Winner or Whiner?

“Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21)

Are you a winner or a whiner? It may sound rude for me to ask you that question, but don’t worry. You don’t have to tell me the answer. You just need to answer it for yourself. Every so often, you need to take stock of your life and there’s no better time to take stock than when you leave an old year behind and begin a new one. Look back at where you’ve been. Take a hard look at where you are now. Determine where you’re going in the future. Answer the basic question: Are you a winner or a whiner?

Are you making the most of your life, or is time slipping through your fingers? Are you achieving anything worthwhile, or are you squandering opportunities and making excuses? Are you using your God-given talents for good or letting your talent lie useless? Are you winning God’s approval or whining that God isn’t very nice to you? Are you a winner or a whiner? Here at the end of this landmark year 2000, take stock. Be honest with yourself. Evaluate yourself in light of a powerful story told by Jesus himself:

“The kingdom of heaven will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received the one talent came.  ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'” (Matthew 25:14-30)

In this parable, Jesus reveals an eternity of difference between winners who work and whiners who shirk. Working winners end up sharing their master’s happiness forever, while shirking whiners end up in hellish darkness forever. That’s because working shows a good relationship to the master and shirking shows a bad relationship. Think hard about Jesus’ story and ask yourself: Do I have a good relationship to the Lord or a bad one? Am I working or shirking? Is my life heading toward eternal happiness with God or eternal weeping in hell? Am I a winner or a whiner?

The Master’s Assignment

In Jesus’ story, the master is about to go on a journey, and he won’t be back for a long time. Before he leaves, the master assigns each of his servants a share of his property to manage while he is gone. Why does he do that? You might think, “That’s obvious. He’s going somewhere and he needs someone to take care of his property till he returns.” But there are more important things. The master is more concerned about what will happen to his servants than what will happen to his property.

One reason for entrusting property to his servants is that he wants them to remain faithful to him while he is away. When someone is gone for a long time, it is all too easy for a relationship to wither away. We sometimes say, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” But all too often the opposite is true: Absence makes the heart go wander. You probably know what I mean. You have a close friend, but then one of you has to move away.  As you say goodbye, you both promise to stay in touch. But it’s not long before you stop writing and phoning each other, and your relationship seems like ancient history. Not many relationships remain strong when a lot of time and distance is involved.

The master in Jesus’ story understands that it’s easy to forget someone when they’re gone, so he gives each of his servants a share of his property to work with until he returns.  The servants aren’t likely to forget their master if they are doing his work every day and expecting him to come back.

Now, this master represents Jesus himself. The Lord told this story just a few days before he was crucified, knowing that he would die and rise again and return to heaven. He was leaving this earth, and it would be a long time before he returned.  We’ve reached the end of the year 2000, and still Jesus has not returned. Jesus knows that the longer he is gone, the more we will be tempted to forget about him and live as though he does not exist. So Jesus gives each of us something we can serve him with, as a continual reminder that he is our rightful Master and we are his servants. No matter how long he waits before he comes back, Jesus remains the Master.

The talents in this parable represent the share of God’s world that he gives to each of us–abilities, money, education, family, time, opportunities, everything we have. It’s all on loan from God. Not everyone receives the same amount. Each one gets the share God decides is fitting. The Lord commands us to advance his cause and make the most of what he has given us. As long as we are doing his work, we can’t forget him and we can’t forget our identity as his servants.

Jesus has another important reason for giving us each a small part of his world: to bring out how we really relate to him and what sort of servants we are. Do we love him or resent him? Are we productive or useless? Someday productive, faithful servants will be promoted beyond their wildest dreams and reign with Christ in heaven. Their responsibilities as co-rulers of the universe will be vast; their wealth of joy will surpass anything money can buy. But who should hold such positions and enjoy such eternal riches? Only those who are first faithful in smaller things. Your handling of what you have for a few years on earth shows whether or not you belong forever in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus puts it this way:

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? (Luke 16:10-11)

Before Jesus gives you huge responsibilities and privileges in the kingdom of heaven, he first tests how trustworthy you are in handling smaller matters here on earth.

Working Winners

Now that we have a better understanding of the master, let’s look at the servants, beginning with the good workers. “The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more.” Notice that he went at once. He didn’t sit around and say, “Maybe I’ll get around to it later.”

When I was a boy, my mom would sometimes tell me to take out the garbage or cut the grass. If I was sitting on the couch reading, I might say, “Yeah, I’ll get around to it when I finish this chapter.” My mom would reply, “David, delayed obedience is disobedience.” I’ll never forget her words or her tone of voice. True obedience begins at once.

When I urge you to put your faith in Jesus and live for him, you might be tempted to say, “Maybe later, but I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.” But if you’re not ready to serve the Lord, you’re not ready to meet him either. What will happen if he comes back before you’re ready? It’s a lot better to live for Jesus right now than to wish you had later. Christ calls us to respond “at once.” Don’t respond by saying, “Maybe later.” Later may be too late. If you don’t have a healthy relationship with Jesus and haven’t been using your talents for him, the time to change is at once, before this day ends (before the year 2000 ends).

In Jesus’ story, the first servant goes “at once,” puts the master’s money to work, and makes a handsome profit. His five talents produce five more. It’s a beautiful thing when people of the highest talent level achieve great things for Jesus.

But not everyone gets the maximum number of talents. The second servant receives a smaller amount, two talents. Does he complain that he’s been entrusted with less? Does he whine that he’s been give three fewer talents than the first servant? No, he simply takes the two he does have and gains two more for his master. Like the first servant, he’s a winner. He makes the most of what he’s been given.

Some of us are two-talent people. We don’t have as much money, clout, or skill as the five-talent superstars. We can’t make million-dollar donations or reform entire nations or produce works of genius that endure for centuries. We simply don’t have the gifts to accomplish such things. Does that make us failures? No, a two-talent person can be a loving husband whose wife grows closer to God, a faithful parent whose children grow up to serve the Lord, a caring friend who makes a real difference to a few people. A two-talent pastor may doesn’t make international headlines, but he makes disciples in his own congregation and community. A two-talent giver can’t give as much as a billionaire but can still advance a good cause.

If you’re a two-talent person, the Lord doesn’t hold you accountable for what he hasn’t given you; he holds you accountable for what he has given you. So don’t feel bad if you can’t match the achievements of those with more talents. Just be faithful with the talents you have. Be glad for five-talent folks who do five-talent wonders, but also be glad if you’re a two-talent person who produces a solid two-talent result for Christ.

In Jesus’ story, when the master returns, the five-talent servant and the two-talent servant are both winners when their master finally returns. You can imagine how happy they are to see him. They have been working hard, and they’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time. But they don’t give any speeches. The first servant doesn’t say, “Master, I’ve been working so hard. Master, I think you’re a wonderful person.  Master, even though you took a long time, I always knew you’d be back.”  All this is true, but he doesn’t need to say it. He simply says, “Master, you entrusted me with five talents. Look, I have gained five more.” That says it all. His actions express what’s in his heart.

Notice how the master responds. He doesn’t say, “All right! More money for me!” No, he says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The master is obviously more interested in the servant than in the money. The master sees that this servant’s heart is in the right place. The way he used the money for his master’s cause is proof that he is good, and the fact that he kept working despite his master’s long absence is proof that he is faithful.

The master praises the servant and promotes him. He says, “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” Then he does something that gives further proof of his generous character. He says, “Come and share your master’s happiness!” He treats this man more like a partner and friend than a servant, and invites him to enjoy all the benefits of the master’s friendship and success.

The master gives the same warm response to the man who has doubled his two talents. The man has produced a smaller amount, but he was given a smaller amount to start with. He’s done his best with what he’s been given, and the master is delighted.  Jesus shows clearly that if you love him and work for him, you can expect a warm reception in heaven, whether you have many talents or just a few. It’s not how many talents you’ve been given, but how well you use them. If you’ve been using your time, your money, and your abilities to work for Jesus and make the world a better place, Jesus has good news for you.

Shirking Whiner

On the other hand, Jesus also has news for those who don’t want to do the master’s work, and it’s not good news. In Jesus’ story, one servant simply buries the talent he has been given and then digs it up when the master returns. This man ends up being thrown into darkness, weeping–meaning he ends up in hell.

Doesn’t that sound like awfully harsh punishment merely for burying the talent? The man doesn’t sound so bad, does he? He doesn’t beat up on the other servants. He doesn’t waste the master’s money on booze and wild parties. He keeps the master’s money nice and safe in the ground. What’s wrong with that?

The man’s problem is this: he refuses to commit himself. If he had a good relationship to his master, he would go to work right away like the other servants. But he resents his master and would rather do his own thing while the master is gone. Yet he doesn’t quite dare to take his chances that the master won’t return. He doesn’t dare to squander the master’s money on wild parties. Too selfish to work and too timid to rebel, he tries to play it both ways. He does his own thing while the master is gone, but he keeps the talent in a safe place just in case the master returns and demands it back.

Maybe you have just enough religion to be a little afraid of God, but not enough to love him or work hard for him. You’re not using your life to advance the cause of Christ, and you’re not really eager for the Lord to return, but you still hedge your bets, just in case he does return. You get married in a church ceremony, and you go along with the form of religion you grew up with, as a kind of insurance. You’re not about to devote your life to serving God and helping other people, but you don’t quite dare to throw it all away, either. So you bury your obligation to God in a safe place. You may even dig it up on an occasional Sunday morning to make sure that it’s still there.

Well, the day of reckoning comes. We noticed earlier that when the hard-working winners reported to the master, they needed very few words; their actions spoke for them. But the shirking whiner is another story. He gives a speech. He explains why he didn’t put his master’s money to work. The master is harsh and takes what doesn’t belong to him, etc. etc. etc. But in the midst of all these excuses, the whiner condemns himself. The more he talks, the more he shows his laziness and his bad attitude toward the master.

Have you ever noticed that the less people accomplish, the longer their explanations become? Whiners always have plenty of excuses, even in relationship to God: “Lord, you’re such a harsh master. You allow so many unfair things to happen. You demand so much and give so little. In light of what a harsh master you’ve been, Lord, you should be grateful that in spite of it all, I’ve kept going to church and I’ve never plunged into a really filthy lifestyle. Here’s what you gave me; you can’t expect much more.” A whiner often tries to blame the Master.

Notice that the master doesn’t try to refute the whiner’s negative opinion of him. There’s a problem in the relationship, all right, but the problem is with the servant, not the master.  It’s clear from the way that the master treated the faithful servants that he was in fact very generous, but he doesn’t bother explaining that. Why should he explain? He doesn’t have to answer to the servant. The servant must answer to him. His message to the whiner is, “We’re not here to discuss what kind of Master I am, but what kind of servant you are. I’m not the one being judged here. You are, and you’re wicked and lazy.”

On Judgment Day, we won’t be judging the Lord. He will be judging us. And the Lord will condemn whiners. People who want to avoid serving Christ and want him to stay out of their lives will finally get their wish in a most horrible way. All their responsibilities and talents–everything they have–will be taken away, and they will be banished from his presence forever and cast into hell.

A Healthy Relationship

Let’s return to the question we started with: Are you a winner or a whiner? If you’re a whiner, you need to change before it’s too late. Does this mean you just need to try harder and do a bit more to earn the Master’s approval? No, you need more than a New Year’s resolution. You need a new relationship to Christ. Before you can change your actions, your attitude must change. You need to believe in Jesus, love him, and expect that he will come again. You can’t create this new relationship on your own. The Lord must do it within you.

So begin by admitting that your relationship to Jesus is not what it should be, and that the fault is yours, not his. Admit to Jesus that you have not loved him or longed for his return.  Admit that you have resented or ignored his claims on your life. Admit that you have been shirking instead of working, whining instead of winning. Grieve over your sin and turn away from it.

Ask the Lord to have mercy on you, to forgive you and give you a new attitude and a new relationship. Jesus died so that sinners could put the past behind them and start over, and he sends his Holy Spirit to transform people from whiners to winners. The Lord can change not only what you do, but who you are. If the Lord gives you a new heart, creates in you a warm love for him, and a strong faith that he is coming again, you will go from shirking to working, from whining to winning. Then what you do to serve him will spring naturally from your relationship with him.

If you are already a believer who is working faithfully for Jesus, then Jesus’ parable give you strong encouragement to keep it up. Perhaps you sometimes “become weary in doing good” (Galatians 6:9), and you wonder why it is taking so long for the Lord to return. Take heart–Jesus is coming again, and he will give a generous reward to all who love him and work for him. He has a tremendous celebration planned for his friends and faithful workers. You will someday hear his loving words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things.  I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.” Whether you’ve had many talents to work with or only a few, your ultimate reward is to share in the infinite, eternal happiness of Jesus the Master.

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, help us to be honest with ourselves. Move those who are lazy and resentful toward you to seek a new relationship, to plead for your mercy and forgiveness, and to love and serve you. Help those who are already faithful but feel tired and discouraged after years of serving you and longing for your return. Encourage them that the work is not in vain. Thank you for the privilege of working for you, Lord. Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.