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. (Matthew 25:29)
I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard a sermon based on this tough saying of Jesus.
The line comes up several places. We find it after the parable of the soils (Matthew 13:3-9), when seed falls on different patches of ground, and the only place it can multiply is in the good soil, representing those who respond to God’s word with obedience. In the parable of the talents, (Matthew 25:14-30) servants are given small sums, and depending on how they invest them, they receive great rewards (or punishments) at the end. Both times a tiny seed is sown, a small investment is made that has huge potential. But whether or not it becomes a great thing in the end is dependent on the recipient’s response.
Jesus is saying that no matter how little faith we have, we need to turn it into response, or else it will decay. I don’t think that we should read Jesus’ words as threat of punishment, but as a stiff dose of reality. The simple truth is that if we have enough faith to follow Christ, our faith will grow stronger as we attempt to do his will. If we have so little faith that we don’t respond, the tiny bit we do have will tend to grow weaker.
As critical and important as these words are about faith, the line about “those who have more will be given” can teach us about other things too.
One gift I got for Christmas this year is a bestselling book called Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell writes about hidden patterns behind everyday experiences, and in Outliers he looks at what factors influence who becomes successful in life. He bases a chapter on this verse, that “those who have will be given more,” but he spins it a different way.
Gladwell describes how all-star hockey players in Canada almost always have birthdays in January through March, because being born near January 1 gives boys an edge in the highly competitive training that starts before they are even in kindergarten. At that age, just a few months of maturity makes them stand out among their peers, and they are chosen for more opportunities to practice and play. This effect builds on itself – the more they practice early on, the more they achieve later in life.
I used to notice a related thing, that learning is like this too. When I started to study Hebrew, everything was a struggle. The letters were strange, the words hard to pronounce, and it took great effort to remember just a few new terms. But as my classmates and I got more fluent, the learning went faster, because we saw more and more ways to relate new information to what we knew already. Knowledge is “sticky” — the more you know, the more you can learn.
The converse is true too. I was helping a sixth-grader in my neighborhood with her math, and she was working on simplifying fractions. How do you simplify 21/49? To me it was obvious that you can divide both sides by 7 and get 3/7. But she had never mastered her multiplication tables, so it wasn’t at all obvious to her that 7 x 3 = 21 and 7 x 7 = 49. Her lack of knowledge of the basics was now robbing her of the ability to learn new things.
This is true with the Scriptures too. Bible passages are full of references to other passages. Stories build on each other and refer to each other, and Jesus quotes passage after passage from his Scriptures, expecting people to catch what he said. The more you know, the more nuances you catch as you are reading. Maybe that’s why the rabbis used to say, “Do not say, ‘I will study (the Scriptures) when I have more time.’ You may not have more time!”
Don’t wait until later — start growing now. If it’s difficult, start at the easiest level possible, maybe just a children’s Bible. Every time you hear a passage again you’ll catch more and more. Knowledge of God’s word is “sticky,” and each passage you learn will help you unlock yet another.
Here too, those who have much will be given yet more. And those who don’t have can be led astray by their own lack of understanding.