Jesus told a story about a businessman trusting his assets to his staff while engaged elsewhere. How is this “parable of the talents” a story of the kingdom? Is it about Jesus’ return at the end of the era, or does it have a broader application?
First, let’s clear up some misunderstandings:
- What is a talent? The Greek word talanton did not mean special abilities. Jesus wasn’t saying that each of us is one of the Incredibles. A talent was a measure for precious metals, in this case silver (argyrion in 25:18, 27). A talent of silver was worth around 6000 denarii, where a denarius was a day’s pay (20:9). At that rate, an entire lifetime’s work would earn a couple of talents. To keep that focus, I’m translating a talanton as $1,000,000 ($1m): it’s a large amount of money, and the point it to focus on the responsibilities trusted to the different employees (five versus two versus one).
- Economic systems? Capitalists and socialists both want to conscript Jesus for their causes, but that’s anachronistic. In this story, slaves (doulos) were expected to trade for profit and the capable ones increased their share (not very socialist), but elsewhere Jesus makes it clear that the love of money is not the root of all good for society (not very capitalist). Like fire, money can be used for good, but it makes a terrible master (Matthew 6:24).
- Salvation by works? The good workers were rewarded by entering the master’s happiness, while the indolent employee was thrown outside, in the dark, where people weep and gnash teeth. If you assume these rewards must be heaven and hell, the story teaches that people are eternally saved or damned based on the merit of their performance. That isn’t Jesus’ point. He’s teaching his disciples about engaging with the master’s kingdom goals.
- Future only? Many have focused on the rewards/punishment when the master returns, making it primarily about the future. There is a teleological aspect (the master’s future goal), but what the master wants to know is how his staff are doing in the present, whether they’re building towards his goal with the assets he has provided. The emphasis falls on whether we’re using our lives to work for him or wasting the lives he has given us.
We’re designed as servants of the king, using his assets, exercising his dominion for his sake. Read the parable as a call to be about the king’s business:
Matthew 25:14-30 (my translation, compare NIV)
14 It’s like a person who was going away, so he called those in his service and entrusted his assets to them. 15 To one he gave $5,000,000, to another $2,000,000, to another $1,000,000 — each according to their capacity. Then he set off.
16 Straightaway, the one with the $5m took it and went out and used it to make another five. 17 Similarly, the one with the $2m gained another two. 18 The one with the $1m took it and went out and dug a hole in the dirt, and hid his master’s money. 19 A long time later, the master comes to his staff to settle accounts with them.
20 The one who had received $5m came up and produced another five, saying. ‘Master, you entrusted me $5m, and look: I gained another $5m.’ 21 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and reliable servant! You were reliable over a small amount, so I’ll trust you with more. Join in your master’s enjoyment.’
22 The one with the $2m also said, ‘Master, you entrusted me $2m, and look: I gained another $2m.’ 23 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and reliable servant! You were reliable over a small amount, so I’ll trust you with more. Join in your master’s enjoyment.’
24 The one who received the $1m came up said, ‘Master, I knew you — that you are a harsh person who harvests where you didn’t plant, who gathers where you didn’t scatter — 25 and out of fear I went out and hid your $1m in the dirt. And look: you have what’s yours.’
26 His master replied, ‘Useless and apathetic servant! You were aware that I harvest where I didn’t plant, and I gather where I didn’t scatter? 27 At least you could have deposited my money with the bankers, so when I came I could have received what’s mine with interest. 28 Take the $1m from him and give it to the one who has the $10m. 29 For to the one who has, everything will be given, and it will be off the scale. But to the one who does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And expel this unprofitable servant into the distant darkness where there will be regret and remorse.
Our human vocation
Rather than jump straight to Jesus as the businessman who has gone away and is coming again, hear the Jewish roots of the story. Humans are the earthly servants of the heavenly king who provides everything we have and empowers us our productivity (Genesis 1:20-31). That’s the meaning of our lives: we’re servants of the master, using his resources for a while.
When the nations stopped serving the heavenly sovereign, God established his own nation to serve him (Exodus 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3; 12:31 ESV). That was Israel’s identity: The Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt (Leviticus 25:55). Moses was remembered for being the servant of the Lord (Deuteronomy 34:5; Joshua 1:1 etc). Joshua challenged the people to fulfil their purpose: Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15).
Unfortunately, Israel was not a willing servant — blind and deaf to the master (Isaiah 42:19-20) — so God rolled up his sleeves to take on the servant role himself (Isaiah 52:10 – 53:12). Like King David (Psalm 18:title; 36:title), the Messiah is the servant of the Lord in serving his people.
So, it’s no surprise to hear the Christ calling his people to live as servants indentured to God. Everything we have is entrusted to us (including our lives), and we answer for how we use it.
And he’s telling this story just a day or two before his crucifixion. He’s not asking his servants to do anything more than what he is doing for them.
Good servants put their master’s assets to work. You can hear their joy: “Look! I doubled it!” It’s more than the joy of success; they’ve brought joy to their master. Whether they ended up with $10m or $4m, his joy isn’t the money but the partnership. The kingdom of God is the partnership of king and kingdom.
That’s the point of inviting them to participate in their master’s enjoyment. Their reward is the thrill of working with him for his goals. What could be more fulfilling than working with God in the family business, caring for the world under his care?
If you ever wondered about our purpose, the meaning of our lives, you just discovered it. Joy comes not to those who pursue their own happiness, but to those who discover life as they give it to something greater (Matthew 10:39; 16:25).
So the good servants returned the millions they earned, and ended up with nothing? Not so. At the end of the story, we discover that the person who worked with the $5m still had the $10m, and gets a bonus $1m (25:28). Yes, it’s all his master’s money, but he’s entering his master’s joy with this expanding portfolio. He hasn’t lost anything; he’s gained his master’s joy.
The bad employee didn’t see himself a bad person. He didn’t squander his master’s money; he kept it safe, and gave it back (25:25). What he lacked was any sense of partnership with his master.
In fact, he didn’t want to partner with someone he perceived as a tough master (25:24). He saw the boss as opportunistic, taking advantage of others who had broken up the soil and planted the seed. Try to understand how he’s thinking as a Jewish man at that point in history. We put in all the blood, sweat, and tears, and God taxes us 10% of everything we earn, as well as expecting food offerings every morning and every night at the temple. We have to pay taxes to the Romans as well, because the heavenly government isn’t doing much for us.
Maybe, if he was very cynical, he could make his point by planting the silver in the dirt like seed, and then return it as if to say, “See, I knew it wouldn’t grow.”
Apparently, there’s an unhealthy fear of God that leads to paralysis instead of partnership (25:25). At no time was the bad employee a partner with his wealthy master, promoting his master’s interests.
Buried assets are no use to anyone. Even if he had lent the money to the bankers, it could have been of some use. Don’t underestimate the shock of that statement: God’s people were forbidden to lend money to each other for interest (Exodus 22:24; Leviticus 25:36-37; Deuteronomy 23:20). God expects us to use the resources he provides to care for the people in his world, and taking them out of currency is worse than breaking the Law (25:27).
That’s why the guy is stripped of the $1m he was trusted with, and everything else he doesn’t own as well. Verse 29 makes sense as a comment on disputed ownership.
The story ends with the master giving the slave what he wants: his independence. The worthless slave is dismissed from serving the master (25:30). Like Cain (Genesis 4:16), he’s dismissed from the presence of the Lord, to carve his existence in the distant darkness, among others who live with regret (weeping) and remorse (grinding teeth).
The restoration of the whole world into God’s care and governance is what we were designed for. It’s the one thing worth spending your life on, the life God gave you.
I was only 20 years old when I heard Winkie Pratney describing a conversation he had with a businessman on a plane. Winkie knew that saying he was a preacher would kill the conversation, so he described himself in other ways. Sometimes he’d say he was a student, since a disciple is literally a “learner.” This day he said he worked in a family business run by his father, explaining the joy he felt to be working in “galactic management.”
There is no greater joy than working for the one thing that really matters. Joie de vivre is entering into our master’s joy.
Open Matthew 25:14-30.