Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then 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.’ 21His 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.’ 22And 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.’ 23His 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.’ 24Then 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; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But 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? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For 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. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Parables are fun and challenging, both at the same time. I met with my overseer this week, who just happens to also be the Director of Stewardship Education for our denominational institution on all matters financial. So I mentioned to him that I would be preaching on the parable of the talents this Sunday, kind of poking and prodding for a little bit of guidance on how to interpret this passage. His response to me was, “Yep, you could go any of several different ways with that one, as I’m sure you know.”
I’ve said it before and I think that this is a good time to say it again: Perhaps there is more than one right way to interpret today’s passage. And I think that I would like to explore a couple of possibilities and also rule out at least one. So let’s start by looking at today’s passage in detail.
Our text tells us that there was a rich man who was going on a journey. So this man calls in three of his servants, or slaves as the NRSV calls them (doulos in Greek), and divides up his wealth and distributes it to these three servants according to their ability. That last line is important because evidently not all of them had equal ability because one servant received five talents, the next received two talents, and the last servant received one talent.
A talent would have been the largest measurement of money in Jesus’ day, based on a weight. I have heard estimates that say that this was anywhere from the equivalent to 15-20 years of wages. So for someone to receive 5 talents would be about 75-100 years’ worth of wages; more money than most people would see in their entire lives. If you read this passage in the most recent version of the NIV (2011) you find that they translate “talent” as “bags of gold”. I think that has is benefits and its drawbacks, but we will get to that later. The point is that this is a lot of money. Millions of dollars in today’s world.
The servant that was given the five talents went out, did some wheeling and dealing, and ended up making another five talents. Not too shabby, I would like to have that guy handling my money. The servant that received two talents was also able to double the investment. The third fellow, the one who didn’t have much ability to start with, took his talent, his bag of gold, and went out and buried it.
Some time passes and the master returns and calls in these servants to see how they did with the money that was entrusted to them. The guy who originally was given five talents now returned 10 to the master. The fellow who originally received two talents now returned four. And both of these servants receive laud and praise from the master. Both were put in charge of more things and given access to the joy of their master.
Then enters the other guy, the one who only received the single talent and decided to bury it to keep it safe. He explains to the master that he was afraid that he might lose it if he tried to invest it in the stock market, so instead he played it safe and buried it to make sure that he wouldn’t lose it. Better safe than sorry, right??
Evidently not. The master is ticked off and he calls the servant lazy and wicked. He calls for the talent to be taken from the man and given to the servant who had 10 talents. This lazy and wicked slave is thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And if that isn’t troubling enough, the master says in verse 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.”
So what this isn’t is financial Darwinism: the survival of the financially fittest. This is a passage that some have taken to support unbridled capitalism that says it is okay to make a buck at someone else’s expense, that it is okay to take from those who are poor stewards of money because they really don’t know what they are doing with it anyway. This passage is taken by the prosperity gospel preachers to mean that Jesus wants the rich to get richer, and that the poor are poor because they are wicked and evil servants who will be cast into the outer darkness. I heard someone say this week that it is passages like this that allow those who preach the prosperity gospel to make the claims that they make. But as we will see, their arguments soon fall apart.
This interpretation just doesn’t make sense coming from the same guy who said “Blessed are the poor” and it is the complete opposite of Jesus’ discussion with the Rich Young Ruler where Jesus told this rich person to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor. So which is it, Jesus? Should the rich be selling their possessions and giving the money to the poor or should the poor have what little they do have taken from them and that money be given to the rich? I’ve got it! Jesus is telling the rich to sell everything that they have, and give them money to the poor so that they can get the tax deduction and then, when nobody is looking, take it back! It is perfect!
No, if anyone ever tries to explain this passage as a justification for getting rich at the expense of others and not caring for “the least of these” all you have to do is remind them that Jesus explains elsewhere in plain language that we are to care for those who can’t care for themselves and help the least of these. So if he says it in plain language, any interpretation of a parable is going to be trumped by the plain explanation. Just look at the next section of scripture also found in Matthew 25, a passage we often refer to as the sheep and the goats. I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t talking about taking what little the poor have to make yourself richer.
The other thing that we should note is that the master never gives up ownership of the talents. These servants are only stewards of the master’s money. And when the first two servants are able to make more money with the mater’s money, the original money and the money that they made are said to be the money of the master. And then the master puts them in charge of more of his possessions. He doesn’t give them more for their personal portfolio. He puts them in charge of more of his possessions. This isn’t a parable about how to get rich. This parable is about using what the master has given to you. This is a parable about stewardship.
This could mean money, but not necessarily. The Bible has a lot to say about money and wealth. And it is possible that today’s passage is talking about being good stewards of money for God’s kingdom.
I remember hearing that as Christians we should be making as much money as we can so that we can give more money to God. Like most anything I believe that this can be taken too far, but if God has given you the gift of financial wisdom, then I believe that it would be a sin to not use that gift for the kingdom.
I heard recently about a person who is a member in a local Mennonite church, and if you are not familiar with the Mennonite Church, we tend to value things like frugality and thrift. But this was a person who was really good at making money. He knew what to invest in to increase his wealth. And he was a major donor to his local congregation and to the several other non-profit organizations in his geographical area. But he never felt like his gifting for making money was appreciated by his church. He felt like less of a Christian because of his ability to make money.
I know that I can be pretty hard on those who are rich and powerful, and I don’t think I am wrong in doing that. But I want to go on the record as saying that there is nothing wrong with making money if it is made without screwing over someone else. There is no sin in making money, but it would be a sin to not use that money for God’s kingdom. It would be a sin to keep all of that money for yourself. And if you have been given the gift of making money then it is a sin to not use that gift for the purpose that God has given it to you.
This brings me back to my beef with the newest version of the NIV, which chooses to translate talents as “bags of gold.” I understand why they did this. The word “talent” means skills, gifts, and so on in our context. So to better understand the original context of this passage, they chose to reference to money that cannot be confused for anything else. A bag of gold is a bag of gold. But when we use the word talent, we see that this passage isn’t about money, it is about using what God has given to you for God’s kingdom (I know that interpretation is frequently challenged, but I still stand by it).
Our English word “talent” comes to us from the Greek word τάλαντον which is used in our passage today. It is a unit of measurement commonly used in the first century to refer to a certain amount of money.
The word as we use it today means special ability or aptitude. You are born with talents: some can sing, others can dance, some can whistle really well. To say that you have talent means that you can do something better than most people.
We can be somewhat scientific and say that your talents come from a combination of your inherited genetics. For instance, if you parents met one another when they were both playing in the strings section of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, there is a good chance that you will have some musical talent. But regardless of whether you give your parents all of the credit for the talents that you have or don’t have, or if you simply look at your talents as a gift from God, the thing we can all agree upon is that there is nothing that you can do to earn your talents or your skills. They are a gift. There is nothing that you do to earn your talents.
If we look back at our scripture for today, the servants that were given the talents didn’t do anything to earn more or less talents. Instead the text tells us that they were given their talents according to their abilities. They are not distributed evenly. And if you watch American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, or any athletic competition, you know very well that talents are not distributed evenly.
But an important thing that I think we need to take note of from today’s passage is that while not everyone received the same amount of talent(s), everyone received something. The guy everyone loves to hate received five talents. He could sing, dance, beat you at any sport, and just to top it all off he is better looking than most of us. Then the next guy gets two talents. He is your average Joe, good at some things, but not great at everything. He is the jack of all trades, master of none. Then the last guy comes in, and he doesn’t have a lot going for him. But the master still gives him something to work with. The master gives him one talent. No, he didn’t receive but 20% of what the stud gets, and 50% of what the jack of all trades gets, but he still gets something.
It is always easy to look at other people and wonder why we were not as blessed as they were when the talents were handed out. As I’ve mentioned time and time again, I wish I was more gifted musically and athletically. But why do I focus on what I don’t have instead of focusing on what I have been given? I know that I am gifted in other areas and maybe someone at some time has looked at me and wished that they could have the talents that I possess. No, God does not distribute the talents equally. But everyone gets something. And what matters most is what you do with it.
When I say that, I don’t mean that we all have to go out and be professionals at something. I don’t think that God really even cares that much about how successful we are by the world’s standards in using our talents. Think about it like this. In our passage for today, the servant that was given the five talents is able to earn five more talents for the master. And the master replies in verse 21, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
Then the servant who had two talents is able to increase the master’s talents to four talents. That is not even half of the number of additional talents that the first servant was able to earn for the master. And what does the master say to this servant? He calls him a lazy and wicked servant and instructs the others to throw him into the outer darkness, right? No, in verse 23 the master says, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
Word-for-word, the master gives the second servant the same amount of praise and the same reward even though he netted the master 250% less than the first servant. It is only the last servant, the one who is given a talent and does absolutely nothing with it who is called lazy and wicked. God wants us to try.
I own a particular shirt that is extremely slippery. I don’t know if it is rayon or just what it is made of, but it is slippery. I happened to be wearing that particular shirt the other day when I decided I would see how slippery that particular shirt is against the hardwood floors in our kitchen. So I lay myself down on my back, grabbed ahold of one of the legs of the table in our kitchen, and I gave myself a good spin. Turns out (no pun intended) I could spin a lot like the break dancers that you might see from time to time, spinning on their backs with their legs acting as a gyroscope. I bet you didn’t realize that I had that talent, because I sure didn’t!
So my desire was to share my talent with my family. I am lying on the floor spinning like a top, I invite my little boy to come and sit on my chest as I flung myself around one more time. What I failed to realize was that the center of gravity on this spinning gyroscope had now been moved slightly off center, causing me to spin rapidly off course, my head caroming off the very leg of the table that I had used to set my body in motion.
By all observations, my breakdancing career was an utter failure. I had attempted to make something of my spinning talent and it ended with a headache and bruised ego. But perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on myself because there was one little individual that wanted me to do it again and again. To Paxton, it didn’t matter how good I was at spinning on my back, he just liked to see me try and try again.
My friends, it’s not about how much talent you have. It isn’t even about how much you are able to achieve with the amount of talent you have. What matters to God is that you try. God wants you to try to use the gifts that he has given to you. God knows that not everyone is going to be able to achieve or perform at the same level because God knows that not everyone has been given the same amount of talent. But God doesn’t care about that. God only asks that you try.