The Parable of the Talents
Back in March when I asked what parables you would like to hear preached in a sermon, one of the ones suggested was today’s parable, the Parable of the Talents. The person who requested this parable said it was a particularly difficult parable to understand. What did she mean by this?
On the face of it, it is a pretty simple story. A man goes on a journey but before he leaves he gives five talents, a measure of money, to one servant, two to another, and one to a third. When he comes back the one who had received five talents had doubled the investment. The one who had received two talents doubled the investment he had received. Both of these were praised. But then the one who had received one talent said he had been too afraid to invest his talent and returned it without any gain.
We know Jesus loves us because the Bible tells us so. Jesus loves the little children. Jesus shows mercy and has compassion on people. We would expect that Jesus would have pity on this third servant who had been too afraid he would lose the money so he buried it to keep it safe.
But that is not how Jesus finished the story. Listen to his reaction to the servant who buried his talent.
‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 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. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
When we read through the Bible, we tend to skip over some details because we are familiar with the story and our biases influence us in the way we understand what we read. We know Jesus loves us so we pass over these harsh judgments of Jesus. But when the adult Sunday School class listened to the Gospel of Matthew in the Visual Bible Series, I was stunned by the harshness of the judgment of Jesus in this parable. I had not realized how strong the judgment was and I thought it was unfair of Jesus to be so harsh.
Perhaps this is why this parable was suggested as a candidate for a sermon, to help understand this harsh judgment of Jesus. Let me give a context for this parable and then I will share four lessons, a question and finally a challenge for us to consider.
The Parable of the Talents falls in the middle of two other parables. The Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. All three were told by Jesus to talk about how we are to be spiritually vigilant so we are prepared for his return. The Parable of the Talents focuses on how to use the time while we wait. We are to use this waiting time well.
The first lesson from this parable is that God gives all of us talents and he expects us to make good use of what we are given.
A talent was a measurement of gold or silver worth 6,000 denarii and if you remember, a denarius was the pay for one day’s work in the vineyard in that parable of Jesus. So this was not an insignificant amount of money, 16 years of pay for the daily laborer.
We get our modern word, talent, from this parable because Jesus made the measure of money a metaphor for our special, natural abilities. When we tell someone they are very talented, it is this parable that created this meaning of the word in the 14th century.
So God gives us special abilities. We are born with different kinds of intelligence. Some of us are better with mechanical things than others. Some of us are better problem solvers than others. Some of us can memorize more easily than others. Some of us are better at philosophical thinking than others. Some of us are more artistic than others. Some of us are more skilled relationally than others. But we are all born with a certain area of intelligence.
In addition to this, our environment shapes us and we develop our intelligence and abilities depending on how and where we were raised. The educational system we go through shapes our intelligence and abilities. Our parents and other important people in our lives shape us. If your parents played sports or were professional musicians, it is more likely that you will be better in sports or music than most others.
And then, when we become followers of Jesus, we are given spiritual gifts through the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:4–11)
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; … 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
There are other lists in the New Testament with other gifts: exhortation, giving, leadership, mercy, prophecy, service, teaching, and more.
The talents with which we were born, the talents that developed as we grew up and the spiritual gifts that were given to us when we became followers of Jesus are all given to us by God. Why does he give us these gifts?
Why did the man in the parable Jesus told give his three servants gifts? He wanted them to use the talents he gave so they would increase his wealth. When the first two servants returned with a doubling of what he gave them, he praised them and rewarded them. But when the third servant reported that he had buried the talent, he was judged and punished because he had failed to increase his master’s wealth.
Why does God give us talents? Like the businessman, he wants a return on his investment. What is God’s business? He wants to bring people into his kingdom. Jesus said to his disciples, (Matthew 9:37–38)
“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
God wants those in his kingdom to grow in faith. Paul taught in Ephesians 4 that spiritual gifts are given to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11–13)
It was he (Jesus) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
So God gives us talents so we can work to expand his kingdom, bring more people into his kingdom, and encourage the faith of those in his kingdom.
Jesus is very clear in this parable that when we are judged at the end of time, at least part of how we will be judged is how we used the talents he gave to us. You may not like this teaching but it is there.
Think about what God has done to give you the talents you have? Jesus sacrificed his rights and privileges in heaven and was born as a human baby. He willingly went to the cross to die a terribly painful death so that we would not have to suffer eternal death. He defeated the devil and rose to new life as the eternal resurrected Jesus, King of kings and Lord of lords. And he did all this for what? So you could live an easy, comfortable, earthly life, allowing those around you to work with Jesus?
I have a cousin who was living in Southern California when I visited him. We spent two to three hours in his hot tub one night as he told me all his New Age theories. He told me there were aliens who walked among us on earth and he was able to recognize which ones they were. He told me that every cell of our body is a microcosm of the universe. He told me about all his past lives. He had been a Mayan Indian. He had been a highway robber in England in the 1700s. (I asked him why no one was ever a drunken bum in their past life.) Then he told me his assignment in this life was to be on vacation.
The Parable of the Talents tells us that is not our assignment. We were not invited into the Kingdom of God to rest and take it easy. We were invited and equipped to be of service to God to help as he builds his kingdom and God expects us to be active in our service for him.
We have other work to do. We raise children, earn money, study and build careers and it is important that we work hard and be as successful as possible. But we need to know that what has eternal significance is not whether we get a raise, a promotion or an award for our achievements. What has eternal significance is how God uses us in the lives of those we work and study with.
God has given you talents and he expects you to use them in the course of your daily life for the advancement of his kingdom.
The second lesson from this parable is that we are not equally talented. There are some who are more talented than we are and others who are less talented than we are.
The businessman in this parable had three servants and knew they were not all equal in ability, so to one he gave five talents, confident this servant would use the money well. To another he gave two talents, confident this servant would do a good job with this money in his absence. And to a third servant he gave one talent, confident this servant had the ability to use this money well. He knew his servants and their capabilities and gave them responsibility according to what he knew they were capable of accomplishing.
The businessman did not expect each servant to return with five talents. He gave the same praise to the servant who earned two talents that he did to the one who earned five talents. His expectation was that the servants would use the talents they had been given.
We are not all talented in the same way or to the same degree. I play the guitar but cannot play like Peter or Elliot. When Elliot tries to teach me a way of strumming it is an exercise in patience for him. I just cannot get it. But I play the guitar better than some others.
When I listen to a sermon from Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City, I am amazed at the depth of his content and insights. I love reading his books and the books of John Ortberg. I heard Ortberg speak last August at a conference in Minneapolis, in the north center of the US, and he was amazing. He is so gifted.
There are many who are much better preachers than I am but there are also others who are not as gifted in preaching as I am.
When we analyze our talents, we look around and compare ourselves to others. We wish we could speak, write, play sports, musical instruments, paint, study, lead meetings, relate with people as well as we see others do these things. We wish we were more talented and we tell ourselves God can’t use us because we are not as talented as others we know.
But do you see the problem? We are not supposed to look horizontally when we analyze our talents. We are supposed to look vertically. The question is not who is more or less talented than I am. The question is what talent has God given me.
We are not judged by who produces the most with the talents they have. We are judged by how we use the talents that have been given to us.
In a Hasidic tale, Rabbi Zusya, an old and wise man, muses about how much of his life he has wasted trying to be someone else. He says, “In the coming world, they will not ask me ‘why were you not more like Moses?’ Rather they will ask me, ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?’”
At the final judgment, Jesus will not ask you why you did not accomplish what someone else accomplished, he will ask you why you did not use the talents he gave to you.
The third lesson is that risk will be involved when we use our talents.
The first servant came and was given the huge responsibility of an investment of five talents. He was honored by this act of trust. His years of service were appreciated. His master had seen his good work and trusted him. But along with this honor came the weight of responsibility. What would he do with these talents?
He would have to take risks in investing this money. Suppose he bought oil and then it spoiled and had to be thrown away. Suppose he bought some fields but the weather was bad and the wheat crop was much less than expected. In an agricultural economy, the weather can make or break an investment. Maybe he speculated by buying oil and wheat and waited for the price to rise. But what would have happened if the price had fallen? Then he would have lost the money his master had given him to invest.
There is risk involved in using our gifts.
When I was in university I was preparing to go to medical school when I received a call from God to go to seminary. This is perhaps the most clearly God has ever spoken to me and yet I resisted. I tried to bargain my way out of this call. I argued with God and one of my arguments was that I was not skilled at speaking in front of people. I became tongue-tied, nervous, with knees shaking, when I had to stand up and speak in front of people.
But after three months I submitted and set out. The first time I ever preached was at Park Street Church in Boston. The church had an outdoor pulpit on a busy street corner and after our evening fellowship, the group went outside to stand around, hoping to attract others to stop and listen while one of us delivered a short message.
I stepped out onto the metal pulpit facing a couple hundred faces and as I began to speak, the wind came along and all my notes blew away in the wind. I stood there without notes, stammering and stuttering with my face beet red. It was a terrible experience.
A year or two later I was asked to speak at an Easter Sunrise service, just a month or so after I began dating Annie. I spoke but felt terrible about it. I was embarrassed to face Annie who must have loved me because she said I had done a good job.
It took enormous courage to risk putting myself in front of people.
Using the gifts God has given us does not always come easily. We may try to share our faith with someone and feel afterwards we did not make sense even to ourselves. We may come on too strong or be incoherent. But we get better as we practice using our talents.
Using the gifts God gives us involves risks but these are risks worth taking.
The fourth lesson is that when we use our talents our experience will be one that produces fulfillment and joy.
When we read this parable we pass over the experience of the first two servants and focus on the third servant who was severely judged. But what was this experience like for the first two servants?
There was the honor of being chosen and given this responsibility of managing five and two talents, but there was also the fear that comes from having to risk. What made the first two servants take the risks they did to increase their master’s wealth?
We can get a hint about how they felt about this by looking at the reaction of the third servant who was afraid to take risks with the talent he was given.
‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
The third servant was so afraid of losing what he had been given, he failed to do anything with his talent. His view of his master was that he was hard and uncompromising. He reaped where he did not sow and gathered where he scattered no seed. This spoke of his master’s power and the third servant feared his master. He did not have a love relationship with his master. It was a relationship of duty and fear.
The first two servants were the reverse of this. They knew their master to be a loving master. It is true he reaped where he did not sow and gathered where he scattered no seed which spoke of his power, but they had a love relationship with the master and knew his power would work for them, not against them. They took risks knowing they were loved by the one who gave them their talents.
So they took risks, used the talents they had been given and when the investments turned out well, they could not wait for the master to return so they could show him what they had done with the talents they had been given.
When he returned the first servant went up to him and said,
‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’
You can read into this his pleasure in having such a good report to deliver and then he heard these words:
21 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.’
Enter into the joy of your master.
The second servant had the same experience and received the same glowing praise from his master.
Enter into the joy of your master.
When we use the talents God has given us in a love relationship with Jesus, our experience will be a fulfilling experience with deep joy. We will have great satisfaction in having our talents used by God to advance his kingdom. And we will have a sense of sharing the joy of God as we celebrate what we have done together.
Peaching is a deeply satisfying experience for me and when I don’t preach, I miss it. I am very much aware that God helps me as I prepare my sermons (though I want to say God is not at all responsible for any faults or weaknesses in my sermons).
Using our talents enables us to share in God’s joy.
Here is the question for you: What would have happened if the one given five talents risked those talents and lost three and only had two at the end when the master returned?
Would he have received the harsh rebuke the third servant received? I don’t think so. The third servant was rebuked because he was overcome with fear and did not use the talent he had been given. I think, if Jesus were telling the story, if the first servant had risked and lost money, the master would have had compassion on him and encouraged him. He had tried and failed, but he had tried.
My other answer to this question is that because God is at work in us, we cannot lose. It is impossible for us to fail. It is God who uses us to bring others into his kingdom. We do not do that ourselves. God uses what we do and say and then does his work to build his kingdom. We have the privilege of participating with him but it is always God who does the work. To say we have to be talented enough takes away from the power and creativity of God to use what we do to accomplish his purposes.
Therefore, when I stood out on the pulpit at Park Street Church in Boston with my notes flying away in the wind and stammered and stuttered, did I fail? I certainly thought I did and probably the people watching me thought I had failed as well. But what if someone walked by and picked up one of the pieces of paper with my notes on it and read it and God used that to bring that person to faith? What if someone heard what I said, no matter how incoherent and poorly delivered it was, and used that to bring someone to faith?
God uses great preachers and not so great preachers to build his kingdom but he wants each of us to take risks and use our gifts. Talents risked never fail. We may look at our efforts and consider them a failure, but we do not see what God sees. We do not know what God has done with our efforts.
And now for the challenge: What would you do for God if you knew you could not fail?
I am not talking about climbing Mt. Everest or making 1,000,000 Euros or playing for your national football team. All these things will pass away and be left behind when we enter into our eternal home. I am talking about working for things that will endure, working with Jesus as he builds his kingdom.
I am talking about loving others in the name of Jesus, sharing why it is you are a follower of Jesus with others, teaching a class, leading a Bible Study, writing a spiritual blog, using your musical skills in worship or with a small group, using your organizational abilities to help a ministry, counseling someone who is in trouble, visiting someone who is sick.
What talents has God given you? What talents do you think God has given you? You should take some time with some close friends and discuss this. What gifts has he given each of you?
Then the challenge is how can we begin to use those gifts. RIC needs people who use their gifts to make it a community that loves and worships together in unity. We need help in many ways, some of which I will talk about in this week’s RICEmail. But God’s work is not confined to RIC. There are many needs in the world and God wants you to use your talents to build his kingdom. How will you do this? Don’t let fear prevent you from experimenting with what you think God has gifted you in.
Don’t be limited in your thinking. But at the same time, don’t try to think of something impressive. How has God gifted you? That is the issue. How can you use those gifts for him? This parable tells us this is not an option for us. We will be judged according to how we used the gifts he has given us.
You don’t have to be Billy Graham or Festo Kivengere, a Ugandan bishop who has been called the Billy Graham of Africa. You have to be you. Discover who you are. Discover what gifts God has given you. Take risks and begin using your gifts. You will get better at your use of your gifts and as you use them, you will enter into the joy of your master.