At Work & Theology 101

The Definition of Success & The Most Important Parable About Work

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Editor’s note: Hugh Whelchel was recently featured in an interview with Praxis Circle. Below are a few highlights of that conversation, which you can watch in full here.

One of the things I’ve really struggled with as a business person and a churchgoer and a leader in my church is that I would go sit through a sermon and the pastor would say, “Well, you need to learn how to be content with what you’ve got.” He’d do the whole sermon on that.

And then when I’d walk out, I’d say, “Okay pastor, does that mean Monday when I go out to work, that I don’t try to win that new job or bring in new people or be able to hire more people to expand my business?” He’d go, “No, that’s okay.” But I’d go, “Well, I just spent thirty minutes hearing about how I need to be content.” “No, that’s just in spiritual things, that’s something else.”

The Definition of Success

So I had this really distorted view of what success looks like for a business person, particularly a Christian business person. And I really struggled with that. Then I got some insight from a guy named John Wooden, who was a basketball coach at UCLA in the sixties and seventies. And during that period of eleven years, he won nine national championships in college basketball, a feat that will never be repeated. He was truly the best in the world, beyond good.

He was asked one time, what was his definition of success. I’ve read all of his books so I was very interested when he was asked that question. And he basically said this (I’m paraphrasing): It’s taking the gifts you’ve got and going out and doing the absolute best you can with them.

He went on to say that there were times when his teams lost—admittedly not very many, but there were a few times—that he was perfectly okay with it because they played as good as they could but they just played a better team that night. But there were a lot of times when they blew things out and he was furious with them because they did not play up to their potential. Even though they won, he could tell that they were so-so. 

A lot of people don’t realize that John Wooden is a very committed Christian, so I started thinking, “I wonder where he got that definition.” And as I began to poke around and look at things, I think I’ve come up with the answer. I never was able to ask him—he’s with the Lord now—but I would like to ask him if I could. 

There’s a parable we’re very familiar with. It’s called the parable of the talents. Interestingly enough, it’s given in a chapter with two other parables: one about the wise and foolish virgins, and the other one is really about faithfulness. If you look at those three together, they’re situated in such a way that there’s a section of about three chapters in Matthew called the Olivet Discourse. 

(Watch this part of the interview here.)

The Parable of the Talents

It’s the last week of Jesus’s earthly ministry, probably on a Wednesday night when he was preaching in the temple. He had a big blow-up with them and gets run out of the temple. And then he has this encounter with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. They talk a lot about the end of the world and what’s going to happen. And Jesus basically gives them three parables. And really the three parables track the three things that Jesus is trying to make them understand. 

While they wait on the return of the king, because the king is going to leave and they have to wait for him to return, they need to be doing three things.

  1. The first thing is that they need to be ready for the king. 
  2. The second thing is that they need to be watching for the king, they need to understand the times.
  3. And the last one is the parable of the talents. It says they need to be working while they’re waiting for the return of the king. 

So I think you can look at the other two but the most important one is the last one because it’s about these three men that are working for a master. The master goes off on a journey and each one of the men are given a certain amount of money. One is given one talent, one is given two talents, and one is given five talents. 

The Worth of A Talent

Now the fascinating thing about this is how I got to wondering one day, “What’s a talent worth?” Because I always felt like the guy who got one crummy talent really got kind of cheated. I mean, what can you do with one crummy, little talent, right? One talent in today’s dollars is worth somewhere between one million and two million dollars. 

So the guy who got one talent took a million dollars (at least) and buried it in his backyard. No wonder the master was furious with him! He should have been! 

It’s just a fascinating story because what we hear when we picture this parable is usually that guy. The only thing you need to know about the guy who buried his talent is that you don’t want to be that guy, you want to be one of the other two guys. 

According to Your Own Ability

I think the really interesting part of that parable, the one that really points to this idea of success, is found in a short passage that, as we’re reading, we almost gloss over. It says he gave one two and one five, each according to his own ability. Now, you couldn’t do that today. Today you’d have to give each one—I’m not a math guy—three-and-a-half or whatever it boils down to when you divide them all up. You’d have to give everybody the same amount or people would say it’s not fair. But that’s not what the master did because he understood the abilities of the different servants. So he gave them different amounts based on each ability. 

Now here’s another fascinating thing. The first guy comes back and gives the master back the whole five talents plus five more. What does the master say? What’s his reward? “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the master” (Matt. 25:23). 

The second guy comes back, takes his two talents, makes two more talents to give to the master. What’s his reward? It’s the same as the first guy. Wait a minute, what’s wrong with this picture? Shouldn’t it be greater? Or less? 

In today’s society, what would we do? The guy who had five and made five more—we’re talking that he took five or ten million dollars, went out into the marketplace and made ten million more. Even in their day, that’s pretty impressive! He was like a Bill Gates or Jobs from Apple. This guy was a superstar. So who do we hold up on a pedestal? That guy! He’d be doing the late night talk shows on TV, he’s the guy that’s going to be the superstar. But in God’s economy, that’s not the way it is. Both got to the same reward. 

God’s Economy

You have to ask yourself, “Why is that?” Because obviously, we’re not doing things the way God does things. And the reason is this—it’s pretty simple but it’s very profound, it’s the heart of this parable. 

The one who got two talents, how hard did he have to work to make two more? He had to work as hard as he could. The guy that took five talents, how hard did he have to work to get five more? As hard as he could.

God measures not results, but he measures what we do with what he’s given us. Once we realize that, we have to say, “Okay, what has God given me? Am I maximizing the return that he has put on me? Am I giving back to the master everything I can?” If the answer is yes, then you’re prepared to hear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” If the answer is no, then you rethink this thing because you don’t want to be that other guy. 

(Watch this part of the interview here.)

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