Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

The parable of the talents is among the most abused texts in the New Testament.

November 13, 2011

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Commentary on Matthew 25:14-30

The parable of the talents is among the most abused texts in the New Testament.

Contrary to what might be modeled by some best-selling televangelists, the parable does not justify a gospel of economic prosperity. Instead, it challenges believers to emulate their Master by using all that God has given them for the sake of the kingdom.

The parable is located in Jesus’ eschatological discourse (24:1-25:46) where he instructs his disciples to endure through difficult times and to live in anticipation of the Lord’s return. Like all the parables in this section, it exemplifies the certainty of the Lord’s coming and how the disciples are to live in the meantime.

The teaching of the talents recalls the parable of the faithful and wise slave who continues to do the work of the master until the master comes (24:45-51). Although the master is delayed, he arrives to find the wise slave doing the tasks that have been appointed to him in the master’s absence.

The foolish slave, however, has neglected his work and abused his power. He receives severe punishment. Likewise, in the parable of the talents, the master entrusts his servants with his property, and punishment awaits those who have failed to carry on the master’s work (24:49-51).

Like the parable of the ten maidens before it, the parable of the talents portrays the kingdom of God (25:14). The kingdom is not simply likened to a man on a journey, but to the story that follows — a story that illustrates how the disciples are to wait until the Lord comes.

In this story a wealthy man prepares for a journey by entrusting his estate to his servants.  In the Lukan version of this parable (Luke 19:12-27), ten slaves receive one pound a piece to do the master’s business. In the Matthean version, however, there are only three servants, and they receive shares according to their ability (25:15).

Although the first receives five times as much as the last, each receives a significant sum of money. A talent is equal to about 6,000 denarii. Since one denarius is a common laborer’s daily wage, a talent would be roughly equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. Five talents, the largest amount entrusted to any of the servants, is comparable to one hundred years worth of labor, an astronomical amount of money. 

Like the preceding two parables (24:45-51; 25:1-13), the return of the master is certain, but the timing is unknown. After a long absence, he discovers what each servant has done with his property. The first two slaves do business with the master’s talents and double his money. Although the first slave earned more than the second, each has done remarkably well with what he has been given. They have performed according to their potential, and they have been faithful to do what the master has required of them. The master’s response to each is the same. He commends the slaves for being good and faithful, entrusts them with more authority, and invites them to enter his “joy.”

The third servant is not so fortunate. In the response of this slave, however, the audience learns even more about the master. He is a man who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he has not scattered seed. He aggressively seeks to expand his estate and takes whatever he can wherever he can to make a profit. He even reprimands the servant for failing to invest the money with the bankers so that he might have gained interest — a practice forbidden in scripture (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-38).

The master’s willingness to earn money at the expense of others challenges any allegorical interpretation of the parable that would directly correlate him with Jesus, who never acts in a manner to seek personal gain. That a wealthy landowner would behave in this manner, however, makes the story all the more compelling. 

The third slave admits that he was afraid to lose the master’s money. To protect himself, he buried the talent in the ground. Although this may seem odd to audiences today, burying treasure was quite common at this time (13:44).

The master is furious. He had entrusted this servant with a portion of his property in order that the slave would use his abilities — abilities that had helped the master in the past — in order to turn a profit for his lord. This slave, however, was too afraid to take a risk — even though risky behavior was part of the master’s business. Instead, he attempted to secure his own well-being. In the end his unfaithfulness to carry on the master’s work cost him severely (25:30).

The master expected the servants to continue his business, to take risks to make a profit, and to emulate his behavior. Two servants were found faithful, and they are rewarded. Their faithfulness had increased the master’s wealth and expanded his estate.

In its literary setting, Jesus tells this story to his disciples (24:3) to prepare them for the days ahead when their faith will be tested. This parable depicts how the disciples are to demonstrate their faithfulness as they anticipate the return of the Lord.

What does faithfulness look like in a time of waiting? In Matthew’s Gospel faithfulness is emulating the ministry of Jesus. Jesus has announced the arrival of God’s kingdom by feeding the hungry, curing the sick, blessing the meek, and serving the least.

All who would follow Jesus are to preach the good news of the kingdom to the whole world (24:14) by going about the work that the master has called them to do (24:24-51). This work includes visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and feeding the hungry (25:31-46). Those who are found faithful may hear their Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”