The Parable of the Talents


Matthew 25:14-30

Remember, we are in the midst of the Lord’s long discourse concerning the future and, in particular, his Second Coming.  Again and again and in different ways he has urged his disciples to make ready because they do not and cannot know when he will return.  They must live so as not to be caught off guard and, in all the material so far, that means to live in faithfulness to the Lord, serving him and obeying his commandments. This was the Lord’s own application of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins which immediately precedes the parable we are about to read as it was his application of the material preceding that.  We will find that it is also the theme of this parable which, once again, portrays the coming of the master and the various fates of those who were or were not prepared for it. But this parable makes still more explicit than did the previous one in what that readiness consists.

Text Comment

v.14     The little word, “for,” which the NIV translates as “again” connects this parable with what has gone before.

v.15     A talent varied in value from place to place in the ancient world depending on the metal used for money. In Palestine the metal was probably silver. A talent was a measure of weight, not a specific unit of currency.  In fact, it was the largest weight in normal use. But, in general, a talent was equivalent to 6,000 denarii (the denarius, in those days, being regarded as the daily wage of a laborer).  [Hagner, Morris] So a talent is a large sum of money.  If we were to calculate today’s daily wage at nothing more than minimum wage, a talent would be the equivalent of $350,000.  These are large sums of money.

It is interesting, by the way, that the English word talent, meaning aptitude or ability, comes from the use of the word in this parable.  [France, 352] We should not read back into the parable our English word, however, as that is not what the parable is talking about.  Here a talent, as a sum of money in the story, refers to the specific privileges and opportunities given to the Lord’s disciples to serve the kingdom of God.

The fact that the master gave different sums to different men according to their ability reminds us that the Lord deals with his people as individuals, with different personalities, different capacities, and different opportunities.

v.16     We are not told what the servant did with the money, only that he put it to work, as plainly his master had intended he do.

v.18     The third servant mistook his master’s intention and substituted security for service.  [France, 353]  One commentator calls this man a mouse!  [Meier in Morris, 628]

v.19     Once again we have the suggestion that the Lord Jesus may be a long time in returning to the earth. The “settle accounts” is important because it indicates that the master had given the money to his servants precisely for the purpose of making a profit.  The other servants fully understood this and so the third servant was without excuse for his failing to use the money entrusted to him as it was intended.

v.21     The NIV’s “well done” is not a literal rending of the Greek word.  The most sophisticated of the grammars of NT Greek suggests reading it, “Bravo!”  [BDF, 102.3] The “reward” of this steward’s faithfulness was still greater responsibility.  At no point in the life of the kingdom of God do we sit back in retirement and do nothing but enjoy the spoils of our labor!

“Come and share your master’s happiness” is, obviously, not commercial language.  The application of the parable is “creeping back” into the story. [France, 354]

v.22     The second servant also doubled his investment, though he had started with less and so his return is correspondingly less.

v.23     It is noteworthy that the second steward’s reward is described in identical language to that of the first.  Their achievement was proportionately the same.

v.25     The unflattering description of the master given by the third servant is, of course, not intended to be a faithful description of the Lord himself.  Indeed, the master’s response to the previous two servants indicates how generous a man he really was.  But this servant is irresponsible and irresponsible people often mischaracterize others, judging them according to their own misguided standards.  But, as the next verse will indicate, even on this view of his master his action was irresponsible.

v.27     This servant played it safe, was content with doing nothing, and, as a result, accomplished nothing.  “Not for him the labor of buying and selling, working and making a profit.” [Morris, 628]  He was more worried about not suffering loss than about making a positive gain.  But, the application of the parable will be that “’Being ready’ consists not only in keeping your slate clean, but in active, responsible, faithful service which produces results.”  [France, 354]  He could have put his money in the bank at interest. That would be the easiest way to earn something. It wouldn’t have doubled as the investment of the other men. But it would have grown somewhat.

v.29     This verse is a repetition of Matthew 13:12.  The Lord is not talking economics here, as if the wealthy are to profit at the expense of the poor, but rather enunciating a principle of life in the real world, that life that the Lord will bring into judgment on the last day.  Right living is not negative or static.  The faithful use of one’s opportunities for Christ’s sake brings recognition, further opportunity, and spiritual abundance.  The failure to be faithful will mean the loss of opportunity and finally the loss of one’s place in the kingdom of God.

v.30     Once again the story has been invaded by its application and we are reminded, as we already were in v.v. 21 and 23, that the parable is about the judgment that takes place at the Second Coming and the ultimate issue of human life.

Now we must take care to interpret this parable in its context.  The Lord, you may remember, told a somewhat similar parable that is recorded for us in Luke 19.  It is usually known as the parable of the ten minas.  But reading the parables together one immediately notices how different they are.  In Luke each servant is given the same amount of money but here in Matthew different amounts were apportioned to different servants.  In Matthew the sums are very large; in Luke quite small.  In Luke each servant is rewarded differently according to the measure of the return he produced on the original investment; here in Matthew each profitable servant receives the same reward.  The parable in Luke is a key text for the doctrine that at the last judgment the disciples of the Lord will be given different measures of reward according to the faithfulness with which they had served him in this life.  That is not a theme of the parable we have just read from Matthew 25.

This parable’s theme is broadly the same as that of the material before and after it in this long discourse on the Second Coming and the end of the age.  Here we learn, once again, that spiritual readiness consists not in passive watching but in responsible activity that produces results the master can see and approve. Being ready for the Lord’s return is a matter of serving him faithfully in this world while we wait for his coming again.  Spiritual watchfulness takes the form of an obedient and fruitful life in the service of Christ’s kingdom.  The long years that have passed since Christ ascended to heaven with a promise of his return should not be understood in terms of a “delay.” This time is not pointless, it is not wasted. It is not time for us to twiddle our thumbs while looking to the sky for the sign of the Son of Man. This time of waiting for the master’s return is rather an opportunity to be put to good use by those of us who are his servants.

As in the previous parable, which concludes with the foolish virgins being shut out of the banquet, this parable concludes with the foolish servant being thrown outside and consigned to the judgment.  And, once again, the distinction between the wise and the foolish servants, the righteous and the wicked, is drawn in terms of the faithful work of the wise and the indolence and disobedience of the foolish.  The various sections of the Lord’s Olivette Discourse rain down on us like hammer blows.  Again and again the same point is driven home:  those who will be ready at the coming of the Lord – either his coming for them at death or his coming for them at the end of the age – are those and only those who are hard at work doing his will while they live in this world.

We want to say, of course, that we do not get to heaven because of our own work, our own faithfulness, our own righteous and fruitful service of the kingdom of God.  True enough, but that is not the lesson of this teaching that the Lord was at such pains to impress upon his disciples as he was about to leave the world.  That is another message.  Here the message is that true followers of Christ do his will and give themselves to his work.  They are not lazy, careless, or indifferent about the work to which Christ has called them.  They are committed to it and do not spare themselves in the doing of it.  It is an exceedingly important message; that is why the Lord Jesus was so emphatic in teaching it.  Fact is, Christian churches have long been full of people who are sitting on their hands, spiritually speaking, and doing nothing for the kingdom of God.  They do nothing bur are confident nonetheless that all will be well with them at the last judgment.

Now it is very important for us to remember to whom the Lord addressed all of this teaching about being ready because we do not know the day or the hour of the Lord’s return; all of this teaching about the absolute necessity of a faithful, working Christian life.  As we read at the outset of this instruction, in 24:1, Jesus was in the company of his disciples when he delivered this teaching.  It is a point reiterated in 24:3. It was his disciples who asked the original question and it was to his disciples that he gave this lengthy reply.  He was not speaking, as he had been previously, to the religious leadership; nor was he speaking to the crowds; it does not appear that either of those groups who had that week heard much of the Lord’s previous teaching was even present to hear this teaching about his Second Coming and the end of the age.  He was speaking to his disciples, his followers.

It was to his disciples that he said

 Fill up each hour with what will last;

Buy up the moments as they go;

The life above, when this is past,

Is the ripe fruit of life below.

[Horatius Bonar]

It was to his disciples that he gave this stern warning about this wicked and lazy servant.  This is so often the way in Holy Scripture.  Stern warnings about hell are read out to Christians, to those who wear Christ’s name, to those who are numbered among his followers.  I don’t doubt that, through the ages, there have been unbelievers, non-Christians, people not associated with the Christian church who have come to faith in Christ reading this parable of the talents or hearing a sermon preached on it.  I suspect that there are relatively few texts in the Bible that have not been the instrument of someone’s coming to faith in Christ at one time or another.

A.W. Pink tells the story of a man who was converted, became a Christian listening to him preach in Oakland, California in teens of the 20th century.  He was a man who, by his own testimony, had never read so much as a chapter of the Bible and had never heard the gospel explained or preached until that night when he heard A.W. Pink preach.  When Pink first heard the man tell his story he didn’t believe it because the man said that he had been converted on such and such a night, listening to such and such a sermon, and Pink realized that the sermon he was talking about was not a gospel sermon.  Indeed, he asked the man,

“What on earth was there in that sermon that could save you?  Why, that particular night was a thanksgiving service and I preached for a whole hour on praising God and there wasn’t a word of the gospel in it, there wasn’t a word about hell in it, there wasn’t anything about sin in it, there wasn’t anything about the cross in it.  What was there in that sermon to save you?” You see I was silly enough to think that God could not save a man who had never heard the gospel, except by a gospel sermon, and I was preaching from Hebrews 13:15, ‘By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name,’ and all through I was exhorting Christians to be praising God.  ‘Why,’ he said, ‘Dr. Pink, I will tell you.  As I listened to that sermon, the Spirit of God just struck conviction into my heart by reminding me that I had never praised God and what a terrible sinner I must be!’ [Iain Murray, The Life of A.W. Pink, 13-14]

Well, in the same way, an unbelieving man, an unchurched man, a man who has never thought of himself as a Christian hears this parable of the talents and, by the Spirit of God, he thinks to himself, “Even Christians, even church members, even the servants of the master, will be cast out and condemned if they have not lived faithful, fruitful lives doing Christ’s will in the world.  If that is so, how much more must I be lost who never has given a serious thought to living a faithful Christian life or serving Christ in the world.  That is entirely possible; even likely.

But the parable itself, as this entire section, is for Christians.  As we said last week, the wise and the foolish virgins were all Christians, at least in an outward way, in the way of profession, and they were all very much Christians in their own minds.  And, therefore, and very clearly, this teaching, this story, like the material before it and after it, is addressed to the 7 churches; it is designed to keep us working, to motivate us to live faithful, fruitful lives, to warn us against the dangers of an indolent, lazy, and purposeless life.  We are the ones – we professing Christians, we church members – we are the ones who are tempted to content ourselves with what we think to be safety – church going, profession of faith in Christ, outward conformity to the public standards of a Christian life – but not to make it our chief business in life to serve the Lord and do his will in the world.  We are the ones tempted to think that not doing bad things is the same thing as serving the Lord.  One has to be a servant of the master in some respect before he can be a lazy and wicked servant instead of a good and faithful servant!  And, again, as in the previous parable, it will not be until it is too late that we discover that we were not living a Christian life at all, because we were not eagerly and actively and intentionally serving the Lord with and in our lives.

As we said last week of the parable of the ten virgins, the parable of the talents is a summons to the church to work, to service.  We are reminded that we have all been entrusted with opportunity.  There is no Christian, no church member, to whom the master has not given an opportunity to serve him.  We all have talents.  Taking talent to be a very large sum of money, as in the parable it most surely is, we have all been given great opportunity.

Think of all that we have been given to do and enabled to do.  The account of the last judgment that follows this parable will remind us explicitly of our calling to show kindness in Jesus’ name to others, especially to other Christians, to our brothers and sisters in the church.  We have an obligation to the world to take the gospel to the four corners of the earth, a point made earlier in this same discourse in 24:14.  If we are not missionaries ourselves, we can support those who are.  But all of us have good news to share with others.  We have time, we have energy, we have money, we have abilities and aptitudes, we have intellectual powers, we have artistic sensibilities, we have affections and emotions, we have advantages and all of these things may be put to use for the sake of Christ’s name and Christ’s kingdom in this world.  The Lord doesn’t give us all the same opportunities, we do not all have the same abilities or capacities, but the fact that he gave even the last servant one talent – a very large sum of money – indicates that he has lavished on all of us more than enough opportunity with which to fill up our lives in useful work performed in his name.

Now, it is true, that many who are like this lazy and wicked servant will read this parable or hear a sermon on it and remain unmoved.  They will not see themselves in the Lord’s vivid picture of a so-called Christian wasting his life and squandering his opportunities.  The church member who is burying his talent in the ground – and he does that by neglecting his Bible and the mastering of it, by neglecting prayer and the service to God and man that can be performed in that way and no other; by being indifferent to the human beings all around him, finding his reasons not to bother with the lives of his fellow Christians or those of the unsaved around him; by remaining thoughtless of the fortunes of Christ’s kingdom and what might be done to enlarge its borders; by having light but not shining it anywhere; by knowing the way to life but not pointing it out to others; by knowing what should be done and could be done but not doing it – all of this is simply burying one’s talent in the ground; robbing the Lord Jesus of the return that ought to be his.  Of such people in the church the same thing can be said that Daniel said of Belshazzar in long ago Babylon:  “…you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.”  [5:23]

Some church people, I say, will hear this parable and remain unmoved.  They will not shudder to hear that when the Lord returns he will settle accounts with his servants.  They are mentally and spiritually dead and even truth as bracing as this passes by them without causing even the faintest stirring of their hearts.

But real Christians – and this is the Lord’s design – hear this parable, and consider this settling of accounts and they are immediately concerned.  They examine themselves and demand of themselves an accounting of what they have and have not been doing.  They take stock to know whether they have, in fact, been putting the Lord’s talents to work and whether they will have something to show him when he returns.

In the teaching of the Lord Jesus and the rest of the Bible, the Last Judgment is not to find out the facts about our lives – the Lord already knows those – but to reveal them.  There is a judgment before which we must all stand.  There will be a settling of accounts. Words have no meaning if it is denied that the Bible teaches the Last Judgment.  That Judgment is “certain, strict, and unavoidable.”  [Ryle, 338]  High or low, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, we shall all have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ.  We will all have to settle our accounts with the Lord Christ.  We shall have to explain and show what we did with the opportunities he gave us to serve him.  He will make just allowance for our different abilities and the different opportunities that he gave us, but we shall all have to give an account of our stewardship.

Christians know this and when they hear this they agree with the Apostle Paul that they must judge themselves so that they will not come under judgment.”  That is, they will hold themselves to account for their service, their obedience, the use they are making of their opportunities so that when the Day of Judgment dawns they will be ready to settle accounts with their master.

Some of you remember reading Dante’s Inferno.  And you will remember the inscription on the gate of Hell under which the poet passed in company with Virgil his guide.

“All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”

But do you also remember that shortly after passing through that gate and under those doleful words, he comes to a place where there were many suffering souls.

“Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans,

Resounded through the air pierced by no star,

That e’en I wept at entering.  Various tongues,

Horrible languages, outcries of woe…

Dante asks Virgil,

 “O master! What is this I hear?  What race

Are these, who seem so overcome with woe?”

And the answer comes back,

 “This miserable fate

Suffer the wretched souls of those, who lived

Without…praise or blame, with that ill band

Of angels mix’d, who nor rebellious proved,

Nor yet were true to God, but for themselves

Were only.”  [Canto iii]

That is, these were the folk, the many, the far too many church folk, who passed their life in Christian apathy and selfishness, in indifference to Christ’s will, uncaring about their calling to love and to serve the Lord Jesus.

It is the knowledge, the conviction of this fearful reality, so solemnly, so plainly, so emphatically taught by Jesus himself, that Christians, real Christians, Christians who are Christians in heart as well as in outward profession, judge themselves that they might not be judged.

But they do this not out of fear only.  They do it out of the confidence that even the servant who was entrusted with a lesser measure of opportunity – two talents rather than five – received a fabulously generous reward from his master: not only still greater responsibility but a share in the master’s infinite happiness.  Christ is obviously not a master who wants to limit his rewards but one who wishes to dole them out to as many as possible and as generously as he can.

And what Christian who has love for Christ in his heart, who feels the sweet weight of his obligation to return something to Christ for his death on the cross and his immeasurably precious gift of eternal life, I say what true Christian has read those words in vv. 21 and 23 – “Well done; Bravo! Good and faithful servant” – and has not wanted above all things that the same words should someday be said to him or to her.

The best Christian remains very sinful.  We know that.  Our service of Christ is very imperfect. We know that.  The Lord tells us that himself.  There was a great deal he could have criticized in the work of those first two servants.  We know that.  But he said to them “Bravo! Good and faithful servant!”  And he will say the same to all those who care and work to serve him while they live in this world.  Set out to do so still more faithfully this next week.  Make it the mark of your life that you are doing the Lord’s work every day; that you are serving him.  Make it so that an honest man can say of you – no matter all your shortcomings; no matter all your failures – can say of you:

 He was given ten full talents

And he traded them each one;

Making from them many hundreds

Ere his working day was done