Today we’re in Matthew 25:14-30, the Parable of the Talents. If you grew up going to Sunday School, you likely know this story well! But in case you need a refresher, here’s a summary:
Jesus has been trying to tell His disciples in Matthew 24 about the end times, warning Him that He will be going away. They don’t really get the point, so in chapter 25 he tells them 3 parables (stories that illustrate what He’s just taught). I think it’s important to put our parable in context because I hadn’t actually realized where this story occurred in the overall timeline. In the next chapter, Matthew tells us of the plot to kill Jesus. Jesus tells these stories in the week before His crucifixion. He wants the disciples to understand that even though things will look really bad really soon, He will come back.
So with that in mind, as I was reading the Parable of the Talents I saw it almost as Jesus listing bequests in a will. Verse 14 says, “‘For [the Kingdom of Heaven] will be like a man going on a journey who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.'” The text lists 3 servants: one receives 5 talents, one receives 2 talents, and the third receives 1 talent. (A talent was a weight of gold shaped like a flat disc, generally thought to weigh about 75 pounds. This link has some helpful information about the history of the talent, as well as what it would be worth in US dollars today.) The disciples would have understood that Jesus was talking about large sums of money for each servant to manage, probably more money than most of them would see in a lifetime.
As the story continues, we see that Servant 1 “went at once” (verse 16) and traded with the talents he had been given and ultimately made 5 more. If you’re keeping score, he started with 375 pounds of gold and now has 750 pounds. Servant 2 did the same and had similar results, doubling his 150 pounds of gold into 300. But Servant 3 dug in the ground and “buried his master’s money” (verse 18). (I have no idea how long it would take to dig a hole big enough for a flat 75-pound disc of gold.) Servant 3 rounds out the leaderboard, starting with 75 pounds of gold and finishing with 75 pounds of gold.
We will talk about what happens when the master returns from his journey next week. This week I want to talk about the talents themselves.
I’ve always been slightly distracted by the English word “talent” because it instantly makes me think of abilities instead of money. If you’ve had the same problem, please just know you’re not alone. “Talent” comes from the Greek word for this unit of money and was passed down to us with the interpretation of this parable intact. Jesus was using the concrete example of money to illustrate the abstract idea of what was to be entrusted to the disciples: talents, tasks, abilities, opportunities, skills. I think these words are interchangeable in this story.
Now that we have definitions, let’s look at some key points just from the first half of the story:
1. The talents were entrusted. The servants did not previously have these talents, and when the master returned the talents would need to be returned to him. The servants did not own or earn their talents. The same is true for me – as a servant of the Master I have never owned or earned my talents, skills, abilities, etc. They have been entrusted to me for the purpose of building the Kingdom. And at the end of my life, an accounting will be demanded of how I used my talents, how I performed my tasks, what I made of my opportunities. In fact, the next parable tells exactly what that will look like.
Sometimes I am really good at pretending that my talents and abilities are my own. I can go a really long time using my skills on tasks that serve me or my family only, without ever stopping to consider what God would prefer I do with the time. I am truly working on this. It’s important that we remain faithful with the gifts entrusted to us.
2. The talents were traded. Servants One and Two went “at once” and put the money to work. The text doesn’t tell us what they did or how they knew what to do, but I have an idea: I think they followed the example of the master. He knew their abilities. They had been with him for some time, observing how he did business (evidenced later in verse 24). It isn’t too big of a leap to say that in “trading” the money the servants were simply following the example set by their master.
I may not be able to quantify the talents I have, but I do know the tasks set before me. As I act each day, am I asking myself if I’m following the example of the Master? Am I using this skill the way He would use it? Am I performing tasks that give life to others, or am I fulfilling my own selfish desires?
Also of note: this use of “at once” to describe the actions of Servants One and Two. Is there immediacy to my obedience? Or do I delay or wait for “further clarification?” If I delay obedience I am much more like Servant Three. I may not have visible dirt under my fingernails, but I’ve certainly wasted the opportunities to use my talent, perform tasks, and please my Master.
3. There was risk involved. This is where I actually have a little bit of sympathy for Servant Three because I am also risk-averse. In talking about the talents as money you can see that investing them carried the risk of loss. It’s hard to see that translate over into talents and tasks. We don’t lose talent by using it. But we do risk losing relationships sometimes. We lose the hold on the sense of identity we thought we owned. Obeying God always results in a change within me. There’s risk there because we get comfortable with who we think we are. But what if that sense of identity is another gift entrusted to us – something else we never owned or earned?
At retreat recently our speaker, Jamie Taylor, said something that impacted me and actually sent me off on this study of talents. She said, “Who am I willing to become, as a living sacrifice of praise?” There’s risk here. Am I willing to offer my talents back to Jesus to be used as He wants instead of hoarding them to use in a way that is comfortable for me? The level of willingness to become who God wants me to be will determine how quickly I act in obedience.
4. But there was also growth involved. For Servants One and Two, we see they doubled what was entrusted to them. So what does that look like in terms of talents and tasks?
We often think of talent as abilities we’re born with and skills as abilities we develop. I think these are good definitions, but I think we can also uncover new talents as we need them. Some talents remain unknown for years simply because our lifestyle or environment didn’t present a need for them. But in walking in obedience to God and saying yes to the tasks in front of us we have the opportunities to uncover those hidden talents and develop new skills. I looked at my own life as an example of this. Twenty years ago, I was a college student who liked singing and learning new things. I had talent in music and in retaining knowledge, and I developed skills in line with those strengths and interests. Over the next few years, I had children and discovered a talent for various aspects of motherhood, as well as cooking. 5.5 years I went back to work in the corporate sector and rediscovered a skill set for office work – combined with my talent for learning quickly, it set me on a path to a new career that I didn’t know existed when I was in college. So you see if we’re really trying to quantify talents and abilities, in twenty years I have more than doubled what I think I started with.
We grow through obedience. It changes us. We cease to be “just a servant” and become people who do business just like the Master.
Next week we’ll look at what Servants One and Three might look like in the church today. In the list above, where do you find yourself? Are you struggling with trying to own your abilities? Not sure where to start “trading” them? Let me know in the comments!