The Parable of the Talents
Jesus uses the Parable of the Talents to help us understand our calling as Christians and our responsibility to use what God has given us to bring Him glory and honor! We have the most valuable gift of all, the Word of God and the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. This gift is for us to share with others through our words and actions. It is a great responsibility with great reward as described in the Parable of the Talents.
Jesus tells the story of a rich man who has three slaves. He gives each slave an amount of money, referred to as talents and possibly talents of gold, based upon that man's ability to steward and care for the money. The first steward is given 5 talents, the second is given two talents and the third is given one. The master told them to care for his money and the first two servants used the talents to trade and gain profit. They returned to their master with double the talents! The third servant was fearful and hid the one talent he was trusted with, returning just one talent to his master. The master scolded him saying that he should have invested the money and received interest.
Bible Commentary on the Parable of the Talents
Christ keeps no servants to be idle: they have received their all from him, and have nothing they can call their own but sin. Our receiving from Christ is in order to our working for him. The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. The day of account comes at last. We must all be reckoned with as to what good we have got to our own souls, and have done to others, by the advantages we have enjoyed. It is not meant that the improving of natural powers can entitle a man to Divine grace. It is the real Christian's liberty and privilege to be employed as his Redeemer's servant, in promoting his glory, and the good of his people: the love of Christ constrains him to live no longer to himself, but to Him, that died for him and rose again.
Those who think it impossible to please God, and in vain to serve him, will do nothing to purpose in religion. They complain that He requires of them more than they are capable of, and punishes them for what they cannot help. Whatever they may pretend, the fact is, they dislike the character and work of the Lord. The slothful servant is sentenced to be deprived of his talent. This may be applied to the blessings of this life; but rather to the means of grace. Those who know not the day of their visitation shall have the things that belong to their peace hid from their eyes. His doom is, to be cast into outer darkness. It is a usual way of expressing the miseries of the damned in hell. Here, as in what was said to the faithful servants, our Saviour goes out of the parable into the thing intended by it, and this serves as a key to the whole. Let us not envy sinners, or covet any of their perishing possessions. ~ Excerpt from Matthew Henry Commentary
Why Does the Parable of the Talents Seem Harsh to Us?
The parable of the talents is one of those Bible stories most of us know, yet it’s hard to understand. It’s been referenced in many places—even odd places like H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man where a foolish theologian suggests a stranger’s problem is he only has one talent. Most of us find it hard to un-crack, especially given the third servant gets punished for... doing nothing. To understand this parable, we need to look at the parable in the context of Jesus’ surrounding teachings and the Bible’s other teachings about giftings.
What Happens in the Parable of the Talents?
The parable of the talents is told in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27. The parable begins with a master planning a trip (Luke describes him as going off to be made king of a distant land). Before he goes, the master brings his servants together (three in the Matthew version, 10 in the Luke version). He gives each of them some money. In the Matthew version, he gives one servant 10 talents (or bags of gold), another five talents, and the third one talent. In the Luke version, he gives out 10 minas to 10 servants (Luke 19:16-20 makes it clear that each servant gets one mina). He then tells the servants to “put this money to work” (Luke 19:13), invest it to make more money for him, and he would see their results when he’s back.
Both minas and talents were units of currency in the ancient Roman world. A footnote in the NIV translation says that a mina was about three months’ wages. A popular job website lists the average monthly wage for Americans in 2021 as $5,555 per month. So, in modern terms, the ten servants each got $16,665. A talent was worth even more: NIV footnotes for the Matthew passage state that one talent was 20 years’ wages. John Driver points out in his book Parable Church that at 2018’s average household incomes, one talent would be about $1.2 million.
Whether you read the Matthew version or the Luke version, each servant is getting a substantial chunk of cash to invest as they will. This is like one of those reality TV shows where people compete for money to invest in a project, only with a different agenda. In this show, one boss brings several employees into a room, gives them each cash, and tells them to invest to grow his corporation. The one who gets the biggest return on investment gets the big promotion.
The master goes on his journey, which Luke notes has some opposition (Luke 19:14-15). However, as planned, he becomes king of the distant land and returns home to see how his servants have done. The first servant has made the biggest return (10 minas from one mina, or 10 talents from five talents). The second servant has made (five minas from one mina, or four talents from two talents). The master is pleased with both servants and gives them new responsibilities: “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21). When the third servant appears, he’s done nothing with the money. He admits he buried it in the ground because he was afraid to use it (Matthew 25:24-25, Luke 19:20-21).
The master rebukes the third servant for not even putting the money in the bank, where he could have gotten interest on it. Then he gives the one talent to the first servant, for “to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Luke 19:26). Luke has an interesting addition at the end, noting that after that, the master then executed the men who tried to keep him from becoming king (Luke 19:27).
What Is the Meaning of the Parable of the Talents?
The story of Jesus telling this parable really begins in Matthew 24 when he mentions the coming destruction of Jerusalem. The disciples ask for details about the last days, and Jesus talks about how harsh they will be, warning them to look out for false teachers and so forth. He then gives several messages and illustrations:
- The wise and faithful servant (Matthew 24:45-51)
- The parable of the 10 virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)
Crucially, Jesus says that both the parable of the 10 virgins and the parable of the talents are about what the kingdom of heaven will be like in the last days (Matthew 25:1,14). Therefore, the master represents Christ, while the three servants represent those who serve him. The master’s return presumably refers to the last days when Jesus will return, and at the final judgment unrepentant sinners will perish and those served God will be rewarded according to their actions (Revelation 20:11-15) (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
The apocalyptic context is underscored in Luke’s version, where people try to keep the master from becoming king and are killed for their rebellion. The Gospels make it clear many times that Jesus was the king of the Jews, but came in a way they did not expect, preaching a message many didn’t want to hear. Jesus came into a world that was the devil’s domain (1 John 5:19) and claimed it for himself, despite opposition from demons and sinful people who disliked him calling out their flaws. Revelation makes it clear that in the last days, Jesus will subvert his opponents, punish them and be named king over the world.
It’s also interesting that when the third servant returns his money, he accuses the master of being a hard man who reaps where he did not sow (Matthew 25:24). Since Jesus was the son of God and therefore had a right to the kingship he claimed, we can’t accuse him of stealing what he didn’t deserve. However, Jesus claimed kingship in a way that confused many people, and the way his kingdom operates often offends our sense of propriety. He swallowed up death (1 Corinthians 15: 54) in a victory that involved him getting killed. Nicholas P. Constas observes that early Greek church fathers described this event as Jesus tricking the devil, using his humanity as a lure to catch his adversary. Jesus was also the stone rejected by builders, yet he became the capstone (Matthew 21:42). He let taxpayers and prostitutes into the kingdom of heaven first (Matthew 21:31). After centuries of Israelites seeing themselves as God’s only favored people, he opened things up for Gentiles to become co-heirs (Ephesians 3:6).
In short, Jesus is a master who uses methods we don’t always understand, which might even seem unfair. In the end though, it doesn’t matter whether we think Jesus is a hard or odd master, because we are neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. God is both, and his plans will not necessarily make sense to our limited perspectives.
Is the Parable of Talents about Money?
We often mix up the word “talent” in the currency sense with our modern English word “talent” meaning gifts, and it’s important to understand the money context of what Jesus was saying. Knowing that Jesus was describing servants being given huge amounts of cash to invest helps us to understand just how generous the master was being, the opportunity each servant was given.
However, the “talents” (or minas in Luke’s version) represent more than just the monetary resources God gives us. Remember, this is a parable, and all of Jesus’ parables are about a bit more than they seem. This parable is paired with the parable of the 10 virgins, who made the mistake of not having enough oil when the bridegroom arrives. It’s also preceded by a story about a servant not using his position well while the master is away. All three stories are about being given something which must be used well, and the consequences of neglecting or abusing it. In short, the talents represent what God has given us—our monetary resources, our callings to positions within the church (Ephesians 4:11-16), our natural giftings. Each of these things (and many others) are given by God, to use in ways that glorify him and draws others toward him.
What Does God Say about Using Your Talents?
There’s a famous scene in the movie Chariots of Fire where future Olympian Eric Liddell feels a tension between his chance to be an Olympic runner and his calling to be a missionary in China. Eventually, he tells his sister he will go to the Olympics and then to the mission field, because both honor God. “God made me for a purpose, for China,” Liddell says, “But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give that up would be to hold him in contempt.”
This quote highlights that in the end, all talents are given by God to glorify him. The Bible makes it clear there is no “sacred versus secular” work in the way we often think. Yes, there are official positions for certain church tasks (preaching, evangelizing, teaching, etc.) and Christians should not be molded by worldly standards (Romans 12:2). However, all creation was made “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and we must do all things to God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). So, whatever we are doing (provided it’s not a sinful activity), we serve God well by doing it well. As Dorothy Sayers put it in her essay “Why Work?” if we follow God properly, “all the work will be Christian work, whether it is Church embroidery or sewage-farming.”
The Bible makes it clear that we don’t really own our gifts. We are fearfully and wonderfully made by God (Psalm 139:13-14), according to plans he laid out before we were born (Jeremiah 1:5), to glorify him forever. The fact the master owns the money he gave the servants, and he gets the results of their investments, highlights who is in control. We naturally want to believe we can use our gifts as we please. If we grew up in cultures where the individual is primary, we also tend to think we can live as we please. However, since we all want to be little gods of our own lives, serving ourselves misses our true place in life. We find our true joy and place in life when we serve God with our gifts.
The Parable of the Talents should encourage us and challenge us to take what God has given us and invest in the kingdom of God. There is a great reward waiting for those who steward well with what the Lord has given them. Read the full Bible passage of this story below and find related articles, videos, and audio sermons to help your understanding of this biblical lesson.
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