Parable of the Talents – Matthew 25.14-30
Our passage today comes from the Gospel of Matthew and it is believed to be the favorite Gospel of the early church. It was the most quoted Gospel by the early church fathers during the first five hundred years of Christianity. One of the reasons for its popularity was its eyewitness account of Jesus’ life and teachings. Although we do not know who wrote the Gospel of Matthew, it seems that the early church attributed this writing to Matthew or a disciple of Matthew.
Matthew was a Jew who had became a tax collector for Rome. We first meet Matthew in Capernaum, Jesus’ hometown, at a kiosk for collecting taxes (Mt. 9.9-13, Mk. 2.13-17). Tax collectors were notorious for being corrupt. They often extorted money from the locals to ensure their personal gain. Soldiers from Rome ensured the people’s cooperation in paying their taxes.
Matthew was also known as “Levi.” This special name may signify that Matthew was of a lesser Levitical order in the Jewish priesthood. Rome in scripted priests as tax collectors because they were educated. This dual role provided Matthew with a working knowledge of both the Greco-Roman culture and the traditional Israelite culture.
Matthew’s Gospel was written as a way to present Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. The writer of Matthew believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish prophetic writings. Matthew proclaimed a coming Savior who would rule and reign over all the earth.
Matthew may have been composed after the war with Rome from 66-70 AD. At that time the Romans destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem as well as the Jewish homelands (70 AD). Christians were pushed completely out of the Jewish community and were forced to form their own religious community, which they called “the church” (Matt. 16.16, 18.17).
Matthew writes not to those who were unbelievers, but to those who were believers who, like himself, had a Jewish background. The disciples of Jesus became an isolated group within the early Jewish community. They may have been forced to find their own community apart from the traditional synagogue worship setting.
Matthew seems to present Jesus as Israel’s King … both now and in the future. For Matthew God’s Kingdom had come on earth through Jesus, the Messiah, and it would come in a more tangible experience sometime in the future.
The Old and The New
Matthew seems to present the Gospel in such a way as to connect Jesus to the history of the Jewish people in the Old Testament. If we were to read the Gospel of Matthew, you and I would discover strong parallels from the Old Testament stories to Jesus’ personal experience.
For instance the Gospel of Matthew begins with the family tree. The whole history of the Jewish people rests on the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The family bloodline runs through King David (Ruth 4.18-22). Eventually Jesus will find his name listed on the tapestry of family tree as his father Joseph was a descendent of King David (Matt. 1.1-17).
There are many similarities in Matthew’s Gospel connecting the life and teachings of Jesus to Moses with infancy massacre and a flight into Egypt to save Jesus’ life (Exodus 1-3, Matt. 1-2). Jesus begins his ministry by spending the first 40 days in the wilderness in preparation for the fulfillment of taking the next generation into the Promised Land (Matt. 4.1-11).
Jesus’ ministry meets with rapid success and quickly propels him into public speaking, and up to the top of the mountain he goes. Jesus delivers a series of moral and ethical demands of right living not unlike Moses’ “Ten Commandments” brought down from his encounter with God on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20).
Just as Mt. Sinai becomes a landmark for God’s teaching to the early community of Israel so Matthew uses Jesus mountaintop experiences to guide the Gospel to its final conclusion of sending out the disciples into all the world to gain followers of this new world order.
- We find Jesus on his first mountaintop experience when the devil tempts him to take over the world – truly a powerful and financial temptation for Jesus to face.
- Jesus then begins his ministry by going up on the mountain to set down rules for the new heavenly kingdom that has come to earth through his administration.
- The next two mountain moments are the feeding of multitudes of people with a few fish and loaves. An incredible task if one were to take this feat on in human terms both with finance and labor being extremely costly.
- The next mountain moment we find Jesus with the prophets Elijah and Moses discussing his future. Both Elijah and Moses had mountaintop encounters with God too. Jesus finds himself in good company with strong leaders of Israel.
- The next mountaintop story is a parable about the one lost sheep. Jesus lives this parable out in his everyday walking around life by leaving the safety of the mountaintop to find the lost sheep of Israel.
- The next mountaintop we find Jesus astride a donkey at the Mt. of Olives heading into Jerusalem for the final Passover and his ultimate sacrifice.
- This next mountaintop experience we find Jesus teaching about his second coming. Our reading today is found in this passage about Jesus’ second coming. And he is seeking out the one who does not understand the importance of caring for his master’s inheritance while he is away. Although the parable seems harsh, Jesus is inviting the people to examine their hearts. He offers them a stern warning that they must heed.
- The final mountaintop experience is the commissioning of the disciples to go into all the world and make followers of this new world order. Jesus has given them their master’s inheritance – the world and its people.
It is the disciples’ role to take care of their master’s inheritance while he is away. He expects his people to work with his inheritance and not be lazy servants.
The parable of the talents
Matthew writes all about the “Kingdom of Heaven” breaking in to the earthly realm. The Gospels of Luke and Mark talk about the “Kingdom of Heaven” but use different language. They call it the “Kingdom of God.” Both imply that God’s government has invaded earth at least to the extent that people allow it.
But for Matthew God has invaded our whole lives, especially the way we understand money and reward. In this parable the owner has given his servants his inheritance, and he’s asked the servants to care for his estate while he is away on a very long trip. The master of the estate has divide up the estate and given a portion of it to each servant according to the master’s own wisdom. To one he has given five coins or “talents”… to one he has given two coins or “talents” … and to yet another he has given one coin or “talent.”
The Greek word ta¿lanta is translated “talent” but a more contemporary translation of ta¿lanta is “coin” or “bags of gold” (Thayer, 5007). The original word has to do with a monetary unit. It is unfortunate that the term “talent” means something very different today. Today “talent” is understood as ability.
While commentators differ somewhat over the approximate value of a “talent” in today’s economy, all would agree that it was a large amount of money. Some say that it was the equivalent to 15 to 20 years’ wages for a common laborer. We must remember that a “talent” is a measure of money and it does not refer to our abilities directly. The “talents” were distributed on the basis of ability but not as the bestowing of ability. One talent would have covered a person’s basic needs for 15 to 20 years. While two talents would have provided 40 years of financial support, and five talents would have provided 100 years of financial blessing.
In our parable today the servants all handled their finances differently. The master of the estate made sure that his servants would be cared for in his absence, yet one man did not utilize his masters’ inheritance. Now we do not know what the other servants did to double their investment. But how they doubled their master’s investment was not the point of the parable.
The parable requires that we look at ourselves and reflect on whether we are the “third servant” … “unprofitable servant” … “wicked and lazy servant.” There are a four of elements in this parable for us to examine today… time management, work ethic, financial gain, and how we view our leaders.
In the parable of the “talent” there are two clear references to time. The master stayed away for a long time and in the meantime the faithful servants immediately went to work. Yet the unprofitable servant did nothing. He buried his inheritance.
In this parable it is not the money that goes to work, as such, but the worker. When the third servant’s excuses are set aside, it becomes evident that this man is lazy – he didn’t do any work. He didn’t even hand the money over to bankers to let the bankers work with the money.
The servant with one talent becomes the one designated as not having anything. His talent is taken away and given to the one who made great gains. Now two of the servants doubled their money, but we do not know how other than that they worked for it.
The Greek word sklhro\ß is translated “hard” in this passage, and is an insult to the master. If we use Scripture to interpret Scripture, this word is used in the letter of Jude (Thayer, 4642). It is found in the letter of Jude to describe the “harsh words” which the unbelievers have spoken against God (Jude 1.15). In other words, the third slave looked down upon his master as wicked, harsh, and impossible. This is his excuse for doing nothing. It is as if he believed his master was unreasonable, that there was no way to please his master, and he gave up before even trying.
Have you ever been in a mental or emotional state of mind like this third servant? Where you didn’t even want to try? You expected the worst from others so you didn’t even attempt to do the right thing. This parable is for you and me. From time to time we may become the lazy wicked servant who does nothing with what God has entrusted us with for fear of failure. Or we may even give up without trying because the task seems impossible.
While Jesus is away, he has entrusted us to go into all the world and make disciples of the nations. He has given us his inheritance of the world and its people to steward. It’s easy for us to pass by this parable and assume we are the five-talents guy or the two-talents guy. It’s hard for us to even believe we might just be the one-talent guy whom Jesus is talking about in this passage. It’s better to ask Jesus than to assume we have things all together. Take time today to listen to what Jesus has to say about the talents you have been given to manage until his return.