The Parable of the Talents, the call to faithfulness, and the importance of making good choices
22nd Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:29-30 NKJV)
IN LIFE, There are choices to be made between good and evil, blessing and judgment, and life and death. The Parable of the Talents, properly understood in its original context, presented the apostles with a choice between faithfulness and faithlessness. As the parable made clear to them, they would be rewarded for the former but punished for the latter. The choice between faithfulness and faithless was theirs.
The choice that Christ presented to the apostles followed the pattern of choice that God established in the beginning when He promised Adam and Eve life on condition of obedience and death on condition of disobedience. Ever since then, God has given men—and especially His people—a choice between faithful obedience and faithless disobedience.
Before Israel entered the Promised Land, God gave His people a choice between blessing and cursing. The choice was made clear when Israel passed between Mount Ebal, the mount of cursing, and Mount Gerizim, the mount of blessing. As representatives of half of the tribes stood on Mount Ebal and representatives of the other half stood on Mt. Gerizim, and as Israel passed between the two mounts, Levites on Mount Ebal declared cursings and Levites on Mount Gerizim pronounced blessings. The curses warned the Israelites of the terrible consequences God would visit on them if they disobeyed the Covenant. The blessings promised the benefits that would accrue to them if they obeyed the Covenant. In this way God set before Israel the choice between life and death (Deut. 30:15-20).
In our Gospel reading for today, we find the same covenantal pattern in force. In the parable, the faithful stewards were rewarded and the unfaithful steward was punished. The apostles doubtless got the point: the Lord was calling them to choose faithfulness over faithlessness on behalf of the apostolic treasure (the gospel) he had committed to them. (As we will see in more detail a little later, this parable is not about money.)
Brethren, the call to faithfulness brings with it promises of reward if we’re faithful and warnings of punishment if we are not. We are therefore wise to appropriate the Parable of the Talents for our own lives. With this thought in mind, and with our own lives in view, let us now turn to this most instructive metaphorical lesson.
I. THE CONTEXT OF THE PARABLE
Let us begin by taking note of the parable’s context. It is important that we do so because the Parable of the Talents is an integral part of the long talk the Lord gave to his disciples on the Mount of Olives shortly after he left the temple for the last time and a few days before his betrayal, crucifixion, and death. The long talk has long been called the Olivet Discourse, and it runs from Matthew 24:3 through the 25th chapter of Matthew.
The Olivet Discourse & Eschatology
The Olivet Discourse has long been studied for its eschatological teaching. Indeed, its first portion, Matthew 24:3-29, is an eschatological passage. That is because it deals with the end of the Mosaic dispensation.
The trigger for the Olivet Discourse
The trigger for the Olivet Discourse was Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed (Matthew 24:1-2). The disciples understood that the demolishment of the temple necessarily implied the end of the Mosaic administration and, with it, the end of Jewish civilization as they knew it. So they doubtless processed the Lord’s words during the walk from the temple to the Mount of Olives. When they arrived on the Mount of Olives, they approached Jesus with a question tied directly to his dire prediction.
The disciples’ question
The question was this: “Tell us,” the disciples asked, “when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age” (v. 3). This question is basically one question with three connected parts. The basic question was when, but it is rounded out with subordinate questions tied to the Lord’s coming in judgment and the termination (or consummation) of the Mosaic Age.
• Timing. Foundationally, the disciples wanted to know when the destruction of the temple would take place. Would it be soon, or during their lifetimes, or at some point in the distant future?
• Indicators. The question assumed several things. First, it assumed belief in the Lord as the incarnation of Jehovah. Second, it assumed that the destruction of the temple would take place under Jesus’ messianic (which is to say, sovereign) authority. Third, it assumed that the destruction would be carried out by foreign armies, as God had long ago predicted would happen when Israel persisted in apostasy (cf. Deut. 28:29-57). So subordinated to the question of “When?” was a question regarding the sign that would point to the Lord’s coming in judgment on the temple.
But what would the sign be that Jesus, Jehovah Incarnate, was about to judge Jerusalem? Surely there would be warnings, as there had been in the past when prophets announced pending judgment. The disciples wanted to know.
• The End of the Age. Also subordinated to the question of when was the termination of the “age,” which referred to the end of the Mosaic administration.
The question therefore, in all its parts, was a weighty one.
The Lord’s answer
The Lord answered the question. We find it in verses 4-31, which are filled with symbolic Hebrew phrases that often stump modern readers but were easily understood by the Lord’s Hebrew (and Old Testament-trained) disciples. First, the temple would be destroyed and the Mosaic age would terminate in the disciples’ lifetime. Second, though Jesus would not give the precise time—i.e., a calendar year, month or day—general signs would indicate when the destruction was drawing near.
THE CALL TO FAITHFULNESS
Having answered the disciples’ question(s), Jesus next moved to the issue of apostolic faithfulness. It is this issue that dominates the rest of the Olivet Discourse. And to be fair to Jesus’ words, as I stated previously, the issue of faithfulness had specific application to the apostles’ faithfulness to their apostolic mission. The Olivet Discourse, as I also pointed out earlier, was addressed specifically to the apostles. Times would be hard. Jesus would be physically absent from them. But he expected them to be faithful to the apostolic deposit (the gospel) and mission (the discipling of nations) he entrusted to them. If they were faithful, they would be rewarded; if they were unfaithful, they would be judged.
The door-opening text
The shift to the teaching on faithfulness begins with verse 45, where Jesus asked rhetorically, “Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season?”
The apostles, I think, readily understood that the servants the Lord mentioned here referred to the apostles themselves. (The word “servant” is the Greek doulos, which means a slave, one who is totally given to the service of his master.) The master, of course, referred to the Lord Jesus. The household referred to the Church, the people of God, over whom Jesus would place the apostles as servant-rulers.
The Lord’s rhetorical question thus made clear that the apostles were to be his servants. They were to fulfill their duties with faithfulness and wisdom. They were to care for the church by feeding the Lord’s flock in a timely and helpful manner. And then this: the Lord would one day call them into account (v. 45).
Echoing Mount Gerizim (the mount of blessing), Jesus pronounced blessings on the servant (apostle) who fulfilled his duty. Such would be promoted and given even more responsibility. Echoing Mount Ebal (the mount of cursing), the Lord pronounced judgment on the apostle who failed in his duty (vv. 48-51). His words are harsh: The faithless apostle would be cut in two and appointed his portion with the hypocrites; and there would be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The principle of faithfulness thus stated in unforgettable fashion, the Lord moved next to two parables to drive the principle home.
The first parable was the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). This parable compared five wise virgins with five unwise virgins. The five wise virgins were rewarded for their foresight, preparedness, and readiness to respond to the Bridegroom when he appeared. Their reward was a welcome into the marriage feast. The five unwise virgins, however, were refused admission to the marriage feast. Clearly, the Lord expected the apostles to put themselves into this parable as the virgins in the story, and to comprehend the consequences of both Spirit-filled readiness and Spirit-less sloth.
In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) three servants were each given a significant amount of money to steward. The two who stewarded the money wisely were rewarded. The one who was unfaithful was rejected and cast into outer darkness where anguish became his lot.
Each of these parables essentially did the same thing, which was to call the apostles to faithfulness. That being said, let’s now look more closely into the Parable of the Talents.
The Parable of the Talents
The Parable of the Talents addresses the faithful stewardship of material means, and therefore has lessons for all of us with regards to financial stewardship. But its primary aim was to call the apostles to the faithful administration of their apostolic deposit. It was the gospel that the Lord expected a return on. Nonetheless, we will better understand the parable’s aims if we understand just how much money was entrusted to the servants in the story.
The meaning of the word “talent”
As a monetary measure, a talent was the equivalent of 6,000 silver coins known as denarii. Since a denarius was more or less what a day laborer earned in a day, a talent was no small sum of money. It would pay for sixteen plus years of a workman’s day labors!
The sums entrusted to the servants
The first servant was entrusted with five talents, which was the equivalent of 30,000 denarii. With that amount of money he could employ two workmen for forty years or ten workmen for more than eight years.
The second servant was entrusted with two talents, which was the equivalent of 12,000 denarii. With that amount of money, one workman could be employed for almost thirty-three years, or two workmen for more than sixteen years, or ten workmen for more than three years.
The third servant was entrusted with one talent, a sum significantly smaller than the other two servants were entrusted with, but a significant sum nonetheless. With one talent one workman could be employed for more than sixteen years, two for more than eight, and ten for more than one and a half years.
The three servants were entrusted with different sums of money to steward, but they were each and all held accountable for how they managed what they were given.
Likewise, the apostles were each entrusted with more or less apostolic responsibility, depending on the will of the Master; but each would be held accountable for his specific deposit of grace.
The day of reckoning
In the parable, after entrusting his servants with a great sum of money, the master went into a far country. When he returned, he demanded an accounting of the servants. He blessed and rewarded the faithful servants who multiplied his money, but he condemned and punished the servant who did not.
At this point in the parable, the apostles would have clearly understood that a day of reckoning would come in which the Lord Jesus would hold each of them accountable for the grace and mission he had given him.
Comparing the two sets of servants
The wise servants simply did their job. They multiplied the master’s wealth and, when called upon to give an account, gave him double what they had been given to manage. For this they were commended with these words “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” (vv. 21, 23).
The faithless steward, however, made excuses, excuses that revealed he well understood his master’s expectations. He also lay claim to fear of the master as an excuse for burying and not multiplying his master’s assets. For this his master labeled him wicked and lazy, rebuked him for not acting on the knowledge of the master he had, and upbraided him for not doing the bare minimum he should have done, i.e., putting the money in the bank to earn interest (vv. 26-27). Then the master took the servant’s one talent away from him and gave it to the slave who had turned five talents into ten (v. 28).
Then the master explained, “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away” (v. 29). The Lord concluded the parable with words that doubtless struck holy fear in the apostles’ hearts, “And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 30). (These are the Lord’s words, not mine; and they strike holy fear in me.) Clearly, faithfulness would be rewarded with commendation and promotion. Faithlessness would be punished with rebuke and abject rejection.
The apostles’ choices
By means of this parable, the Lord gave the apostles a choice. Which would it be, blessing or cursing? The faithfulness or faithlessness of each apostle would determine his lot when the day of reckoning came.
Moreover, the Lord would measure the apostles’ faithfulness in terms of multiplication. That is, those who multiplied his grace through faithfulness to the apostolic mission would be rewarded. Money doesn’t multiply unless it’s invested. Neither does the gospel. The faithful apostles would invest the gospel in men. The faithless would hide it away in a vault. The investors would be blessed, the hoarders would be judged.
The Apostle Paul
In his first Corinthian letter, the Apostle Paul essentially communicated the foundational truth of the Parable of the Talents when he wrote the following concerning apostolic responsibility, “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (I Corinthians 4:1-2). The word “steward” translates the Greek oikonomos, the household manager (whether slave or free) whose master makes responsible for the administration of his assets.
Though the Parable of the Talents first applied to the apostles and their stewardship of the gospel, its lessons apply to us as well. And while all ministers of the gospel must grasp its lesson, so must all Christians.
We are all servants of Christ, purchased for God with our Lord’s own blood. We are all given abilities and resources that we, as stewards, must care for and multiply. Furthermore, the Lord Jesus himself holds us accountable for the manner in which we administer the treasures he gives to us. A day of reckoning is coming. If we are faithful, we will be blessed and rewarded and promoted. If we are faithless, we will be rebuked and demoted and made to suffer as a result.
This parable makes clear that Jesus is no Santa Claus. He is instead the Master who demands faithfulness of all who serve him. May we, therefore, motivated by love for our Master, and by respect for the treasure he has given to each of us to steward on behalf of his household, the Church, serve him in hopes of winning his approval and earning the right to serve him even more. Should we ever find our love for our Lord waning, let us be moved by holy fear at the remembrance of how he punished the faithless servant.
Jesus is Lord. He has given us resources to steward. We are his servants and have work to do on his behalf.
Will be faithful? Amen.