June 17 Sermon: “Are You Abel, er, Are You Able?”

Mr. Bob McCartney shared the message on Sunday, June 17th.  Below is the text of his message.

Sermon: “Are You Abel, er, Are You Able?”
June 17, 2018

I will get to this morning’s scripture, but I would first like to share a story with you. It is a story that all of you of are very familiar with, and I promise that everything that I say is in the story, and that I will not add anything that is not in the story.  The reason I want to share this story with you, is because a part of it has bothered me for a long time. It bothered me when I was young, it bothered me when I was middle-aged, and it still bothers me now that I am old. So here we go!

A long time ago, there was a couple, a man and a woman, who had a very special relationship with God. God loved them very much, and they loved God. God loved them so much, that he gave them a very special place to live, it was almost like Paradise. They lived in area that had plush vegetation and it was filled with all kinds of animal life, and all of them lived in harmony. The man and the woman were care takers of all the animals, they even got to name them all, and plants provided the two of them with wonderful fruits and vegetables to eat, they lacked nothing that they needed. God would often come to visit them and walk with them through the garden. They were free to do anything that they wanted to do, except for one thing. God had given them only one rule. They were not to eat the fruit from one tree in the area where they lived. Well, being human, we can pretty well guess what happened. One day the couple decided to do the one thing that they were forbidden to do, they ate the fruit from the very tree that they had been instructed not to eat. After eating this fruit, a strange development came about. They realized that they in fact were naked. Immediately, they decided that they should make coverings for there bodies. There were no malls, no clothing stores, or even any cloth at their disposal, so using leaves from one of the trees, they fashioned some make-shift garments to cover their private parts. Shortly thereafter, we are told that God payed them a visit. They could hear God walking through the garden, so they hid themselves in the bushes. I must tell you that a quick game of hid-and-seek from God was not a part of their normal routine. God was usually greeted very openly when he came to see this couple, so when they were not readily visible, he asked, “Where are you?” They responded, “we heard you walking in the garden, and were afraid because we were naked, so we hid.” God then asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” Their response was, “yes”, they had, and contained an attempt to shift the blame to someone else. God chastises them for their disobedience, and expels them from the special place that he had given them to live in. The couple were husband and wife, and in the due course of time, the woman became pregnant, and gave birth to a son. She named him Cain. A short time later, she gave birth to a second son, and named him Abel. There is not any details about the early days of Cain and Abel, and the next things that we are told is that Abel kept flocks and Cain worked the soil. I guess that means that Abel was a shepherd, and Cain was a farmer. We are not told anything about the instruction that these two boys received from their father and mother but would assume that they quite often they had heard about their parent’s God because we are told next that, “In the course of time, they both made an offering to God.” The Hebrew word used for their offerings was “minhah”. This word means a gift, associated with tribute brought to a ruler, a king, or a master. This is not the word used for sacrificial offerings that is so prevalent throughout the Bible, used for redemptive purposes. These gifts given to God, were in recognition of his lordship over them. Cain brought some first fruits of the soil, and Abel brought some first fruits of his flock. We are told that God approved of Abel’s gift, but that he did not approve of Cain’s gift. Cain was angry, and he became quite downcast. God said to Cain, “Why are you angry and downcast? If you do what is right, you will be accepted, but if do not what is right, sin is crouching at your door, you must master it.” Cain asks his brother Abel to go for a walk out in the field. While they are there, Cain attacks Abel, and kills him. A tragic ending to the story, Cain taking the life of his brother. I don’t like that part of the story, but that isn’t the part of the story that bothers me.

I need to regress for a minute, back to the days while I was in high school. Cecil Patterson was one of the history teachers at my school. As I look back, he was one of my favorite teachers. He had played and coached baseball and football, but by the time I was in his classes, he had already turned 60, and was no longer involved in the sports programs at school. He was fun to be around, unless you did something wrong in his class, then believe me, he was not the person you wanted to be around. He was passionate about the subject he taught, and really passionate about two things; the Battle of Gettysburg and journalism. In Civics Class, as we began to study journalism, he made us aware of what good journalism contained. Good journalism should answer six questions; who, what, when, where, how, and why. After weeks of reading articles from newspapers and magazines, the class made quite a discovery. The discovery was that most of the journalism we had read, answered the questions of who, when, where, and how pretty well, that the question of what was answered really well, and that the question of why was not answered with any degree of regularity. Mr. Patterson was probably a much better man than me as he did not judge the writers for failing to identify the why most of the time, but it really bothered me. I had already decided that of the six questions, the “why” was the most important one, and on top of that, when I applied this to the educational process, it appeared that the main focus in history was on “what” had happened. As I grew older and entered adulthood, I couldn’t help but think that what I did was not nearly an important as why I did it.

Which brings me back to the Bible. I think that for whatever reason, most people want to have the “what  question” answered as they read the Bible.” What happened here or what happened there, what did God do or what did Jesus say, what will happen if I do this or what I am I not to do.” I would think that a much better approach might be, “Why did this happen, why did God do this or why did Jesus say this, and most importantly, why do I do this or why do I not do this. In the story of Cain and Abel, I am bothered because we are not told why God approved of Abel’s gift, nor are we told why God did not approve of Cain’s gift. It is a key element that all of us should want to know, because do we not want to please God by what we do? It appears to me that Cain and Abel did exactly the same thing, they both offered a gift of their first fruits to God. Could it be that God likes shepherds more than He likes farmers? Or younger brothers better than the oldest child? Or maybe he favors animals more than plants? Neither you or I would believe that any of those are the reasons God found favor with Abel’s gift, and disfavor with Cain’s gift. But the question still remains, two people did the same thing, what they did was the same, why was one good, and the other not good?

I promise that I’ll come back to Cain and Abel, but I think now is the right time to return to today’s reading, “The parable of the talents.” During my journey, I have had numerous discussions with many people regarding this scripture and have discovered that many people are bothered by this story, especially the ones that identify themselves with the third servant’s actions. I will also share that I am not bothered by this story, but since others are we need to address it. I would not take the position that the Bible is supposed to be good journalism. I do not think that it was given to us or assembled for us with the purpose of answering the six questions of; who, what, when, where, how, and why. There is a much greater purpose; a history of relationships between God and people, words written to provide people with hope, a recording of words to inform us about faith, and examples to help us maneuver through life. Praise God that you and I have the New Testament! Praise God that you and I live after the ministry of Jesus Christ. The reason I say that is that Jesus was the master at providing the “why” answers when it comes to our questions. From the boy in the temple, to his temptation, to his declarations about people, to his healings and miracles, and most importantly to his parables, Jesus addressed the “whys”, in addition to the “whats.”

The scripture reading today was, Matthew 25:14-30, “The Parable of the Talents.” I wanted to discuss this scripture for two reasons; a) numerous Christians are bothered by this parable, b) it provides incite into why Cain’s offering was not acceptable. Traditionalists say that this parable is about Christian service and the need to take risks. That might be fine if we are only interested in what the parable says, but I am not sure that addresses why the parable was delivered.

 Why is this passage troublesome for Christians? The first issue is the use of the word “talent.” English speaking people are very familiar with that word. It is a word that refers to a person’s ability or aptitude. So, when they read this passage, they intuitively think about what people are capable of or what they should be doing. Couple that with the fact that many Christians identify with the third servant, who did not fare well in this story, and it becomes a recipe for self-doubt and insecurity. There would be far less anxiety if the parable was named properly as “The Parable of the Kikkars.” Kikkar is the Hebrew word for a round coin, worth about the same amount as an Egyptian talent.

The second thing that might provide a better understanding, is reading “The Parable of the Pounds/Minas” found in Luke 19:12-27. Some believe that it is same parable. While there is some similarity in sound and subject, it is in fact two distinctly different parables, although they do share the same why. Jesus delivered “The Pounds” first, in Jericho, to a very large crowd. “The Talents” was shared after that, when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time prior to his arrest, and it was shared only to his disciples. The value of the money in the “talent parable” is 50 times greater than in the “pounds parable.” Equal amounts are given in the first parable, unequal amounts are given in the second parable. In Luke’s parable, they are instructed to invest the money, in today’s reading they are not given any instruction.

 To completely understand the parable, we must also look to what has proceeded it in the text. Jesus has entered Jerusalem for the last time, his arrest will take place soon. In chapter 23, Jesus begins to talk about the end times or his second coming. In verse 35, he mentions “righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah”. In chapter 24, the disciples come to Jesus privately and asks him, “When will the End of This Age take place?” He continues providing signs that will take place and informs them that that the day and the hour is not known, not the angels in heaven, nor the Son, only the Father. Chapter 25 begins with the words, “At this time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins.” That parable tells us five were wise, five were foolish. People need to make sure they are ready, because no one knows when the end of this age will happen. The “Parable of the Talents”, begins with the words, “again it will be like”, so Jesus continues to explain the time between when he leaves this earth and when he returns again.

The parable begins, (read verse 14). A man is going away and he entrusts his property to his slaves. Other translations would say his belongings or his goods. That would include not only his money, but all of his possessions; his land, his livestock, his buildings and his house, all of the other slaves, and his family members. This is what he entrusted to his slaves. In this parable, the man is Jesus, therefore we would be the servants. He is telling his disciples that He is going away. What possessions does he entrust to his disciples? We know that Jesus had the clothes on his back, but not much of anything else. Jesus had at least two other possessions that he would entrust to his servants; a) the knowledge of his perfect relationship with God, and b) people that are following him. We also know that the possessions of Jesus would not just include his followers that were Jewish but would also include the Gentiles or all the people in the world. And even though Jesus did not hold title to any land, the entire planet earth had been given to Him. So, while this man, or Jesus, was away, he entrusted the entire world and all of the people to these servants.  Jesus would want his servants to help people become more faithful to God, and to take care of all the people that they encounter. (Read verse 15), He gives to some of them some money, according to their ability. Some of the servants are capable of handling more responsibilities than others. He is talking to his disciples, they would be well aware of the varying degrees of responsibilities within their own group. We are told that to one servant he gave 5 talents, to another he gave 2 talents, and to a third he gave 1 talent. For some, this could be the part the bothers them, wishing that they would be the one that received the most, but I really don’t want to deal with that today. It then tells us “what” each of the servants did. According to different translations, the first 2 went and traded with them, or put his money to work, or went and did business with them, or immediately began to buy and sell with them. If this is about people’s talents or abilities, I am not sure how you buy, sell or trade them. Nevertheless, each of these two ended up with 100% more. Does that mean that the one with 5 talents or abilities now has 10 abilities? The third servant did not follow suit. Instead he went, dug a hole, and buried his talent in the ground. The Living Bible does something very unique, it adds “for safekeeping.” We either increase what was entrusted to us, or we kept it the same. So, we now know what each of the servants did. (Read verse 19). The man returns, and he wants to settle accounts with these 3 servants. The first 2 servants accounting is exactly the same; a) they address him as master, b) acknowledge that he entrusted or gave them something, and c) shared the results. Jesus response is the same to both of them; a) well done good and faithful servant, b) I will reward you, c) we will share in my joy together. And now for the third servant. (Read verses 24-25). Notice the response; a) he calls him master, just like the first two, but the similarity ends there, b) he then tells him that he is a harsh man, profiting from the labor of others, c) so I was afraid, d) told him what he had done, e) returned to him the original amount. The response of Jesus was not pleasing, because Jesus was not pleased. He does not respond to what the servant did, but instead focuses on the regard the servant has for him. Jesus realizes the servant has no respect for him. Then he tells the servant, “you should put my money in the bank, so at least it would have earned interest until my return.” There is no reward for this servant, and he is thrown out into the darkness. This isn’t important to my topic but feel compelled to mention it. Many people might be concerned about this darkness because they think it means eternal damnation. Here it does not, the accounting has taken place at night, the servant will see the morning sun, is still a servant of Jesus, he has just lost something special, sharing in the joy of his master.

A very important parable for Christians, especially when we know the why for us. The importance of this parable is not what each of the servants did, but why they did it. Jesus did not praise the first 2 servants because they were good at trading/buying/selling/doing business. What they were good at was trying to please their master, without any self-interest. They did not keep any of that which they earned, but instead gave it all to Jesus. They could have done 100s of other things, and because of their love for their master, the results would have been the same. The third servant was not criticized because he hid the money, nor would the master have been pleased if he had deposited with the bankers, nor would it have pleased the master if he had done exactly what the first 2 servants did. The third servant was not concerned about pleasing his master, only in his own self-interest.

Which brings me back to Cain and Abel. The reason that Abel’s gift was acceptable, is why he did it. His love for God was the motivation in trying to please him. The reason that Cain’s gift was not acceptable, lies in the fact that for some reason he resented God’s lordship over him, and so his motivation was self-interest, maybe knowing what Abel was going to do, or doing so because he felt obligated. Not because he wanted to please God.

Which brings me back to us. The Christian road we walk is not is not an easy path to travel. All of us are well aware that servitude is a requested stop along the way. Cain and Abel show us that “what we do” is not what God is looking for. The “Parable of the Talents” shows us that it is “why we do it” that matters to Jesus. May our motivation for our Christian service be dictated by “why are we doing it”, not by “what we are doing.”