and then described how he had hidden the talent so that he could present it to the master intact.
Notice the contradiction between the servant’s words and his actions. If the servant knew – as he readily confessed – that the master was accustomed to reaping where he had not sown, he should have been able to “put two and two together” and conclude that the master certainly anticipated to reap where he had sown. In that the master had sown a talent into the servant’s hand, the steward should have had no question that the master was anticipating a multiplied harvest when the time came for the talent to be handed back to him. In that case, there was no question that the servant needed to do something that would have increased the value of his capital. As the master pointed out, he could have at least given the money to the money exchangers so that it would have gained some interest. What does this scenario tell us about the servant? Simply that he did not trust his own ability. The master would not have placed the steward in charge of the talent had he not seen an ability in him. However, the steward himself couldn’t see that competency in himself. The master’s answer was that if he didn’t trust himself, he should have at least trusted the bankers’ proven expertise and rendered the funds to them to manage.
Notice the steward’s explanation of what motivated his action – or lack thereof. He said that he was afraid. He didn’t go on to expound upon what he was actually afraid of, so we are left to our own imaginations at this point. Perhaps he was afraid of the master himself; after all, he did describe him as a hard man. Perhaps he was afraid of failure – losing the money and having to stand empty-handed before his master. Perhaps he was afraid of what consequences he would have to face if he failed at the task that was assigned to him. In any case, whatever he feared certainly came upon him! The master rebuffed the steward by calling him some very demeaning names and directly confronted him for not acting upon what he knew of the master’s nature. The fact that he had failed in his duties was made blatantly obvious with the simple explanation that he had a “no-brainer” alternative readily available to him. And then came the consequences when the master retaliated by stripping away his talent and – as if the public humiliation and name-calling weren’t bad enough – had him thrown into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth!
Forgive me if I am reading too much into this story, but it seems to me that the master wasn’t actually concerned over the talent itself – after all, he simply handed it over to the first steward rather than taking it for himself. His anger seemed to be totally focused on the third steward’s ineptitude in handling the talent left to him and the motivation behind that lack of competency. If this is an accurate interpretation of the passage, then the answer to the question as to what actually disqualified the third servant wasn’t the fact that he didn’t make a profit but that he had the wrong motivation. Even when he knew the master’s nature, he failed to respond to that knowledge and act appropriately. In essence, this servant was motivated by his own situation – his fear and his desire for self-preservation. Unfortunately, the decisions he made in how to handle the task assigned to him left him with all his fears and resulted in his destruction rather than his preservation.
On the other hand, it seems that the other two stewards must have been motivated by wanting to bless their master. It is interesting that, once the three men received the talents, it was only the one talent that was given to the third steward that was specifically identified as “his lord’s money.” Although the passage does not specifically say that all the stewards saw the talents as being the possession of the master, it would seem logical that this must have been their perception. Therefore, when the first two servants went out and traded with the funds delivered to them, they were focusing on making a profit not for their own good but for the benefit of their master – a radically different motivation from that of the third steward. This conclusion leads us to one more question that we need to address concerning the parable, “What actually happened to the talents?”
Notice that there is never any mention in the story of the master’s actually receiving the talents from the stewards. In fact, the narrative makes it clear that the original five talents plus the five-talent increase were still in the hand of the first servant when the master judged the third servant because he said to give the unprofitable servant’s one talent to the one who had ten. We should also note the master’s admonition to the first two stewards, Enter thou into the joy of thy lord. This statement is an apparent invitation for them to enter into blessings that he has for them – not for them to relinquish to him what they have earned. Therefore, it seems that – in addition to their receiving the reward of the joy of the lord – these good and faithful servants also got to keep the money. In light of these observations, it would seem that the objective of this parable must be the lesson that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33) The first two stewards sought to bless the master rather than their own personal gain and wound up with the talents, positions of authority, and the joy of the lord; the third steward put his own fears and concerns as the center focus and wound up penniless, publicly humiliated, and cast into outer darkness.
Before we go any further in trying to interpret this parable, we should take the time to look at a parallel story known as the parable of the pounds.
A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return. And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come. But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us. And it came to pass, that when he was returned, having received the kingdom, then he commanded these servants to be called unto him, to whom he had given the money, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading. Then came the first, saying, Lord, thy pound hath gained ten pounds. And he said unto him, Well, thou good servant: because thou hast been faithful in a very little, have thou authority over ten cities. And the second came, saying, Lord, thy pound hath gained five pounds. And he said likewise to him, Be thou also over five cities. And another came, saying, Lord, behold, here is thy pound, which I have kept laid up in a napkin: For I feared thee, because thou art an austere man: thou takest up that thou layedst not down, and reapest that thou didst not sow. And he saith unto him, Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant. Thou knewest that I was an austere man, taking up that I laid not down, and reaping that I did not sow: Wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have required mine own with usury? And he said unto them that stood by, Take from him the pound, and give it to him that hath ten pounds. (And they said unto him, Lord, he hath ten pounds.) For I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him. But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me. (Luke 19:12-27)
There are many obvious similarities between these two stories; at the same time, there are also some significant differences. Let’s explore.
First of all, we might note that the master in this story is called a nobleman and that he went away to secure his kingdom. This parable also records a mutiny that took place as soon as the nobleman left town and the objection when the unprofitable servant’s coin was taken away from him and given to the servant with ten coins. It seems that Jesus must have been making a deliberate attempt in this second story to identify Himself as the nobleman. Even in the same chapter with this parable, we read that the chief priests, the scribes, and the chief rulers of the people sought to destroy Jesus (Luke 19:47) – a perfect parallel to the citizens who refused to have the nobleman rule over them. The following chapter recounts several occurrences in which the Jewish leaders challenged Jesus’ authority as the chief priests and the scribes directly questioned the source of His authority (Luke 20:1-8) and as they challenged Him with the question about paying taxes to the Roman occupation forces (Luke 20:21-26). The scenario continues as the Sadducees – who didn’t even believe in the afterlife – tried to trick Jesus with a question about who would be married to whom in heaven in the case of a woman who had been married to seven brothers during her lifetime. (Luke 20:27-38) All of these encounters were direct parallels to the way that the audience in the parable of the pounds challenged the nobleman concerning his decision to give the unprofitable servant’s pound to the one who already had ten. Of course the most direct parallel is found in the parable that Jesus told concerning a gentleman who planted a vineyard and left it in the care of husbandmen who refused to honor the master’s right to the produce of the vineyard. (Luke 20:9-16) The response of the Jewish leaders when they heard this parable was to immediately begin a plot to kill Jesus because they recognized that He spoke the parable about them. (Luke 20:19-20) In that they recognized themselves as the villains in the parable and sought to kill Jesus for telling the story, it seems obvious that they also identified Him as the owner of the vineyard in this parable – and, therefore, the nobleman in the parable of the pounds.
In the second parable, the master told the servants to “occupy” – a term that literally means to do business – until his return. The first parable leaves us to make the assumption that some sort of instructions must have accompanied the coins as they were distributed; however, this second parable makes it explicit that the stewards were directed to not just protect the funds but to gainfully involve them in profitable business ventures. This is an all-important detail in that it leaves the unprofitable servant with no excuse for hiding the coin and it justifies the master for judging this disobedient servant.
The third point that we should take into consideration is the difference in the money that was distributed. In the second parable, the master entrusted each servant with a pound rather than talents. The word that is translated “pound” actually refers to a mina, which was valued at about one sixtieth of a talent. Before we consider the possible significance of the differing values of the investments given to the servants in these two stories, it would be good to note that there is one significant difference between the two parables in that in the second parable there is no mention of the differing abilities of the servants at the time of the distribution. Additionally, it is noteworthy that each servant received only one coin whereas the master gave each servant in the previous story differing numbers of coins. Upon the master’s return, the stewards reported how they had profited with their investments. Interestingly, the second account only tells us what happened with three of the servants – leaving us to wonder what happened with the other seven. This detail doesn’t seem significant in that the tales of the three stewards that are recorded give us sufficient facts to get the meaning of the parable. Notice that the two profitable stewards actually made a better rate of return than did the ones in the previous account. The servants with talents doubled their original capital; however, one gentleman in the story of the pounds was able to gain a ten-fold return and the other multiplied his original cash by five times. As their reward, these servants were made mayors over cities in accordance with the amount of profit they had earned – the one with ten pounds was given ten cities, and the one with five coins was given five cities. I hope that I am not allowing my imagination too much leeway here, but it seems that there may be a significance to the fact that we are told what their exact reward was while the other account only tells us that the stewards were made masters of many things. Perhaps this disclosure of the rewards received by the stewards with the pounds is an indication of their actual abilities. If this is the case, we should rethink what may have happened with the stewards who invested the talents. Since the one who was given five talents was actually entrusted with three hundred times the amount as the steward who wound up ruling over ten cities, is it possible that we can calculate his reward by multiplying the ten cities by three hundred? Although this idea may seem farfetched at first, it is not outside the principles of logic to conclude that he actually had the ability to rule three thousand cities! But let’s allow this idea to sit for a while, and we’ll come back to it a little later.
One other significant difference between the two parables is an added statement in the second parable’s account of the master’s rebuke of the servant who did not turn a profit, Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant. With the thought in mind that it was the servant’s words that condemned him, let’s examine the confession of the unprofitable servant in each parable to see if we can find their offense. Both men made negative statements about their master. The servant with the talent called him a “hard” man while the one with the pound accused him of being an “austere” man. Both words are harsh assessments of the master’s personality. They could have said that he was a shrewd businessman who knew how to gain a profit in any situation or that they recognized his entrepreneurial ability or his astute business acumen that always resulted in his benefit or they could simply have said that they thought that he had the “Midas touch.” Instead, they blatantly expressed their feelings that there was an inhuman, selfish, unfeeling, and unsympathetic side to his nature that motivated his quest for gain. Interestingly enough, this whole image seemed to be proven wrong when the master gave the original capital, along with the talents and pounds that the servants had gained, back to them along with the reward of being rulers over cities and the undefined “many things.” The other very obvious thing that both men admitted to was that they were afraid. As we noted when we examined the parable of the talents, it is uncertain exactly what this servant was afraid of. However, the confession of the servant in the parable of the pounds makes it clear that he feared the master himself. The wording in the testimonies of both of these men is that they had terrorizing fear. They did not have the reverential fear or respect that would normally be due to one’s superior – like fear of the Lord that the Bible directs us to have. (Deuteronomy 6:24; Psalm 31:19, 33:18-19, 34:7, 85:9, 112:1, 115:13, 128:1-4, 145:19; Proverbs 10:27, 19:23, 22:4, 28:14) Their emotion was the kind of trepidation, anxiety, distress, and dread that the Apostle John wrote about in his first epistle, There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. (I John 4:18) In essence, these men were confessing that they had a wrong relationship with their master. Had they had love and respect for their boss, their fears and anxieties would have been dispelled by their relationship with him. One other detail that we see in both testimonies is that they perceived the money as belonging totally to the master. The unprofitable servant in the first parable spoke of “thy talent” and “that is thine” while the servant in the second parable referred to “thy pound.” We have already made mention of the fact that it is likely that all the servants perceived the money as belonging to the master until the end of the story when he apparently turned the resources over to them along with their individual rewards. However, there seems to be a difference in the attitude that these two men had as compared with the other stewards. While it seems that the others saw the money as belonging to the master, they also seemed to have felt a personal connection with and responsibility toward the money in that they managed it and saw that it increased. The two unprofitable stewards detached themselves from the money altogether by burying it in the earth or laying it aside in a napkin.
One final note about the parable of the talents and the parable of the pounds is that they have different endings. In the parable of the pounds, the rebellious citizens were executed; whereas, the unprofitable servant is the only one who suffered judgment in the original story. Since Jesus had not introduced the rebellious citizens in the first story, He did not need to include anything in that parable about the consequences that these mutinous subjects were to face. Without these extra characters in the first parable, Jesus was free to focus only on the fate of the one individual unprofitable servant. Actually, we are fortunate that the parable of the talents didn’t include the account of the insubordinate citizens because it left us with a clear picture of the consequences of poor stewardship – not just the loss of the funds that were assigned to the steward but also personal rebuke, chastisement, and retribution.
I began this study by asking if you have ever had an issue with the doctrine of sowing and reaping, but I have rambled on for quite a while without making even a tangential reference to that question. Unfortunately, I need to ask for even more tolerance because we have even more ground to cover before we can begin to examine that opening question. So, as you muster up a bit more patience, allow me to take a few lines to review what we have learned so far and see if we can begin to draw some conclusions that will eventually help us answer the question at hand.
So far, we have seen that the money that was placed in the hands of the stewards was distributed according to their abilities. We also saw that the ones who made a profit were rewarded; however, we were not told that there was ever an assessment as to how closely the return that they had gained actually matched their potential. For example, it could have been that the one who made five extra talents could have made six; after all, he apparently had the ability to manage that many since the master later gave him the one talent that had originally been entrusted to the unprofitable servant. In the process of comparing the two different parables, I made a passing comment about the possibility that the steward who was entrusted with five talents could have actually been capable of ruling over three thousand cities since he was originally assigned responsibility over three hundred times the amount of money as the steward who wound up ruling over ten cities. If there is a direct correlation between the abilities of the stewards and the number of cities they were eventually given oversight of, this is a logical calculation. Whether this calculation is exactly accurate or not may not be particularly important. I included this idea simply to help us expand our thinking concerning the abilities of the various servants. My point is that we should not limit our consideration to just the coins that were originally delivered to the servants or the number they had in their hands when the master returned. Obviously, their abilities were far beyond these limited funds; they were capable of ruling multiple cities – maybe even as many as three thousand! But the important concept here really doesn’t have so much to do with the actual abilities of the men but the way that the master related to each steward. Notice that in the cases of the stewards who turned a profit with their talents, the master referred to each one as a “good and faithful servant.” He did not accuse them of failure or reprimand them for not performing to their full potential even though they were offering him only a handful of coins when he knew that each of them actually had the potential of being rulers over many things. This acceptance of his servants and commendation for their achievements – even though they might not have been up to their full potential – helps us to understand that he was an honorable, gracious, and generous leader rather than the hard or austere boss that the unprofitable stewards perceived him to be.
Seeing the story with this perspective in mind certainly helps us understand the nature of the master, but there is even more about his nature to be seen in these parables. We noted that it seems that the master actually gave to them the original capital, along with all the profits that the servants had earned, and then added to these generous gifts by making them rulers over many things, which – in the case of the stewards with the pounds – we are told was a reference to the cities which constituted his kingdom. This display of generosity clearly depicts the master as displaying the very nature of God Himself whose good pleasure it is to give the kingdom to His subjects (Luke 12:32) and whose eyes run to and fro throughout the whole earth to show himself strong on the behalf of those whose hearts are perfect toward Him (II Chronicles 16:9). And it is in this last statement that we come to what seems to be the actual heart of the parables. We have already seen that the two unprofitable stewards were judged more by their attitudes toward and relationship with their master and the task that he assigned to them than by their failure to render a profit to him upon his return. Had their hearts been perfect toward their master, we can only assume that he would have been just as gracious and generous to these servants as he was to the others. Had they simply honored him by obeying his mandate to do business with the resources he had left them in charge of – regardless of how small their profit might have been – he would likely have blessed them rather than judging them. However, their negative opinions of him, their fear of him, and their disobedience to his directive to invest the funds disqualified them from receiving his blessings and destined them to his wrath instead. At this point, it would be good to remember that the master told at least one of these unprofitable servants that he was going to judge him directly by his own confession – indicating that he actually knew that he was in error. In other words, he was not “blindsided” by the judgment that he received in that he was not acting in ignorance but knew that he was in error through his thoughts and actions. The master’s assessment was a direct parallel with the words of Jesus Himself found in Matthew 12:37, For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.
There is one last observation that we should make – the fact that the profitable servants in the parable of the talents were invited into the joy of their lord. To fully understand the parable, we must research what this invitation entailed. To do so, let’s examine a handful of verses that speak of the substance of joy. The Apostle John wrote, I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth, (III John 1:4) and the Apostle Paul made two very defining statements in which he expressed that his joy was actually the individuals with whom he was in relationship, Therefore, my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved (Philippians 4:1), and For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? (I Thessalonians 2:19). From these verses, we can surmise that joy is not the result of possessions, achievements, or commendations but is rather the fruit of relationship. In other words, the reward that the servants were to enjoy was not the accomplishments that they had achieved in the marketplace, the money they had in their pockets, or the “pat on the back” that the master gave them; it was the relationship that they shared with their master! What a radical contrast with the unprofitable stewards who were expelled from his presence.
So now that I have taken you around your elbow to get to your thumb, we should figure out exactly what we have found – other than our own thumbs. It seems that the “bottom line” of these parables is that money wasn’t the objective of the master in that he gave it away to the servants; rather, he was looking for his servants to have relationship with him and his kingdom – which was represented by the symbolic tokens of talents and mina.
Okay, so now it is time for us to actually come to the passage that is so often used when ministers are asking for our offerings – the promise of the thirty-, sixty-, and hundred-fold returns on our money. This concept comes from the parable of the sower – also known as the parable of the four soils – found in Matthew chapter thirteen, Mark chapter four, and Luke chapter eight. Let’s focus our attention on Matthew’s version of the story with supplemental references to the other evangelists’ accounts as needed.
Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear…Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side. But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended. He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. (Matthew 13:3-23)
Mark lists the multiplied harvest in ascending order – thirty, sixty, one hundred (Mark 4:8) rather than in the descending order in Matthew and that Luke simply listed the bountiful return as one-hundredfold (Luke 8:8). There are four details of note among the three versions of the parable. Concerning the failure of the seed that fell on the wayside, Luke added that the devil took it away to keep the recipients from believing and being saved. (Luke 8:12) Luke also made an additional statement concerning the seed that fell in the stony ground, saying that it was during a time of temptation – in contrast to the tribulation or persecution as mentioned by the other gospel writers – that it failed. (Luke 8:13) The two final variations that I’d like to point out in the stories occur in reference to the seeds that fell among the thorns. Mark adds that they failed to produce because of the lusts of other things (Mark 4:19), and Luke adds the pleasures of this life as a reason that their fruit did not develop (Luke 8:14).
Perhaps the most significant point that we must notice in the story is that there is actually almost no mention of money in this parable. In fact, the seed that was planted was repeatedly identified as the Word of God (Matthew 13:19, 13:20, 13:21, 13:22, 13:23; Mark 4:14, 4:15, 4:16, 4:17, 4:18, 4:19, 4:20; Luke 8:11, 8:12, 8:13, 8:15) – a truth that is confirmed by the Apostle Peter when he referred to the Word of God as incorruptible seed (I Peter 1:23). But before we get to the “punch line” associated with this thought, allow me to mention a couple other verses that are often referenced when speaking of giving offerings.
Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again. (Luke 6:38) If we read this verse in its context, we immediately see that it really has nothing to do with money. The whole emphasis of Jesus’ teaching in which this statement is found has to do with doing good deeds and showing mercy contrasted with rendering judgment.
Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. (Galatians 6:7) This verse also has nothing to do with money; rather, its context is that of carnal versus spiritual actions and thoughts.
Please don’t misinterpret my intention here. I do recognize that there are certain passages in which the sowing and reaping principle is applied specially to money such as II Corinthians 9:6, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully, where Paul used the principle to encourage the Corinthian believers to give into the offering for the unfortunate saints. Additionally, I fully understand the principle that God put into place at the very creation of our world – that everything should reproduce after its own kind. (Genesis 1:11, 1:12, 1:21, 1:24, 1:25, 6:20, 7:14, 8:19) Therefore, it is true that money should produce more money; however, it is also important for us to remember that this is only one small aspect of the principle. As the verses that we have just seen point out, gracious deeds toward others produce more gracious deeds back toward us and judgmental attitudes toward others will bring a harvest of judgmental attitudes back toward us. As the parable of the sower illustrates, planting God’s Word in our hearts will – under the right conditions – produce a proliferation of that Word in our lives.
When we apply what we have just learned to the stories of the talents and the pounds, we can see that these principles are clearly illustrated. In the cases of the unprofitable stewards, we can see that they planted some bad seed – negative thoughts about their master’s character, negative attitudes toward the resources that he rendered into their hands in that they feared that the money would be lost rather than being productive, and negative actions through disobeying the master’s commands. Obviously, they reaped very negative harvests – public humiliation and reprimand, loss of the money that they were given, and alienation through being thrown into outer darkness. In the accounts of the profitable servants, we see that they planted respect for and obedience to their master and reaped a harvest of blessing, honor, and promotion from him. Rather than being afraid of him, they sowed respect (the fear of the Lord) and reaped the promised harvest – By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honour, and life. (Proverbs 22:4)
In another of His parables, Jesus shared the story of an unjust steward who was “called on the carpet” for improperly handling his master’s goods. As He summarized the parable, Jesus asked, If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? (Luke 16:11) The profitable stewards in these two stories had proven themselves faithful over their master’s finances and were rewarded with true riches – which obviously exceeded the money that they were given.
We’ll come back to this statement by Jesus in a few minutes, but first, let’s take a quick look at His letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation to get some insight into what true riches might be. Jesus made comments to two different congregations that seemed to need clarification concerning the true riches from two different perspectives. To the believers at Smyrna, He wrote, I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) (Revelation 2:9); whereas, He addressed the church at Laodicea with, Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see (Revelation 3:17-18). One church saw itself as in poverty but was actually rich in the eyes of Jesus while the other congregation saw themselves as rich and increased in goods to the point that they didn’t need anything while Jesus realized that they were actually impoverished to the point that they were wretched, miserable, blind, and naked! So, what constituted the difference in the way that Jesus saw these churches and how they perceived themselves? The church at Smyrna was undergoing extreme persecution which almost certainly entailed the confiscation and/or destruction of their property as was described in the book of Hebrews, Partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used. For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance. (Hebrews 10:33-34) If this was the case, the believers in Smyrna were physically poor because their oppressors had stolen or destroyed their natural possessions; however, Jesus discerned that they were rich because He could see that their true riches were the treasures that they had laid up in heaven where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. (Matthew 6:20) The Laodiceans, on the other hand, actually were very affluent people according to worldly standards in that they had at least three prosperous businesses in their city – a mint that produced coinage, a booming garment industry, and a pharmaceutical manufacturing business that produced eye ointment that was exported all over the Roman Empire. However, Jesus told them that they couldn’t depend upon their own gold coins, their clothing industry, or their eye salve; rather, they needed the gold, clothes, and eye ointment that only He could provide. Notice His follow-up statements, Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne (Revelation 3:20-21) – invitations to have fellowship with Him as He desires to come into their lives and sup with them and as He invites them into His life to sit with Him on His throne. In other words, Jesus was telling this church that their true riches were not to be measured in what they owned but in their relationship with Him.
Going back to Jesus’ statement in which He described money as “unrighteous mammon” and categorized it outside of “true” riches and the parable of the sower, we can see some hints as to what He was trying to communicate. Notice that the only direct references to money and the things that money can afford us in this parable are all negative – the deceitfulness of riches, lusts of other things, and pleasures of this life. But before we examine these statements, we must remember that the Bible has many positive things to say about prosperity and wealth. Deuteronomy 8:18 tells us that the Lord gives His people the ability to get wealth. Psalm 35:27 confirms that God takes pleasure in the prosperity of His servants. Psalm 112:3 says that wealth is to be found in the houses of the righteous. And the list could go on and on – far beyond the parameters of this little study. However, there is also a negative side to prosperity. We all know, for example, that the love of money is the root of all sin (I Timothy 6:10) and that wealth can engender a prideful attitude (Deuteronomy 8:17, I Timothy 6:17). The truth is that money is essentially neutral as far as God is concerned. There were times when Jesus said that money should be sacrificially given to the poor (Matthew 19:16-22), and there were occasions when He said that money should be extravagantly expended upon Him (Matthew 26:6-13). In the case where Jesus said that the individual should divest himself of his wealth, Jesus saw that the man’s money had a negative and debilitating grip on his heart. In the case where Jesus commended the woman for her elaborate outpouring of wealth, He discerned that the release of her money was a demonstration of how little control her money had upon her heart. Essentially, the money itself was insignificant, but the effect that it had on the hearts of those who possessed it – or were possessed by it – was what was important.
The seed that fell among the thorns represented those who heard the Word of God but were unfruitful because the Word was choked by the negative effects of the cares of this world, lusts of other things, the pleasures of this life, and the deceitfulness of riches. Although we are not told exactly where or when these negative influences originated, it seems that these negative elements were already present in that the parable states that the seed fell upon the ground that had thorns. However, the statement that the thorns sprang up after the seeds sprouted seems to indicate that these malevolent attitudes may have been latent within the hearts of those who received the Word and only germinated after the Word of God began to grow within their hearts. If this is the case, we may have an explanation as to why some people never receive the anticipated harvests from the “seeds that they sow” into ministry – their hearts were filled with financial concerns and greedy attitudes. In fact, many ministers actually play upon these thorns when asking for offerings. In asking the givers to “plant a seed for your need,” they actually motivate the cares of this life (overdue mortgage payments, maxed-out credit cards, student loans, needed car repairs that keep you from getting to work…) in the givers’ hearts by focusing their attention on their lack more than on the sufficiency of Christ. By instructing them to “name their harvest,” they activate the lust for other things and the desire for the pleasures of this life (designer clothes, luxury cars, homes in prestigious neighborhoods, fabulous vacations…). When they magnify the abundance of the anticipated return, they stimulate the deceitfulness of riches by making the givers feel that the harvest they are planting for is the answer to all their problems (investment portfolios, get-rich-quick schemes, winning the lottery, an inheritance from a rich uncle, the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes…) – thus actually taking their eyes off of the Lord of the Harvest. The basic flaw is that these appeals have prompted the James-four-three syndrome (Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts) in the body of Christ. Unfortunately, this approach – even though it may be taken with sincerity and without manipulative intention – is so prevalent today that our churches are filled with individuals who have given sacrificially anticipating a miraculous harvest but have seen no result.
But what is even more tragic is that we also have churches that are NOT filled with individuals who have given sacrificially anticipating a miraculous harvest but have seen no result. By that I mean that droves of believers have abandoned the church – and possibly even the faith – because they have become victims of the thorns that choked their lives. And this is exactly what Jesus was trying to describe when He said that the thorns choked the Word – not that they choked anyone’s financial harvest. Because the gospel has been choked out of their lives, those people whose lives are filled with thorns are either remaining in the church as lifeless, defeated members or they have abandoned the church and given up on the hope of the gospel. Additionally, there are outside onlookers who have seen what has happened and have determined that the gospel is basically a manipulative gimmick that fleeces unsuspecting victims of their money. The result is that these onlookers become distrusting of and critical toward the gospel – not only rejecting it in their own lives but ridiculing those who do believe.
The seed that landed in the stony places symbolized those who hear the Word of God and gladly receive it, but have issues in their lives that prohibit the Word from taking root deeply enough to sustain them during times of tribulation, persecution, or temptation. As a result, they become offended. Thinking specifically of the sowing and reaping message, it is easy for us to imagine the scenario that Jesus is portraying here. A believer hears a sermon about how he can “plant a seed” and “get a harvest” that is multiplied by thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times without any effort on his part; so, he gladly throws money into the offering plate. Unfortunately, a very important part of the formula is missing – the deeply engrafted Word of God in his heart. Then he looks around and sees that his situation is no better – and possibly even worse – than that of the unbelievers who haven’t given anything to the kingdom of God. As a result, he fails to get the anticipated return and becomes offended at the ministry that encouraged him to give to it and at God Himself. We can see how this sequence of events began to unfold in the life of David. Fortunately, however, he caught himself just in time.
But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped. For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment. Their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish. They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily. They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth. Therefore his people return hither: and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them. And they say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High? Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches. Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning. If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of thy children. When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me; Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end. (Psalm 73:2-17)
As David looked around himself and saw that the ungodly were prospering and that they seemed to have even more advantages in life than he was enjoying, he became envious of them and began to regret all the effort he had gone to in his service to God – some massive stones that could keep the Word of God from taking solid root in his heart. By his own confession, he was on a slippery slope and had almost lost his footing; however, something happened that changed the whole course of his life – he went to the sanctuary of God and received a fresh understanding of the overarching plan of God. The introductory verse of this psalm seems to be a disclaimer of sorts that is intended to set the stage for the verses that we have just studied. Essentially, it seems that David prefaced this disgruntled monologue with a declaration of faith in order to protect his audience from being sucked into believing the negative picture that he is about to paint, Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart. Thus, he has sandwiched the dark picture between the two elements of the solution – having a clean heart before God and receiving His instruction (the Word of God that was spoken in the sanctuary – either directly to David by the Spirit of God or through the instruction of the priests).
There are a couple significant points that we should observe concerning this part of the parable. The first is that the things that caused the plant to wither were tribulation, persecution, and temptation; however, these situations were symbolized by the sun – the exact thing that causes other crops to flourish. The difference that caused these plants to be destroyed by the sun while others received life from the same sun had to do solely with the fact that they didn’t have a good root base which was the sole result of the stones in the soil. David defined the stones that were in his life as envy and regret. As long as he allowed his mind to focus on these elements, he was subject to offense; however, as soon as he turned his heart toward God, he was restored to peace and prosperity. The situation around him did not change, but he was now able to flourish in the midst of the same circumstances that had previously been causing him to wither up and lose his footing on that slippery slope.
I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in countries where believers face severe persecution and tribulation on a daily basis – from radical Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist governments and from unbelieving families. I have also had the opportunity to know a number of European Christians who lived through the horrors of the Nazi period (including some Holocaust survivors who were incarcerated in the concentration camps) and others who had endured the communist rule (including ministers who narrowly escaped with their lives when targeted for execution by the KGB). Many times, these believers have expressed to me how the faith of those who survive such persecution is so much more genuine than those who don’t have to confront such challenges. And the explanation is very simple – they had to get rid of the rocks of offence in order to even survive, much less thrive. In this, we see that the sun caused them to grow rather than to wither. The second thing that we need to notice is that we are actually fortunate that Luke chose to mention temptations rather than persecutions and tribulations when he recorded the parable. We all face temptations – the enticements to sin and the inducements to simply give up or become complacent about our faith – even if we don’t live in a nation where the government threatens us with imprisonment or death for our faith. Therefore, Luke’s version makes this segment of the story relatable to all our lives – making all of us aware of the detriment that we face from the stones of envy and regret in our hearts.
The soil by the wayside represents those who heard the word of the kingdom but did not understand it. As a result, the devil was able to take the seed of the Word of God out of their lives before it had a chance to produce any change in them. Luke added that the enemy stole it away in order to keep the recipients from believing and being saved. Applying this thought to the parable of the talents, we can now understand why the unprofitable steward was cast into outer darkness. The situation wasn’t that he was simply unproductive; he was also unregenerate.
One portion of the seed that the sower planted fell into good soil and became productive, with the explanation that this soil characterized those who heard the Word of God and understood it – with the result of multiplication. At this point, we need to remind ourselves that the multiplication referred to here is an amplification of the Word of God, not monetary increase. However, this is not to say that there is not monetary gain involved – it is only that monetary gain is secondary to the increase of the Word of God in that the fruit of the Word of God in the life of a believer is that he will increase in wisdom and understanding. In fact, it is better to increase in wisdom and understanding since they are the source of financial increase. It’s somewhat like the old story about how much more valuable it was to own the goose who laid the golden eggs than to have a basketful of her eggs.
How much better is it to get wisdom than gold! and to get understanding rather to be chosen than silver! (Proverbs 16:16)
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. (Proverbs 4:7)
Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her. Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour. (Proverbs 3:13-16)
The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver. (Psalm 119:72)
Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man. O ye simple, understand wisdom: and, ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart. Hear; for I will speak of excellent things; and the opening of my lips shall be right things. For my mouth shall speak truth; and wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing froward or perverse in them. They are all plain to him that understandeth, and right to them that find knowledge. Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold. For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it. I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions. The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate. Counsel is mine, and sound wisdom: I am understanding; I have strength. By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth. I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me. Riches and honour are with me; yea, durable riches and righteousness. My fruit is better than gold, yea, than fine gold; and my revenue than choice silver. (Proverbs 8:4-19)
And God said to Solomon, Because this was in thine heart, and thou hast not asked riches, wealth, or honour, nor the life of thine enemies, neither yet hast asked long life; but hast asked wisdom and knowledge for thyself, that thou mayest judge my people, over whom I have made thee king. (II Chronicles 1:11)
Thinking back to the profitable servants in the parables of the talents and the pounds, we will remember that one of the qualities that made them prosper was the honor and respect they showed to their master. This same principle comes to play in the story of the productive soil in that the source of wisdom and understanding is the fear of the Lord.
And unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding. (Job 28:28)
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever. (Psalm 111:10)
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7)
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10)
The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom; and before honour is humility. (Proverbs 15:33)
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him [Jesus], the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears. (Isaiah 11:2-3)
And wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times, and strength of salvation: the fear of the Lord is his treasure. (Isaiah 33:6)
Let’s examine one verse from the Old Testament to see an example of how this principle works. Solomon made the assertion, A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children (Proverbs 13:22) – which seems like a very straightforward statement about including one’s grandchildren in his will. However, the culture at the time of Solomon did not allow for the division of an inheritance; everything had to go to the oldest son with some provisions for the younger sons – but nothing for a second generation of heirs. So, Solomon’s declaration was obviously about something other than passing down money to his grandchildren. What he was actually saying was that a man should instill wisdom and understanding into his children so that they will know how to manage the inheritance left to them so as to increase it to the point that there will be sufficient to pass along to subsequent generations. In other words, the real inheritance of value is wisdom – a sentiment that is reflected in other declarations in his writings such as, A wise servant shall have rule over a son that causeth shame, and shall have part of the inheritance among the brethren. (Proverbs 17:2)
Let’s investigate an illustration of this principle from the story of Joseph in Egypt. When he was called upon to interpret the king’s dream, Joseph was able to show how Pharaoh’s vision was the revelation of the coming events – seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. He then advised the king, Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years. (Genesis 41:33-36) Pharaoh’s response was, Forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art: Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou. (Genesis 41:39-40) Notice that the king’s decision – which had to do with the total destiny of the nation’s wealth – was based on the fact that he perceived Joseph to be a wise man. The strategy that God gave to Joseph was actually counter to anything that human logic would prescribe. He proposed to collect one fifth of the grain that was produced during the seven good years and store it up for the seven years when nothing would grow. Human logic would have dictated that the king should collect one half of the produce of the first seven years so that there would be an equal amount available during the subsequent seven years. However, such a scheme would certainly have failed since it would have taken away the motivation of the people to produce. I saw this with my own eyes when I visited Russia during the days of communism. The people had nothing, and they explained their fate with one simple sentence, “The government pretends to pay us; so, we pretend to work.” The result of the government’s strategy of taking everything and redistributing it resulted in destroying the people’s personal ambition to achieve. However, Joseph’s plan actually resulted in increased productivity. Let’s imagine that you worked all year and produced ten bananas. When the government came and took two of them (Joseph’s tactic), you would be left with eight but you actually wanted ten. The obvious solution would be to work just a little harder so that you could produce twelve bananas the following year so that when the king took away two you would still have the ten you wanted. When you saw how easy it was to accomplish this goal, you might strive to produce fifteen bananas the third year so that when the government requisitioned three you would still have twelve. God had said that there would be seven years of plenty, and Joseph had the supernatural wisdom to be able to actually take advantage of that prophecy by motivating increased productivity rather than destroying the initiative of the people by following human logic. The interesting side note to this story is that the people who were left with eighty percent of the income wound up in bankruptcy by the end of the seven years of famine. They had four times as much in their hands as Joseph taxed away from them, but they wound up in poverty – proof that wisdom is always better than money.
We also see an illustration in the New Testament when the early Christians sold everything and lived in common. (Acts 2:44, 4:32, 8:1) Although there have been attempts at establishing Christian communal societies throughout the history of the church, they have all resulted in devastating failures because they lacked the one ingredient that made the first-century Christian community different – the fact that they knew the future! Before His death, Jesus had pre-warned His followers about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. (Matthew 24:1-2, 24:15-21) Because they had the wisdom that they gained from that word from God, they could easily divest themselves of their properties that were soon to be destroyed anyway. Without the attachments to any physical possessions in the city, they did not hesitate to flee when they saw the signs of the coming Roman invasion. The result is that there were no Christians who lost their lives when Titus decimated the city in 70 AD – even though the death toll actually numbered more than a million!
At the beginning of this study, I asked you if you had ever been challenged by the fact that you didn’t see the multiplied harvest that you felt you deserved from the “seeds” you have “planted”? Well, by this point you may have seen yourself as one of the unprofitable servants in the parables of the talents and the pounds or as one of the unproductive soils in the parable of the sower. If so, you are probably fairly discouraged by now, but I want to share good news with you! I am not a farmer, but my grandparents were and I spent enough time on their farm as I was growing up to know that just because a field has rocks or weeds in it is not a reason to disregard it. In fact, my grandparents spent a major portion of their time cleaning out such plots of land so that they could increase their productivity. In thinking about the sower in this parable, we will notice that he could have limited his efforts to only the good soil. However, it seems that he saw a potential in each plot of soil – just like the master in the parables of the talents and the pounds who made an investment in the unprofitable servants as well as in the productive ones. We also see the same optimism in the life of Jesus when He chose to invest in Judas just like He did in all the other disciples. (John 6:70) In other words, there is hope for all of us if we really want it. Solomon addressed this truth in the twenty-second chapter of the book of Proverbs.
A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold. The rich and poor meet together: the Lord is the maker of them all. A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself: but the simple pass on, and are punished. By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honour, and life. Thorns and snares are in the way of the froward: he that doth keep his soul shall be far from them…He that soweth iniquity shall reap vanity: and the rod of his anger shall fail. He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he giveth of his bread to the poor. Cast out the scorner, and contention shall go out; yea, strife and reproach shall cease. He that loveth pureness of heart, for the grace of his lips the king shall be his friend. The eyes of the Lord preserve knowledge, and he overthroweth the words of the transgressor. The slothful man saith, There is a lion without, I shall be slain in the streets….He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches, and he that giveth to the rich, shall surely come to want. Bow down thine ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply thine heart unto my knowledge. For it is a pleasant thing if thou keep them within thee; they shall withal be fitted in thy lips. That thy trust may be in the Lord, I have made known to thee this day, even to thee…Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men.
To fully explore all the truths in this one passage would be far beyond the scope of this little study; however, allow me to simply highlight a few of the most pertinent concepts presented here. Notice that gold and silver are placed in a secondary position to a good and reputable name – establishing the principle that we have already explored that golden eggs are the result of owning the right goose. God is declared to be equally the maker of both the rich and the poor; however, Solomon immediately turns to helping us understand how to find ourselves in the prosperous category – prudence, humility, fear of and trust in the Lord, a pure heart, learning and applying the wisdom of God, and diligence. Interestingly enough, he actually uses terminology that relates directly to the parable of the sower when he says that thorns and snares are in the way of the froward and then adds that if we can be far from them if we only keep (protect) our souls.
One element that this passage lists for success is diligence – a principle that is often overlooked in teachings on sowing and reaping. In fact, the message is often conveyed that all we have to do is toss our seed into the ground and sit idly by waiting for God to bring about the increase. In reality, this is totally countercurrent to the biblical truth. Remember that the master in the parable of the pounds directed his servants to occupy – do business – until he returned. They were not to simply throw their investments into the ground and wait for a return; they were to actually involve themselves in the process to ensure that they would get a profitable return. When we analyzed the parables of the talents and the pounds, we noted that the stewards who made a profit treated the investments as if they were their own resources even though they acknowledged that the funds actually belonged to the master. This sort of personal interest was likely what Jesus was looking for when He made the comment in the parable of the unjust steward, And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own? (Luke 16:12) In fact, the principle of involvement in the process rather than just reaping the benefits goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden when God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of the abundance of the garden but that they would also need to dress and keep it. (Genesis 2:15-16) In addition to showing a personal involvement in the process, we must always keep the Master’s best interest in mind by asking if this is what He wants us to invest in or are we simply being motivated by the thought that we might get our harvest out of planting the seed. We should investigate to ensure that the ministry is actually doing something that aligns with the heart of God and whether they are doing it according to the standards that God would hold them accountable to – such as integrity, generosity, transparency, and truthfulness.
At this point, I know that I am breaking almost every rule of biblical interpretation I learned in seminary, but I simply can’t help but wonder if it is not more than a simple coincidence that the unprofitable steward who buried his coin in the earth seemed to be acting exactly like many people who think that all that is required of them is to simply “plant their seeds.”
One statement that Jesus made in His Sermon on the Mount is very significant here, Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:21-24) By personifying money, Jesus showed us that our possessions can become more to us than simply neutral, inanimate objects. In fact, they can become personal and possessive to the point that they can control us with essentially the authority of a deity!
If you will tolerate just one more seemingly unconnected divergence, I’d like for us to take a minute to think about David’s affair with Bathsheba and the resultant plot to take the life of her husband in an attempt to cover up his guilt. (II Samuel 11:1-27) When the king was confronted with his evil deeds (II Samuel 12:7), he repented through writing the fifty-first Psalm in which he proclaimed, Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. (Psalm 51:4) Certainly, David had sinned against a host of individuals – Bathsheba whose chastity he violated, Uriah whose life he took, Joab whom he forced to betray one of his trusted men, Ahithophel (Bathsheba’s grandfather and David’s chief advisor) who felt so betrayed that he later joined in a confederacy against the king, and the entire army who were sent out to battle without him present to lead them to victory; however, David realized that as terrible as all of these atrocities were they were not the root of his problem – they were simply the fruit of the condition of his having allowed his heart to be turned away from an intimate love relationship with the Lord. Therefore, he saw that his only sin was the one he had committed against God Himself through not pursuing Him with his whole heart, soul, mind and strength. (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30) He later declared that he had found the solution that would prevent him from ever falling into that sin again, Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee. (Psalm 119:11) This is exactly the same remedy that we have already discovered – planting the seed of the Word of God into the good soil of our hearts.
We have also seen that the real harvest that we gain when the Word of God is planted in our hearts is wisdom and understanding. Interestingly enough, the very motivation behind wisdom and understanding is love. Paul wrote concerning Epaphras that he was a dear fellowservant and a faithful minister of Christ who also declared to him the love in the Spirit of the believers in the Colossian church. Then he added that because of this communication of love, he had not ceased to pray for them and to desire that they would be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. (Colossians 1:7-11) He made a similar declaration over the believers in Ephesus – that once he heard of their love unto all the saints, he determined to never fail to pray for them that God would grant them the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ and that the eyes of their understanding would be enlightened. (Ephesians 1:15-18) If we love God and prove it by planting His Word in our hearts, we will catalytically activate wisdom and understanding – which will, in turn, produce financial prosperity that is not corrupted through an affinity to Mammon.
In the same context in which Jesus gave us the parable of the sower, He shared another parable that can actually be seen as more impactful than the lesson about the thirty-, sixty-, and hundred-fold return.
The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. (Matthew 13:31-32)
This tiny mustard seed produced a gigantic tree – multiple times more massive than a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even one hundred mustard seeds which could be held in the palm of one’s hand! As we learned when we investigated the potentials of the servants who were given the talents and the pounds, what they had in their hands was not a true reflection of what they had in their hearts since they actually had city-ruling ability inside them even though they only had a few coins in their hands. The true harvest that God wants to produce in our lives is far beyond whatever amount of money we may be able to amass; He wants to give us the true riches of the kingdom of heaven where the very street is made of gold. (Revelation 21:21) Perhaps there is a symbolism that you have never considered in this imagery. A road is nothing more than a way to get from where you are to where you need to be; therefore, God made heaven’s highway of gold to show us that money is not an end in itself but a mechanism to get to where God wants us to be and to be able to do what He wants us to do. When Paul referred to God’s supplying all our needs according to his riches in glory (Philippians 4:19), he was essentially saying that this blessing is not about money itself but about all the resources at our disposal to fulfill His will.
Perhaps the apostolic petition that Paul prayed over the believers at Ephesus embodies the full magnitude of what we should ask for when we intercede over the seeds that we sow into the kingdom of God – it is the true riches of the kingdom of God and it is an exponentially bigger return than a thirty-, sixty-, or even one-hundred-fold profit on any size offering we could ever afford to give.
For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us. (Ephesians 3:14-20)
Since my undergraduate training was as a chemist, I took a position as a technician in a chemical lab to support myself after graduating seminary and before landing my first job teaching in a Bible college. One day, one of my buddies stopped by the lab to invite me for lunch. I accepted his offer but had a couple steps to complete on a procedure that I was working on; so, I asked him to wait around for a few minutes. When I finished the task, I looked around the lab for my friend and found him next to a tank of compressed nitrogen gas. He had attached a flexible hose to the valve and was blowing the gas from the tank on his hand. When I asked him what he was doing, he explained that he was removing a wart. Of course, my next question was how he thought that the nitrogen would get rid of a wart. His answer was that doctors remove warts with nitrogen. To that I explained that dermatologists do indeed use nitrogen on such growths but that it is liquid nitrogen; I went on to explain that the magic wasn’t in the nitrogen itself but in the fact that liquefied nitrogen is super cooled to the point that it freezes the wart and makes it fall off. That incident happened more than four decades ago, and even if my friend were still standing in that lab blowing gaseous nitrogen on his hand all these years later – he would still have exactly the same number of warts on his hand as he did back then. My point in telling this story is that misapplying an actual truth can be as counterproductive – and even harmful – as acting upon a deliberate lie. Unless we understand and apply the true principles of sowing and reaping, we can continue to give and give and give and never see the anticipated return.