Have you ever been told that the Parable of the Talents meant you should use your own individual talents for God? Well, that is certainly true, but the meaning of this parable goes far beyond that narrow application. Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, November 13, 2011, from Matthew 25:14-30, The Parable of the Talents.
Our Responsibility For Managing God’s Gifts
Matthew 25:14-30 NIV’84
“Again, it [the kingdom of God] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talentsof money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18 But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’
21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
22 “The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’
23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
24 “Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28 “‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29 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. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
The Story of a US Treasury Bond and a CD
When I turned 16 I received several presents from my family, and some from Debbie. I probably got my usual complement of sweaters. I always got at least one sweater, and usually from Debbie. That tradition has continued down through the years, and we now have a collection of about three dozen photos from birthdays, or Christmases, in which the subject and pose is the same – me holding up my new sweater.
But on this particular birthday I received a gift from my Aunt Betty Jackson, my father’s youngest sister. Aunt Betty sent me a United States Savings Bond with a maturity value of $25. The savings bond was enclosed with a note that said that my father, who is about 10 years older than she is, had given her a $25 savings bond on her 16th birthday. She was returning the favor and continuing the tradition.
I think her note went on to celebrate the importance of saving, and how in only 8 years or so I could cash the bond in for its full face value of $25.
I of course took all that to heart, including the very touching story of how her older brother, my father, had sent her a savings bond, probably while he was still serving in the Air Force during World War II.
I also read with interest my aunt’s counsel to start saving now, and to use that bond as the beginning of a life of frugality and thrift.
But, of course, I was 16. Debbie and I probably had a date for that Friday night, and my financial condition was in its usual state of insolvency.
You have to remember that in 1964, when I turned 16, both of us could have dinner at Shoney’s, see the latest feature film at the Tennessee Theater in downtown Nashville, and get a banana split afterward for less than $15.
So, of course, I cashed the savings bond. I remember the teller counting out $18, and I also remember thinking that I would have had to wait 8 years for another $7 bucks!
But there’s more to the story. When our oldest daughter, Laurie, was a teenager, she began working part-time jobs at places like McDonald’s, and then the local dry cleaners. Laurie was very frugal with her money, and we kidded her about being so cheap.
One day she told me that she was going to take some of her hard earned cash and buy a CD. I instantly thought “compact disc” and assumed that like any teenager she was going to buy her favorite band’s latest album.
But when I asked her which album she was going to buy on CD, she quickly corrected me by saying, “Not that kind of CD – a certificate of deposit!”
To this day, we do not know where she got those genes, but needless to say Laurie was always the one in our family who had money. She still is.
A Story About Financial Management in the First Century
Which brings us to our story today. This parable is commonly called the Parable of the Talents, although Luke has a version of it also in which some translations use the word “pounds” to describe the amount of currency the servants received.
But for our discussion today we’ll stick with Matthew’s story. Jesus tells the story of a man going on a journey for a long time. This man is obviously quite wealthy, and before he leaves he calls his servants together.
To each of three servants the master entrusts his property. The implication is that the master gives them most of his estate. While the term “talent” doesn’t mean much to us, those in the first century who heard this story would have known immediately that it was a tremendous sum of money. A talent was the equivalent of 20 years’ wages. So when he gives 5 talents, 2 talents, and 1 talent to each of the three servants, the master is putting them in charge of about 160 years’ worth of wages.
Obviously this is a sum that none of them will be able to make good on should their stewardship fail. Matthew tells us that each receives according to his ability, so the master is sensitive to the fact that some can handle more responsibility than others.
Matthew says that “after a long time” the master returns to settle accounts with his servants. We don’t know how long a “long time” was, but it was time enough for them to have managed the assets entrusted to them, and to receive a return.
You know how the story goes. The master calls the servants and asks for an accounting. The servant who was given 5 talents reminded his master that he had received 5, but then also reported that he had earned 5 more, for a total of 10 talents. That’s a 100% return on investment, which is great by any measure.
The master is thrilled. “Well done. You are a good and faithful servant. Enter the joy of your Lord.” Which is a very first century way of saying, “Way to go, dude!” Or words to that effect.
The second servant, who has received two talents makes the same report. “You gave me two and I have earned two more.” Again, the master gives him a high five, and a well done, and invites him to share his joy at this report. But note also that the master makes no distinction between the first servant who earned 5 talents, and the second one who earned 2. Both achieved a return of 100%, both are praised, and both are invited to celebrate with the master.
But then the third servant has to report. He had received only 1 talent. But instead of reporting on his stewardship, he begins to talk about the master himself.
‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
This is not what the master wanted to hear. The master replied, “Oh, you knew that I harvested where I did not sow.” The implication in the master’s observation is “Of course, I harvest where I do not sow…that’s why I have you!”
Then, he commands that the servant who has buried his 1 talent and produced nothing by way of return, be thrown outside. But, not until after the one talent he still has is confiscated, given to the servant who now has 10. The master also calls the servant wicked and lazy for failing to produce any return on the master’s investment at all.
Doesn’t that strike you as strange? I mean, in this day of uncertain economic conditions, with the Greeks, and now possibly Italy about to default on their international debt, shouldn’t this very conservative servant at least get the benefit of exercising caution? Why does the master treat him so badly? After all, he didn’t steal the one talent, he didn’t lose the one talent, he just failed to double it like the other two servants had done.
The Meaning of the Parable Then
Okay, let’s look more closely at this parable. Usually we talk about this parable as one that encourages us to use the individual gifts God has given to us. I have heard preachers say things like, “If you have the talent to play the piano or sing, you need to be using it for God.”
Of course, that’s true. But that’s not what this parable is about. If it’s not about using our individual talents responsibly, what is it about?
Let me answer that question this way. First, this is another parable about what the kingdom of heaven is like. Jesus’ announcement of the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven is made at the beginning of his earthly ministry.
Secondly, we have to read this parable in light of all the other things Jesus has said, particularly in these closing chapters of Matthew, because Jesus is now in Jerusalem and will be crucified before the end of this week in which he tells this story is over.
I believe the parable of the talents can be understood like this: God is the master, and God has gone away from the nation of Israel. And, because the Roman army occupies the Promised Land now, it must seem like God has been gone a mighty long time from his people.
Third, the idea that God will come back to Jerusalem, back to the Temple, was a prominent theme in the preaching of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus is the incarnation of Israel’s God who has returned to Jerusalem, and to the Temple.
But instead of Jesus’ coming as Messiah being a glorious event, an event that Israel could look forward to, this coming of the Messiah is one of judgment.
Remember what Jesus has already done? He has cleansed the Temple of its corruption and defilement by driving the money changers from its courts.
And, Jesus has roundly criticized the religious leaders of his day as corrupt, evil, hypocritical, full of dead men’s bones like painted tombs, and he has also accused them of misleading the nation who depends on them for interpreting God’s Law to them.
So, God is the master, and the religious leaders of the day are the one-talent servant. The servant with one talent is the one who receives the most criticism and to whom the bulk of the parable is directed. Perhaps these are the Pharisees, or all the religious leaders. Jesus has expressed his outrage with their hypocrisy and self-serving religious performance before.
Perhaps the Essenes represent the servant given 2 talents. This servant has limited ability, and perhaps the limitations are self-imposed. The Essenes were really big on righteousness, but so much so that they had moved outside the city of Jerusalem, and had given up marriage to live pure and righteous lives. Many believe that John the Baptist was an Essene himself. But, obviously, their movement would not last long if it never produced any offspring.
But whether or not I have the other two servants right, there is no doubt about the servant with the 5 talents.
Who then was the servant that had 5 talents, produced 5 more, and then got the 1 talent taken from the unfaithful servant? These are the followers of Jesus. They are the ones who get the whole idea of the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God.
They not only get it, they share it, and by doing so double their wealth, and their reward.
The Parable Today
So, here’s my take on this. The parable is told about Israel, the people of God. God is the master, God’s people are the servants, and some do a much better job than others of providing the master with a return on his gift.
This basically is a parable directed to groups, or communities within first century Israel. Each of these communities has their own belief system, their own theology, their own mission.
But the real mission is to do what the master expects – to produce a return on the master’s investment.
To put is plainly, we as the modern day people of God are God’s servants. And while it is certainly not wrong to say if you have musical talent, or any other kind for that matter, you are to use it for God’s glory, there is a bigger message and caution here for us as 21st century followers of Jesus.
Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God growing like a mustard seed – from the tiniest of seeds to the largest of trees in that area.
He also spoke of the kingdom of God permeating society like yeast permeated bread dough. It goes all through it until it leavens the whole lump of dough.
And, he also spoke of the kingdom of heaven like light which by its very shining dispels darkness.
All of those images point to the fact that the expectation of the rule and reign of God is that Jesus’ followers will do what he did – announce, demonstrate, and live out the kingdom as a contrast society in this world.
God had given the religious leaders of his day a position of responsibility, the Law of God, and the Temple. With those “talents” the Pharisees and Sadducees should have been able to produce the equivalent of doubling those who understood that God was the creator and ruler of all creation, that the God of Israel was the God of the Nations.
Its interesting to note that medieval mapmakers, working long before cartography became an exact science, often depicted Jerusalem as the center of the globe, with all the continents revolving around the City of God.
Their maps were obviously drawn as theological statements rather than geopgraphically-correct documents. But the idea that God was in charge, to use N. T. Wright’s phrase, was evident in their mapmaking, even if their maps were not very useful for actual navigation.
That is what we are to do today as well. Draw the maps of our lives with the kingdom of God as the center of our being. With God in charge, with the kingdom of God as the guiding principle of all of creation.
While God gave the first century religious leaders the Law and the Temple, we have so much more. God has entrusted us with the story of Jesus, with the Bible as the record of that story, with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, and with the insight of 20 centuries of Christian witness. Our responsibility is greater than that of the Pharisees of the first century, or even Jesus’ first century followers.
If they are given the equivalent of 5 talents, and they produce 5 more, we must have been given by God the equivalent of 10 or 20 talents. We know more, understand more, have the benefit of history, the mistakes and achievements of others, and the energizing presence of the Holy Spirit to both guide and empower us. We have more, and yet often do less than the first disciples.
But that can and must change. The kingdom is not our exclusive possession, nor is it our exclusive destination. We have been given a gift to share, a gift to give away, and as we give that gift away it produces a return of 10-fold and more. Our reward will be God’s joy that out of all the centuries, and all his people, that this generation understood what it meant to act so that God’s gifts were not merely preserved for the few, but announced to the many. Only then will we hear, Well done, good and faithful servant!
Sadly, we in the 21st century have fallen into some of the same errors of the religious leaders of the 1st centry. We confuse our limited understanding of God, which we call doctrine, with the God of all Creation, and limit ourselves in effective kingdom work with our own shortsightedness and misplaced self-assurance.
We are warned not to inhibit the growth of the kingdom, but to encourage it by our own actions. In doing so, we earn the reward of hearing God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”