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Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age — Part VI: The Parable of the Talents

Article contributed by www.walvoord.com

[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 is the sixth and concluding illustration that our Lord uses relative to preparedness for the second advent. As in previous illustrations, the interpretation relates to those who will be awaiting Christ’s second coming to the earth rather than the rapture of the church. The application of the principles involved, however, may appropriately be considered by those who are looking forward to the rapture of the church and the judgment seat of Christ. The context is not of a lord who takes his servants from earth to heaven, but rather a lord who returns to the scene of earth and judges his servants.

This illustration does not concern itself with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, as seen in the parable of the ten virgins, but rather deals with judgment of works as an evidence of right relationship to the Lord. The parable views life in relationship to service and the proper use of opportunity as evidence of preparedness and expectation of the return of the Lord.

In verse 14, which opens the account, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a man traveling into a far country who calls his own servants and delivered unto them his goods. The reference to “the kingdom of heaven” is omitted from some manuscripts but the parable obviously deals with the period before the Lord’s second advent. It was quite customary in the ancient world for a man to turn his property over to a servant, often a slave, who would administer his business for him in his absence. According to verse 15 , he called in three servants. To the one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, “to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.” A talent is a sum of money, which varied in its value in different periods of history. A talent was actually a weight of money varying from 58 to 80 pounds.1 A silver talent varied from $1000 to $2000 in value. A gold talent could be worth more than $30,000. It is probable that these talents were silver talents, and that they were worth about $2,000 apiece, but if they were gold talents, they were worth about $30,000 apiece. The purchasing power of this money should be viewed in a context of a person who would work all day for 15¢. The value of a talent was much greater in proportion than it is in our modern world. So the five-talent man, if they were gold talents, received $150,000, or if silver, $10,000. In purchasing power today, this would be equivalent to a fortune. The two-talent man, accordingly may have received as much as $60,000, and the one-talent man $30,000, if they were gold talents.

This shows that the master had a good deal of confidence in these men, but he did not hold confidence in them equally. So he gave them different responsibility. In verse 16 , it states that they immediately got busy. “Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.” Then as now in business, it is possible to make money, but it is also possible to lose money. It is obvious that this servant must have been a careful and shrewd businessman in order to be able to double his money. The two-talent man did likewise: “And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.” He also doubled his money. “But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money” (Matt 25:18). Here the word for “money” is the word for silver (Gr. argurion), but may mean any kind of money.2

The account continues, “After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more” (Matt 25:19-20). The work that was involved in this five-talent gain was not easy, but how proud was this moment for the servant as he gave account of what had been committed to him. He could report that he had gained five talents more. And the lord commended him. He said to him, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou has been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matt 25:21).

Then we are told that “He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them” (Matt 25:22). In verse 23 the lord commends the two-talent servant with exactly the same words as the five-talent man. “His lord said unto him, well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”

This, of course, introduces an important principle that stewardship is always reckoned according to faithfulness. It is not how much, but how faithful. The five-talent man and the two-talent man had been equally faithful and they received equal commendation. This is a great comfort to servants of the Lord because as they look about they soon find someone who is more successful and more talented, perhaps more intelligent or more wealthy than they are. Obviously, the Lord does not give everyone the same talents. It is not quite true that all men are created equal. Men are created quite unequal, and no two of them are exactly alike in their stewardship. But the important fact is that at the judgment, as illustrated here, it will not be a question of how much or how successful, but how faithful. The lord of these servants expects from them only in proportion as he has given to them. So there is a sense in which everyone has an equal opportunity to be rewarded.

The one-talent man when it comes his turn to report attempted to excuse his inactivity: “Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine” (Matt 25:24-25).

There was some innuendo in this reply from the one-talent man. He describes his lord as a very hardheaded, grasping businessman. He tells him that he is the kind of a man who reaps where he has not sown, and gathers where he has not spread. In those days, boundaries sometimes were rather indefinite and they did not always bother to plow a field. They would just scatter the grain and it would grow. When it came to reaping, they were not above taking a little of the seed that had fallen on the neighbor’s property. He said that his lord was the kind of person that got everything he could. He implied that the lord was not completely honest.

The lord of this servant does not bother to deny the charge although he does not accept the verdict that he is a “hard” man. If the servant really believed his lord was hard and grasping he would have been all the more diligent to please him. In any event it was no excuse. Of course, whenever a person fails to do his duty, the tendency is always to find some excuse. That is what this man was doing. As Tasker points out, “The third servant’s estimate of his master as a hard money-making Jew who ‘enriched himself at the cost of others, gathering gain where he had not spent’ (McNeile), was untrue; but the master’s point is that the servant, believing as he did that it was true, ought to have been all the more concerned to see that he had something more to bring to him on his return from abroad than the one bag of gold he had received!”3

But his master answers him abruptly: “Thou wicked and slothful [lazy] servant. Thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury” (Matt 25:26-27). The evaluation of the lord of the servant is pointed. Why did not this man put his money out at interest? Probably this would have been safe to do, and he would have had at least some income to report, and that without any effort on his part. But instead of that, he went in the backyard and dug a hole and put the money in the hole and buried it.

Even in our modern day when people bury money in the backyard, it usually has a bad connotation. Perhaps they are trying to avoid tax or perhaps it is ill-gotten gain of some sort, because the normal, respectable thing is to put it in a bank. Why did not the one-talent servant put it in the bank? Commentators generally are vague on this point. His lord said that he was not only lazy but wicked. What was there wicked about this?

This man seems to have given in to some cunning reasoning. It is much like the thinking of Judas Iscariot when he sold his Lord. Judas reasoned, if He is really the Messiah, my betrayal will not hurt anything and I will get my money from the High Priest. If He is not the Messiah, then at least I get the money. This one-talent man reasoned somewhat the same way. His lord was going on a far journey. If the servant put the money in the bank, he would have to register it in his lord’s name. Then when his lord did not come back, his heirs could claim it. He reasoned, however, that if be buried it in the backyard, there would be no record. If his master did not come back, the servant would have it. If he does come back, he could not accuse him of dishonesty because he could produce the talent. It was a cunning that was built upon uncertainty that the Lord was returning. He just did not believe that his lord was coming back. If he had, he would have handled the money differently. This is what the lord meant when be said that he was a wicked servant.

In verse 28 , the instructions are given, “Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which be hath” (Matt 25:28-29).

Verse 29 has been the subject of some misapprehension. When it says, “Unto everyone that hath shall be given,” the natural question is, “To everyone that hath what?” Does it refer to everyone who hath works, or to everyone who has moral character? What is the difference between the one-talent man, and the two-talent man, and the five-talent man?

To be sure, their works are different and their character was somewhat different, but the point of the illustration is the five-talent man and the two-talent man believed their lord was coming back and they worked in keeping with their faith. The one-talent man did what he did because he did not believe. So ultimately it comes back to the question of the reality of faith in the words of their lord. The expression “to everyone that hath” means to everyone who hath faith, everyone who has expectation in his Lord. Works are not the ground of salvation; they are simply the evidence of faith. Here works are presented as an evidence of true faith in the Lord.

Verse 30 concludes, “And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This outer darkness could not refer to the destiny of Christians. This one-talent man, while he was given opportunity to trust in his lord and to serve him, did not really believe in his lord’s return. It is typical of those who have heard and rejected the truth concerning the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The unprofitable servant is one who was not saved, not redeemed, and therefore not rewarded for his service. This parable, bringing to a close the application and illustration of the truth of the Lord’s return, makes clear the relation of future hope to present faithfulness. Belief in the Lord’s return is revealed as an important evidence of faith and a practical incentive for faithful service.

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, 1957), p. 811.

2 Ibid.

3 R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, 1961), p. 237.