Americans are likely to do two things when it comes to the Parable of the Talents in the Gospel according to Matthew. First, when we read the word talents we think of God-given abilities and so we might think of the parable as being about using our talents. Second, upon closer reading we might realize that the word talent in the parable actually has to do with money and so we might think of the parable as being about making money. In the parable a “talent” isn’t a God-given ability. In fact, the talents were distributed to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Thus the definition of the English word “talent” does not fit the description of the parable. A “talent” in New Testament Greek is not the same as a “talent” in English. Instead, as the ESV footnote explains, a talent was a monetary unit worth about twenty years’ wages for a laborer. Actually, talents were not what you think of as money. A talent was a certain weight of something like silver. In any case, the first servant was given the value of about one hundred year’s wages, the second about forty year’s wages, and the third about twenty year’s wages. If Jesus told the parable today and wanted to make the same impact he might say, five millon dollars, two million dollars, and one million dollars. So when you hear “talents” in the parable you might substitute in your mind the phrase “million dollars.” However, I do not want you to assume that the parable is about making a profit. The focus of the parable is not on how much money was earned but whether the servant faithfully engaged in trade with the things entrusted to him. After all, the first two servants are given the same evaluation when the time came to settle accounts. They are not praised for being successful but for being faithful. So the focus is not on what was earned but on whether the servant faithfully used what was given to him. Thus while you are to think of talents as a unit of money, this is not a parable about making money. This is Jesus’ story:
- For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance.
- This saying goes further than where the parable ended. The parable ended with the master taking away the one million dollars that had been entrusted to the wicked and slothful servant and giving it to that good and faithful servant who already has ten to administer. The next thing we read is Jesus saying, “For to everyone who has will more be given.” So the parable ended before showing the good and faithful servant who had four million dollars being given more. Yet while this saying goes further than where the parable ended, it is where the parable is headed. Jesus draws this part of the conclusion of His parable from the promise that the master made to both good and faithful servants: “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.” The saying, “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance,” is largely a restatement of “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.” But notice that the good and faithful servants are to be given not more privileges but more responsibility. In other words, it isn’t that they are given more money for their own enjoyment but rather they are now responsible for even more of the master’s money. So the person who has faithfully used what was entrusted to him or her will have even greater responsibilities.
- This parable isn’t about talents or money; instead, this parable shows that if you are faithful over a little in this life then you will be be set over much in the next. You have not been given greater resources or responsibilities in this life than you can handle – they have been entrusted to you according to your abilities. So this life is not about seeing how much money you were able to make with the little time that you have because when Jesus returns He will say, “Show me the money.” Instead, when you settle accounts at the final judgment the issue will be whether you faithfully used what the Lord gave you or you hid it in the ground. The servant who faithfully uses what they were given will produce fruit. And your reward for faithfulness is not described as an all expenses paid vacation to an island getaway or a generous pension or a nice house on the beach, but greater responsibilities. (For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance, …)
- But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away and he will be cast into the outer darkness.
Instead of being good and faithful, the third servant was wicked and slothful and therefore the million dollars that he did not use was taken away and at the end of the passage we are told that he is to be cast into hell. Naturally the opposite of good is wicked, but the third servant shows us that the opposite of being faithful is being slothful or lazy. He was lazy because he hid the million dollars in the ground. Now he tries to talk himself out of the hole that he dug by saying, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” If you are familiar with Game of Thrones, you know that someone from House Greyjoy would consider this a great compliment. Their motto is “we do not sow.” They pride themselves in taking from others who do. Likewise in the Middle East, a man in a Bedouin tribe would consider this a compliment because he wants to be known as a hard man who is to be feared because he is good at plundering his neighbors. This third servant in the parable thinks he is complimenting his master but because he doesn’t know his master he has instead just insulted his master. The master in the parable is someone who reaps what he sows and not someone who plunders his neighbors. He is not like a Bedouin tribal leader. Thus instead of faithful the master finds the third servant slothful or lazy. Besides, the master says that if he were like the lawless Gentiles then the servant should have put the money with the bankers. The Jewish people did not charge one another interest, so if the third servant was going to be consistent then he should not have put the money in a hole in the ground but instead with the bankers. The master’s point is that he knows the servant’s words are meant to be words of flattery but they weren’t even supported by the servant’s actions. The servant is wicked and slothful so the master commands that the million dollars be taken from him and given to the servant with ten. We are told, “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” The slothful servant is called “the one who has not” because he has produced no fruit – he did not use his million dollars to produce anything. Thus even what he had was taken away and he was cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth – language pointing to hell – for the wicked servant thinks that God is a hard man and so he will experience God as a hard man.
This parable shows how good and faithful servants know God and produce the fruits of repentance, but wicked and slothful servants do not know God or produce the fruits of repentance and therefore those who are faithful over a little in this life will be set over much in the next life but those who are slothful over a little in this life will have that little taken away and be cast into the outer darkness in the next. Sometimes professing Christians who believe that Jesus is returning shortly will be lazy. It is a mistake to think that if Jesus is coming soon then we ought not bother to work for justice, a clean environment, reconciliation, or any other responsibility entrusted to us. Indeed, it is a mistake to think that if Jesus is coming soon then we ought not to bother to work so that we can eat. Sometimes professing Christians who believe that Jesus will return many years from now will be lazy. But it is also a mistake to think that if He is delayed we ought to be slothful rather than producing the fruits of repentance. The parable is a warning to those who would be wicked and slothful but think that they know God and that He will be pleased when you return the million dollars he gave you without losing a penny. At a time we do not know and an hour we do not expect Jesus is coming. May you continue to fill up your account ledger until He comes to us or you go to be with Him. To God be the glory. Amen.