Warren Buffett could be called the most successful investor of all time. For sixty years he has posted amazing, consistent growth. It speaks of his ability to think long term. And they say about Buffett that he doesn’t just think long term about his investments, but also about his life and impact on the world.
There is an anecdote from one of his employees which makes this point. The story goes that Buffett one day approached his pilot, Mike Flint, after realizing that Flint had worked for him for the past ten years. He wants to discuss Flint’s career goals and how he can help him achieve them.
Buffett Joked: “The fact that you’re still working for me tells me I’m not doing my job.”
Buffett asked him to map out his goals using the “5/25 rule.” The first step in this exercise was to list 25 things that Flint wanted to accomplish in the foreseeable future. Nothing was off the table.
Secondly, Flint was to rank these items in order of importance and circle the top five. That is hard! Choosing is always hard. But he finished, thinking Buffett would be pleased. But there was one more questions: “what are you going to do with the remaining twenty items?”
Flint stumbled: “Well the top five are my primary focus but the other twenty come in at a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit as I’m getting through my top five. They are not as urgent but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.”
At this point, Buffett’s expression changes a little. He responds sternly: “No. You’ve got it wrong. Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘Avoid-At-All-Cost’ list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.”
I would say this is some pretty extreme wisdom teaching from Warren Buffett. But his point is well taken. This life is full of distracting “want to do’s.” Everywhere we are called by the sirens of this pleasure. Media, news stories, even prayer requests, all present as the most urgent thing to focus the energy of the moment. And if we allow all these good things (and the bad ones along with them) into our day’s treasure houses, we will get distracted from what is really important. And we live smaller lives, less true to our core values.
These two parables about servants are much the same. Radical. Almost violently radical, like avoiding twenty things you want to do in life. And radical is really the right term, I think. “Radical” comes from the Latin root “radix” meaning root. Radical is getting back to the core, the inherent nature of a thing.
I often use GPS when I drive. I use Google maps. I put in an address and it brings it up, then asks me what I want to do. Get directions, see things nearby, go to the website, call them, how do I want to get there…, things like that. That “explore nearby” button can be tempting, and sometimes I will explore the map, zoom in and out, east or west. The first time I did this, I totally lost my place and had to start over. Then I discovered the “recenter” button. Just tap the button and it will bring me right back to where I am, and put me back on my route. What a life-saver!
In these parables, Jesus is calling us to prioritize, to recenter our lives. His teachings are to be lived, whether we are being watched or not. Get first things first, then leave the rest on your “avoid at all costs” list. Don’t be distracted. If you are going to live a life according to Jesus’ teachings, do it now, and keep doing it, now matter what happens – “if I am with you or not,” Jesus says.
It is helpful, before we read these sometimes frightening parables, to remember the context. These warning parables follow Jesus words: “Do not be afraid, small little flock, for your father was pleased to give you the kingdom” (12:32). In Luke’s Greek, it is already a done deal. God gave the kingdom already.
It reminds me of the passage from Genesis which is linked to this one in the lectionary. Genesis 15. There God makes a covenant with Abram, to give him all that his eyes can see and much that they can’t see, including children of his own. And in the covenant all this is a free gift. God binds godself only, and Abram is not asked to make promises or accept penalties. God places God’s own life on the line, and God’s only. There is joy and drama in this profound ritual act.
So, going all the way back to Abram, the gift is already given. God has promised on God’s own life to honor the gift. So, “Do not be afraid small little flock!”
…But then the parables. Just because the gift is already given, don’t be lazy or fall asleep, or get distracted by other pleasures or powers. Jesus believes these teachings are ultimately, urgently important! They are our nature as children of God. Live into your true nature!
In the first parable, the watchful slaves have everything ready for the master to return. And so when he comes in the door, the master immediately puts on an apron, metaphorically, and begins to serve his slaves dinner! Dinner was ready, prepared by the slaves, and now the master serves it to them. What a surprise, what a turn of events! It is reminiscent of Jesus kneeling at the feet of his disciples and washing their feet.
Always be ready to serve and you will be fine! It is our human nature, our kingdom nature, to serve. I love William Martin’s reflections on the Tao Te Ching. This one is from The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, #13, “The sage is ready to be of service to others, not to get something from them, but for the pure pleasure of it. We have traded services for money all our life. We have forgotten the joy of serving simply because it is our nature…. When the opportunity for service arises we no longer weigh the possible return. We are free to serve according to our nature.”
It is our nature, as children of God, as already heirs of the kingdom, to serve each other. Just as God serves rather than lords it over the beloved ones. What a wonderful surprise to see God in the role of servant in this parable!
And the second parable is like the first. Only this time, the servants have decided to live by the folk adage, “while the cat’s away the mice will play.” They do not do their work or pay attention to the household. Some of them turn cruel to each other. And when the master returns, he throws them out.
From early in Jesus’ ministry, to the time he was taken up into heaven, there were times when Jesus was away from his disciples. He liked his alone time. He even said that he had other sheep to tend who were not of this fold. Whatever he meant by that, it supports the idea that Jesus and the disiciples were not together constantly. Sometimes they went home to their wives, husbands, parents and children. What would they do when they were apart from Jesus?
This seems to be the point of these parables, and perhaps why they show up so early in Jesus’ teaching. Whether Jesus was away praying or taking a nap, whether the disciples were home on kid duty or at their home town synagogue, they were to be ready. This was not a “behave well for the teacher then relax” life. Don’t get me wrong, though. This life is good! It is the best! God has already given this little flock the kingdom! Jesus wants his friends to discover this when they are on their own, as well as when they are with him.
I can’t think of a better example of this than Jim Day’s stories of East Hill Church in Gresham. Jerry Cook was the pastor there when Jim served as youth director, music director and many other miscellaneous roles – like he does here. The congregation grew very large under Jerry Cook’s leadership, but he didn’t really care how many people showed up on Sundays. It was all about Monday and the rest of the week. He wrote a book called, The Monday Morning Church. Basically, it teaches the same thing Jesus is teaching here. When you are away from church, away from your pastor, your small group, is the time to live the way of Jesus, to be busy doing the work of the kingdom. Going to worship services is more of a respite, a savoring the delight of being with a family in God’s presence. It is beautiful. But it is not the point.
Jesus did not want his disciples to get caught up in being with him, being semi-famous, even being on good behavior because they are being watched. He wanted them to learn how to live and go out and do it seven days a week! Be the church on Monday morning. That is when it matters. And if you are being the church on Monday morning, you never know when the master might show up to enjoy your hospitality, or to serve you. The author of Hebrews makes the same point: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). It is what you do when the master is away that counts, that changes the world. And that is what we are here for.
Jesus leaves himself with us for Monday morning church. This table is the moment when we celebrate that, when we receive again the very presence of Jesus – to take with us into our Monday morning church.
The Lord’s Supper