The Talents (Matthew 25: 14-30)

14 "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, "Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 21 His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, "Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' 23 His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, "Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master replied, "You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

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.

Go here to learn more about parables.

This parable is sandwiched between two others: the Ten Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) and Jesus’ description of separating the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46).

The Gospel According to Luke also includes this parable, although with major changes (Luke 19:11-27).

Themes

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?

Sources

“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).

One Comment

  1. This is one of the parables I’ve previously shied away from, precisely because of the things listed here, about how the master treated the last servant so harshly. But this study has actually made me see this parable in a brand new way, specifically in the statement “The first two slaves display NO FEAR of this man or his supposedly harsh temper.” I’ll explain more in my answer to #3.

    #1. I think that the greatest treasure we are given to steward is love–and the fruit of that love is to help others–be it emotionally, financially, physically, etc.

    #2. What I have to do is just take a deep, cleansing breath and remember that, bottom line, God is Love, and Love is God. I’ve learned that the foundation for greed, anger and resentment is always fear–fear of different things in different situations, but always fear, and generally, fear of not having “enough.” And “enough” is definitely subjective. Once I am able to figure out what I am afraid of, I am able to look at whether or not that fear is justified, and whether further action is justified. But first, I have to breathe and step back for a bit, to make sure I’m thinking about my feelings, and not just “feeling” my feelings in a purely reactive way. (Kind of a think before we act process.)

    #3. “The first two slaves display no fear of this man or his supposedly harsh temper.” That statement jumped right out at me, just as I was going through this lesson thinking, “Ugh, I’ve always really disliked this parable.” I realized that that statement is exactly the issue that I have been wrestling with for many months–about God’s nature, and about who God is, and about how God and the Bible are associated with one another. What I’m learning is that God, who is really a scary, angry, jealous, harsh disciplinarian in many of the Bible’s stories (and in many sermons–but NOT Pastor Gage’s, lol). I didn’t like that aspect of God. That aspect of God (when I believed those stories to be literal truths) never made sense to me, when comparing them with the sweetness and steadfast bravery and practicality of Jesus, and the beauty and comfort and reliability and crazy-glorious mystery (and, I now believe, feminine nature) of the Spirit. God the Father just seemed simply mean.

    But when I think about this parable, and the fact that the two servants who were rewarded were the two who showed NO FEAR of the master, despite the scary reputation, I feel like the parable now makes sense. To me, Jesus is saying, hey, you’ve heard a ton of scary stories and rumors about God–but don’t worry about those. Just be a good steward of what you have, and you’ll do beautifully. FEAR is the “enemy” in this story–not God!!!!

    #4. I’d say Mother Earth could be the master in this story! If we nurture her and care for what she gives us, she rewards us abundantly–if we take care of her, she gives us everything we need–air, water, food, comfort, shelter, and just the basic joy in watching her be her beautiful self. That answer may be a stretch, but that’s what came to mind first for me.

    #5. I’d say the “joy of the master” in the parable could refer to equal standing, or simply freedom (whether it be physical, spiritual or emotional freedom).

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