Laid Up in a Napkin

One of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, Apollo 13, involves a crisis situation with the crew facing dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide. The engineering team is challenged to quickly make the Command Module’s square filter work in the Lunar Module’s round receptacles.  Several technicians gather around a table and dump boxes containing the same tools and equipment that the astronauts have on board.

Technician: We’ve got to find a way to make this… [the square CSM LiOH canister]
Technician: fit into the hole for this [the round LEM canister]
Technician: … using nothing but that.

In other words, we’ve got a job we must do, using only the tools and equipment before us.  To quote another line from the movie, “Failure is not an option.”

I wonder how often people don’t do things…in fact, they don’t even try doing things, because they believe their perceived inventory of skills, knowledge, and ability is insufficient for the task. I do this far too often.  I believe that not enough supplies have been dumped on my table, so I walk away from it, leaving the crew stranded.

In Luke 19 Jesus tells the parable of the ten minas (units of currency).  A rich nobleman went on a trip to be crowned as king…a coronation that many of his people feared because they hated him. He gave three of his servants his money to invest while he was away. Two of them followed his instructions, assumed some risk, and earned a good return on his money. They risked not only losing the money, but possibly being harmed by all the people who opposed the nobleman and his pending coronation. The third servant played it safe, refusing to take any risk in investing the money. Specifically, the money was “laid up in a napkin”…safe and secure, but unproductive. When the nobleman returned, he rewarded the two faithful servants who made money for him, and punished the one who played it safe.


The message here seems to be that God (in the parable, Jesus is the nobleman) expects his servants (that’s you and me) to use…even risk…what we’ve been given (talents, abilities, money, resources) to productively serve others. Preserving and protecting our talent, laying it up in a napkin, constitutes failure…and that’s not an option. According to Vincent’s Word Studies, the Greek word used here for napkin…  (σουδαρίῳ) … comes from the Latin sudarium … which comes from sudor, or perspiration. In other words, the napkin is a cloth used for wiping off sweat. It’s ironic that the servant who refuses to sweat is using a sweat rag to store and protect (but not invest) his master’s money.

Francis Chan illustrates this idea in a classic balance beam video–see link below. He portrays a gymnast who lays on top of a balance beam, clinching it tightly, throughout the duration of the routine. At the conclusion of the routine, the gymnast carefully steps off the beam and raises his hands in victory, expecting applause from the crowd and big scores from the judges. The gymnast was given a balance beam, a mat to land on, and presumably some talent, but played it safe. No risk was taken…the level of difficulty was zero. He compares this to a Christian who plays it safe, never risking anything for God, and then expecting God to reward the effort.  It doesn’t work that way in the Olympics, it didn’t work that way for the servant who took no chances with his boss’s money, and it doesn’t work that way in how we handle our talents and abilities. Whether we’ve been given many talents or perhaps just one, we can’t safely wrap them in a napkin and leave them on the table.

But what about failure? What if we attempt to do something for God and it doesn’t work out? What if the servant loses the money in a bad investment?  What if the gymnast attempts a difficult dismount and doesn’t stick the landing? The parable doesn’t specifically address this, but the implication seems to be that God applauds the effort…the attempt…regardless of the outcome. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 3:6, Paul says, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” Paul emphasizes that his job, Apollos’ job, and by extension our job, is to make a good-faith effort…to try…and then to leave the results up to God. God wants us to take however little or much we’ve been given and do something with it…to take some risks in serving Him.

Fortunately for the astronauts on Apollo 13, the NASA engineers didn’t step away from the table due to a lack of tools and equipment. They aggressively worked the problem and took risks, with no certainty that their gizmo would connect the square canister to the round receptacle.  Fortunately, the procedure worked, the carbon dioxide levels dropped, and the astronauts ultimately survived.  Had the procedure failed and the astronauts died, at least the engineers could have looked their next of kin in the eye and said, “We tried. We gave it our all.”

10 minas

Your talent may be teaching a class, or singing, or encouraging someone in a hospital. Perhaps you have accounting skills to help someone with taxes, or plumbing skills to fix a leak, or counseling skills to help someone get through a tough time. Maybe you can cook a meal for a funeral, or for a family in need. Maybe you’ve got money in the bank to share, or a home that could host a visiting missionary or a youth group event. Whatever your talent is, whatever God has placed on your table…be it one thing or many…put it to use! Don’t lament the fact that you used to have more tools on the table when you were younger and more vibrant. Don’t delay action because you’re young and “someday” you’ll have more tools and talents at your disposal. Use whatever talent or resource God has given you and take some chances with it. Work diligently, do your best, and leave nothing on the table.  When you are finished, use the napkin for its intended purpose, to wipe your brow.   As Francis Chan once said, “Don’t get to the end of your life and have God say, ‘Why’d you play it safe? Why didn’t you take any chances for me?'”

– Big Steve

Francis Chan’s Balance Beam video link…


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