My dad, when I was growing up, had this annoying habit of sing-songing, “if you never use it… you will surely lose it … you’ve got a talent, use it for the Lord!” He would sing it when I didn’t practice my clarinet. He would remind me with the song that I had a debate team tournament coming up. My dad even tried to sing it at me a few times when I didn’t want to do the dishes. Anything and everything, small or large, whether or not I actually was good at it, could come under the purview of the song.
Now, years later, I sometimes sing it to myself when I least expect it. I know for a fact that I’m not as chirpy as my dad when I sing it. He always seemed to have boundless energy when it came to encouraging me. However, all these years later, I’ve got the tune and the easy lyrics down even if Dad hasn’t sung it at me in since I went away to college.
I bring this up because today we have the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25. I will admit that there is an unintentional play on words with my mentioning of my song, but I know someone picked up on it long before I was lisping my first tune as a toddler. What’s the play? Well, it’s the parable of the talents—a Hebrew term of measurement—but Jesus is speaking about our abilities and talents—or our gifts.
Before we begin, as always, we must examine the historical context with a parable and what Jesus was saying in the moment to his historical audience. This meaning has to do with talents, a unit of measurement or, more specifically, weight.
Next, we will look at it more broadly and delve into Jesus’s universal meaning for all Christians throughout time… and that happens to be about our gifts and our talents, and how we use them.
If you unfortunately now have the tune “you’ve got a talent” stuck in your head—well, you are not alone as I’m now humming it.
A Brief Note on the Context of Slavery
Slavery was a very real and present element in society when Jesus walked this earth 2,000 years ago. However, it was slightly different than our idea in America of slavery. I’ve written on the subject before, so I will be brief in this quick lowdown of information.
Slaves in this sense were people who were somewhere between servants and slaves as we understand them. It’s one of the reasons why different translations sometimes use the term “slaves” and others go with the less controversial term of “servants.” However, they are both approximations and don’t quite get to the actual situation.
In the time of Jesus, slaves could own property and possessions. They had religious rights if they were Jewish. When their masters or lords prospered, so did they. There was very rarely a racial or ethnic delineation between master and slave. If a slave was from the tribe of Judah, then his master most likely was as well.
So, when I write of “slaves,” think more of a servant who owes his employer a large debt and can’t leave until it’s paid. The Colonial idea of “indentured servant” wouldn’t be an incorrect association to make in your mind. It’s more of that sort of relationship than our modern notion of slavery.
Your Weight in Gold
A talent was a form of measurement, more specifically, weight. However, a talent could be of gold, silver, or some lesser metal. Think of it as a pound (lbs) but of a currency. So, 10 talents of gold is worth more than 10 talents of silver, and so on and so forth.
We come to the parable, however, with the idea that “all talents are created equal” at least in this particular case. We have a lord and three slaves. The first he gives 5 talents, the second roughly half that (2 talents), and the third half of that (1 talent).
We can easily see the gradation. All we need to know is that the master is making a distinction between the three slaves. The obvious question is why there’s a differentiation as all of the slaves have no other distinguishing qualities from one another in the parable.
It comes down to each man’s ability—each man’s talent. It’s not a matter of how much each is worth (which opens up our modern American minds to images of the American slave trade and money passing hands). It’s how much responsibility each slave can handle. How much ability he has. How much talent (in the sense of the English word) he has.
To make a modern parallel: we have three volunteers for a fundraiser. One can stuff 100 envelopes in an hour and so is given 100 envelopes. The next can stuff together 40 envelopes but has beautiful handwriting. Thus, this second volunteer is given 40 envelopes and a nice pen. The third volunteer is still in junior high and is prone to paper cuts so this volunteer is given 15 envelopes. They’re all potentially steady workers but they each have different strengths, different abilities, and so are given different amounts of work. Their supervisor recognizes that they’re all capable, they all believe in their cause, but the supervisor knows giving the second volunteer 100 envelopes will mean that someone else will have to pick up the slack if they’re not stuffed and addressed by the end of the day.
The First Two Slaves
Going back to our parable and away from our volunteers, there are different outcomes to what the slaves do with the talents they are entrusted with.
The first two take what they are given and turn it into more. They use their gifts to increase what their master has given them. The slave with 5 talents now possesses 10. The slave with 2 talents now has two more.
Their lord and master then rewards them – not with gifts, not with free time, but with more responsibility. They have proven themselves capable and the master rewards them by recognizing their capabilities, which is the greatest compliment he could give them in the world Jesus lived within.
The Third Slave
Now, I’ve always had sympathy for the third slave in this parable, although I can see where Jesus is coming from. So, if your first thought upon reading The Parable of the Talents is that he gets the short end of the stick, you are not alone.
The third slave is trusted with one talent and his first instinct is to hide it somewhere safe. We’re given his rational for this (he blames the master’s behavior, but that is neither here nor there as the slave is vilified in this parable). However, this behavior is something many of us can relate to.
If you have something precious, many of us want to protect it. This is an instinctual behavior. Imagine you suddenly inherited a diamond and you have nowhere to wear it as many of us are still in isolation. What would you do? Well, you may not bury it like the slave did, but you may very well put it in a drawer where you think no one will look, or in your safe under the bed. If it’s a diamond ring or necklace, you might put it away in your jewelry box for safe keeping. As I said, it’s instinctual, but that’s not what the parable tells us.
The lord, when he learns of the third slave’s behavior, accuses him of being lazy.
Why? Because he entrusted the third slave with 1 talent to match his own abilities and he squandered it. He didn’t use it in any way to make more talents or increase what he possessed. He didn’t even attempt to use it by making a bad investment.
Instead, the third slave was “wicked and lazy” – he did nothing when, as a representative of his lord, he should have been active and at least doing something.
The Historical Interpretation
Jesus, at the time, was making a historical observation.
The “master” or the “lord” in this situation is Kurios, which translates almost exactly “Lord” (which is why I choose to refer to him as “Lord” throughout this mini-sermon). It is also a term often used to refer to the Lord God.
The master, thus, is the Lord God. The three slaves are three followers or believers—the first two slaves represent what a follower of God should do. When given a task, when given a purpose, he should use his ability to complete it. He enacts change in the kingdom here on earth so that he will have a place in the Kingdom of Heaven. When he does well, God rewards him by giving him more work for his heavenly purpose.
The third slave is—quite obviously—the Pharisees who Jesus has been interacting with up to this point. They are given a task by the Lord—they are the ones who live the 613 laws and are to be pious—and they want nothing to change. They take what the Lord has given them and remain in stasis. They are stagnant. They are lazy. They cannot see that there is more work to be done, that there is a future other than the present they are enjoying. And for that they are “wicked” and “lazy,” and God punishes them with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (a reference to gehenna, or “Hell” as we call it).
A Modern Interpretation
Of course, Jesus wasn’t just talking about the Pharisees and people like them in first century Palestine, although his parable was clearly aimed at them.
He meant it for each and every person who follows God. He was trying to enact change. He was trying to tell everyone that they had gotten it wrong—that they had misinterpreted the Bible. God was not a cruel and jealous God in the way everyone thought. God did not require that they follow 613 rules that are repetitive to read and impossible to live by. God wanted one thing and one thing only—universal love and respect.
When a person (1) loves God unconditionally and (2) loves each other in the same way … the Kingdom of Heaven is created slowly but surely… one smile and act of love and kindness at a time.
But it’s a slow road. It’s been two thousand years and we still have yet to manage it. In building this new and perfect world, God gives us tasks according to each of our abilities or talents. It is our responsibility as his followers—as Christians—to do our best. To use our talents in the glorification of the Lord God.
After all… if you don’t, if you get rusty or out of practice, surely you’ll lose whatever talent or gift you have… and God was the one to give it to you to begin with.