One of the most difficult parables to swallow appears in Matthew 25. In this story, which is also known as “The Parable of the Talents,” a master punishes his servant for burying his gold instead of investing it so that it might increase. In the final verse of the story, the master even goes so far as to command that the servant be cast into the darkness where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (a description of hell). This is an unsettling story to say the least. After all, the man’s transgression seems harmless enough. In fact, all he does is nothing. Perhaps the key can be found in verse 25 of the story. Here, we find that it is the man’s fear that kept him from action. He states that he was afraid and that is why he hid the gold. But, going to hell for being afraid? That seems a bit harsh. But, the truth is, this is not the only place we can read about fear having this outcome. In Revelation 21:8 cowards are listed alongside murderers and idolaters as those who will suffer a second death. This is downright shocking.
However, the more I dwell on these passages, the clearer it all becomes. In The Courage To Be, Paul Tillich describes three major fears (or anxieties) that every person must face; fate, guilt, and emptiness. The first is about coming to terms with our mortality and the second is about answering for our misdeeds, but the last one is about our failure to step into our purpose. When I think about which is the worst of the three, I’d have to say that it’s the last one. The first we have no control over and the second sometimes produces harsh consequences, but the last truly is hell because it is shame. When we hide from our calling, the outcome is devastating. We’ve all heard that at the end, one’s biggest regret is often not what he did, but what he failed to do. This sort of regret is indeed a dark place.
In the ancient world, it makes sense that one would be terrified. The first recipients of these stories faced torture and crucifixion if they stood up and walked in their calling. If they professed their faith or challenged Rome, it could mean certain death, but the authors make it clear that this is better than burying their talents or running away. In short, we only have one life and we are asked to take a risk with it. Don’t let fear consume you for “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7). It is my prayer for all of us that we can escape the darkness of shame and regret and that each of us has the confidence to act and the courage to be.