In this parable, Jesus tells a story about a rich master who entrusts three slaves with incredible amounts of money and then goes away. When he returns, two of the slaves report that they have invested the money and made 100 percent profit, doubling the master’s wealth. The third slave tells the master that he was afraid of the master and so he buried his portion of the money to keep it safe. He returns the full amount to the master, who becomes angry. He criticizes the third slave for expecting his wrath, takes away the money, and banishes him.
The Gospel According to Luke also includes this parable, although with major changes (Luke 19:11-27).
Eschatology: Many Jews in the first century believed that the eschaton – the end of the present world – was imminent. This is why they were on the lookout for the messiah, who was believed to be the one who would usher in the new world. Some early Jesus followers – and many current Christians – believe that Jesus will return again and bring about “the end of the world.” Many of Jesus’ parables can be interpreted as instructions about how to live until that time. For instance, this parable might warn that we should work hard to build up the treasure (perhaps the Gospel?) that Jesus has left behind for us. Those who are timid and fearful will lose out on God’s joy in the end, according to this interpretation. The parables before and after this one (Matthew 25:1-13 and 25:31-46) also fit with this theme.
Fear and Risk: What the third slave might have done wrong is be too afraid to take risks with the treasure entrusted to him. The first two slaves were risk-takers. Without taking chances, the fortune would not have grown. The third slave’s fear kept him static, unchanging. The parable might tell of Jesus’ own story, what he has done and what will happen to him. It might also be about Jesus’ hopes for what his disciples will do after he is gone – take risks to spread his message.
Stewardship of gifts: One of the more commonly discussed themes of this parable is that Jesus is talking about proper stewardship of God-given gifts, whether that means money, talents and abilities, influence, intelligence or position in society. In this interpretation, the challenge Jesus gives is to live a life that is faithful and bold in one’s exploration and development of God’s gifts in our lives.
Grace and Judgment: If the master is seen as representing God or Jesus, then this parable could be a promise of divine grace as well as a warning about divine judgment. The mistake made by the third slave might have been misjudging the master; by seeing the master as a harsh judge, that is what he got. The other two slaves saw God as a generous giver, and they were entrusted with even more responsibility and treasure.
Kingdom of God: As this parable might tell it, there is a superabundance of gifts in the already-present and ever-approaching Kingdom (or Realm) of God. The master entrusts this fortune with his slaves for a long period of time. The slaves are participating and sharing in the wealth of the kingdom, and the first two slaves are invited to share even more in the responsibility and joy of the kingdom after the master returns. In this kingdom, the fortune is not made by taking from others but rather it takes place in giving away, as the master did with the slaves.
In Jesus’ Time
* A talent was a coin worth about fifteen years’ wages for a typical day laborer – a staggering amount of money. The master must have been very rich. While the word “talent” is spelled and pronounced the same as the English word meaning “abilities” or “gifts,” the Greek word has no other meaning beyond monetary uses.
* The word “slave” is softened in many translations of the Bible to “servant.” The softening is for a good reason: “Slave” is a difficult word to bear for people who are only a few generations removed from ancestors who were owned by other people. In this parable, the word “slave” is useful in that it can give some context to the amount of fear the third slave might have felt. This was not just an employer he was afraid of; it was someone who controlled his entire life.
* In the first century, burying money or valuables was considered the best way for common people to protect them from thieves.
* The risk faced by Matthew’s community in the late first century was public expression of Jesus’ Good News – the gospel. They could choose to expose themselves as part of this radical new thinking or stay safely hidden away. Many chose to take the chance and be disciples, spreading Jesus’ message. It was a risky venture, and many early Christians died as martyrs. But the Good News got out, and the “payoff” in growth of the church was remarkable.
In Our Time
* The image of taking everything from the poor and giving it to those who are already rich might strike a chord in a time when the nation’s leaders argue about whether to cut taxes for the rich and cut services to the poor.
* Over the past two centuries, Christian sects have grown around the idea that the end times are near. From the Seventh-Day Adventists in the 19th century to Harold Camping’s prediction that the world would “end” on May 21, 2011, many Christians have been preparing for an imminent eschaton.
Seeing the Story Through the Characters’ Eyes
The Master: We learn nothing of the master at the beginning of the parable other than he is fabulously wealthy and leaving on a long trip. He entrusts his slaves with vast fortunes, but gives them no instructions on what to do with the money. The first two slaves display no fear of this man or his supposedly harsh temper. He appears to be generous and trusting. When the master returns, he shares his joy and even more of his fortune with the first two slaves. When the third slave accuses him of “reaping where he did not sow,” the master becomes angry at the slander. But even as he takes away the talent entrusted to the “lazy” slave, he turns around and gives it away again, to the first, industrious slave.
The First Slave: This slave was given the largest amount of money to steward, and he immediately set about growing the master’s fortune. His reward was more responsibility and also to be taken into his master’s “joy.”
The Second Slave: While this slave received less money than the first one, he did not pout or moan about unfairness. Rather, he got to work at increasing his master’s riches. He, too, received more responsibility for his efforts, as well as his master’s “joy.”
The Third Slave: The prudent, cautious and careful slave played it safe with his master’s money because he saw the master as dishonest and harsh. He did not spend the money, nor use it for his own purposes. He returned every cent to its rightful owner. His assessment of the master seems to doom him, however, as he gets just what he expected and feared: anger and punishment.
Seeing the Story Through the Lens of Progressive Christianity
This parable is a difficult passage for many Progressive Christians because of the master’s harsh judgment against the third slave as well as the words of Jesus saying that all will be taken from those with little. This is quite different from most of the rest of Jesus’ teachings, in which he champions the plight of the poor and oppressed.
Jesus’ parables are meant to be difficult – hard to understand, hard to swallow, hard to live with. Grace can be found in the search for understanding this parable.
Seeing the Story Through the Lens of Process Theology
Taking a risk and opening oneself to the possibilities that God presents can help us build the Kingdom of God. The scripture challenges people and congregations to break through their perceived limitations and think big. To live big. God’s creation continues to evolve, and so do God’s risk-takers.
Seeing the Story Through the Lens of Liberation Theology
Richard W. Swanson writes in Provoking the Gospel of Matthew that this is the last time anyone in Matthew’s gospel is described as being thrown into darkness until Jesus himself is thrown there at the crucifixion. Jesus suffers the same fate as the third servant, who is the victim of the only master who could have wielded that kind of wealth and power: the oppressors in Rome. Jesus suffers the fate and overcomes it, providing hope and comfort for the millions who have been or will be tormented in just the same way.
Seeing the Story Through the Visual Arts
The painting in the box at the top is titled “Parable of the Three Servants” by JESUS MAFA. It is a response to the New Testament by a Christian community in Cameroon. Each of the readings were selected and adapted to dramatic interpretation by the community members. Photographs of their interpretations were made, and these were then transcribed to paintings. Learn more
Seeing the Story Through Film
In a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, newlyweds George and Mary Bailey are in a taxi headed to the train station where they will embark on their dream honeymoon. Then they learn of a run on the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan. They make a leap of faith and share their honeymoon money with the scared and agitated crowd. They probably did not receive a 100 percent return on this particular “investment” but anyone who has seen the final scene of the movie knows that the “interest” they earned was the love and respect of their family, friends and acquaintances.
Hearing the Story Through Music
John Prine’s song “Safety Joe” describes a man who takes no risks in his life and ends up in his own self-made “outer darkness” at the end.
5 Questions to Consider
1. What is the greatest treasure that we are given to steward?
2. The emotion that this passage might provoke in readers is their own fear that they, too, could end up judged harshly and thrown into the “outer darkness.” How can a person resist the emotion that this parable not only evokes but warns against?
3. Many people are disturbed by the judgment against the third slave. How can this image be reconciled with Jesus’ image of a loving, parent God.
4. Most interpretations of this parable see the master as representing God or Jesus. Who else might the master represent?
5. The master invites the first two slaves to “enter into the joy of your master.” What might that “joy” be?
“Enter the Joy of Your Master,” WorkingPreacher.org, Dirk G. Lange. Luther
Seminary. Accessed on July 15, 2011.
Keeping Holy Time, Douglas E. Wingeier, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2001
“A Man Entrusted His Money,” The Parables, Paul Simpson Duke, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2005
“Matthew 25:14-30,” Feasting on the Word, Lindsay P. Armstrong, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2011.
“Matthew 25:14-30,” Feasting on the Word, John M. Buchanan, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2011.
“Matthew 25:14-30,” Feasting on the Word, Mark Douglas, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2011.
“Matthew 25:14-30 – The Parable of the Talents,” Enter the Bible, James Boyce. Luther Seminary. Accessed on July 15, 2011.
New Proclamation, Beverly A. Zink-Sawyer, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2008
Parables for Preachers, Barbara E. Reid, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2001.
“Proper 28,” Process & Faith, Bruce G. Epperly. Center for Process Studies. Accessed on July 15, 2011.
“Proper 28,” Process & Faith, Gretchen Weller. Center for Process Studies. Accessed on July 15, 2011.
“Proper 28,” Texts for Preaching, Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, James D. Newsome, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 1995.
Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, Richard W. Swanson, Pilgrim Press (Cleveland, 2007).