Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

The Talents

Good and Faithful Servant

Matt 25:14-30: “A man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.

Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’

First, let me say that “talents” has nothing to do with skills, abilities, or the gifts of the Spirit, it’s money,  pure and simple, and quite a lot of money (see The Unmerciful Debtor for more on talents).

Also, despite its’ resemblance to the prior parable on The Servants and the Money, this is not a repeat of that, it is quite a different parable prompted by different circumstances. So, let’s take a closer look as to what this parable is really about, and what message it contained to its’ 1st Century Jewish audience.

As is usually the case, to understand this parable we need to look at what prompted it, and that means looking back to before the parable begins. In this case what we find is that, by Jesus’ own admission, this is a clarification of the parable of the parable of the Ten Virgins (which we have yet to cover) from Matt 25:1-14. I think the division of the Gospels into chapters and paragraphs has done more harm in understanding the message than good, for we frequently lose the connection between what we are reading and what came before. Here is how that parable ends and this one begins:

Afterward the other maidens came along also, saying “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants…”

So, as we see Jesus intends this parable to clarify the parable of the virgins, not to be a repeat of the parable of the servants and the money. Also, consider where this parable falls in his ministry, this is two days before he heads to Jerusalem to be crucified, so he is trying to prepare his disciples for what to do after he leaves them, until his return. So, with that understanding let us begin the revelation.

In the beginning we see the master giving each of his servants differing amounts of money to handle. Obviously he knows these servants well, and he knows that each can be trusted with a different amount of responsibility, that they are not all the same. Also, unlike in the parable of the money, we see that the master is going away for an indeterminate amount of time, the servants are unsure of how long it will be before his return. In many ways this reflects Jesus leaving the disciples to return to heaven, to be followed by his return at a time of which even he is unaware. The disciples are given differing amounts of responsibility, based on Jesus knowledge of them (Peter, for example, is given the keys to the kingdom), with differing expectations.

The first two servants double what the master gave them but, again, the third servant simply buries it in a hole, giving the master back only what was given to him. When the master returns he is pleased with the first two servants and rewards them with even greater responsibility; but he becomes irate at the third servant, taking away what he has and giving it to the first servant, then casting him out of the house (in today’s terminology, firing him). The reason for his anger is twofold, first that the servant did nothing while the master was gone, wasting the precious time given him. But also, the servant insults the master, calling his master cruel and avaricious, then showing his contempt by not doing what he could to increase the talent given to him. It’s no wonder why the master is angry at the servant.

The lesson is simple, you don’t know when the master will return, so go to work now preparing yourself for his return, so that you can return to him more than what he gave you. Don’t waste the precious time you have doing nothing.

Before we close, I want to continue on with this parable, for I don’t believe it ends where we commonly end it (again, a fault of paragraphs and chapters), for the very next sentences give us more insight into this parable (and it’s predecessor on the Virgins):

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food…”

What follows the normal ending of this parable is, yet again, what preceded it, a warning to be prepared. Do now what is necessary to prepare yourself for his judgement, for you do not know when it will come, and you may not have the time later on to do what you intended. This is the time to do what you need to do to prepare yourself for that fearsome and glorious judgement.

A final note on this parable, and on preparing ourselves for our judgement. Years ago, when I was but a youth, the Roman Catholic Church had a Sunday morning show created by the Jesuits where teaching was done through a typical television show, kind of a Catholic version of Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone. In one episode a man died and was taken to a darkened room where he was told he would have to wait for his judging. When the door closed and the lights came on he found that he was in a room filled with mirrors. Everywhere he looked he saw himself, but at a different point in time. As he stared at the images he saw himself stealing from a store owner, lying to his boss, cheating on his wife. It drove him so made that he started breaking the mirrors, then kneeling down in the room crying. When the door opened and the guide came in the man looked at him and said that he was so sorry for what he had done and if he could just go back he would make things right. The lights faded with the two men in the room, and attention focused on two angels who were watching it all transpire. The one angel says to the other, “It never changes, they always want more time to be better, but it’s never enough, is it?”

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