Much is required of those who have been given things of great value.
Lesson Outcomes Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that we are entrusted with valuable resources and are expected to actively utilize and multiply them.
Should actively work and invest the spiritual gifts and blessings they’ve received from God to produce a significant impact for God’s kingdom, rather than passively preserving them or using them only for personal salvation.
Be challenged to move beyond simply avoiding harm and aim to actively do good and make a positive difference with the gifts and resources we have.
Catching up on the Story
After Jesus pronounces woes and judgment on the Jewish religious leadership, the disciples ask him what the sign will be that will indicate his return and the coming of the end of the age. Jesus responds with a series of warnings and parables about what it means for those who believe to be prepared for Christ's second coming. The first parable was about a faithful slave who worked hard to prepare for his master's return, even when he did not return immediately. The other slave failed to continue to look after the house's affairs when it became apparent that the master would not soon return. The unfaithful slave will be tossed out when the master returns.
The second parable depicted ten bridesmaids waiting to usher the bridegroom into the wedding banquet. Five of the bridesmaids were thoughtless and needed to bring more oil to ensure their torches would burn brightly. The other five were thoughtful and had enough oil. They were prepared when the bride eventually returned. The first five were excluded from entering into the joyful wedding banquet.
The themes running through these first two parables are present in the third parable. There is an important person, a master and the groom, for whom the parties in the parables anxiously await. Those who acted properly in the absence of the important person are rewarded with being able to continue in the presence of that important person. These themes will also be present in this week's passage.
Jesus begins this parable with a "For it is as if…" (NRSV) or "Again, it will be like…" (NIV), and this connects this parable with the preceding one. Matthew's Jesus wants to connect this story with the one that went before in a specific way. In other words, the parable of the bridesmaids and this parable about investment are very similar. They both discuss what it looks like to be prepared for Christ's return.
The main character in this parable is a master who owns land, has a good amount of liquid capital, and has a fair amount of people who work as stewards of what he owns. The master calls his slaves, literally, his slaves. For us, the word "slaves" carries with it distinct imagery that is derived from America's cultural history. It's important to remember that slaves could refer to a wide range of workers involved in the daily operations of a wealthy household. While the life of a slave was not always easy, slaves could work up the household ladder and gain positions of power and responsibility. That a master would have given some of his assets to slaves so they might be invested in the master's absences would not have been uncommon. Jesus is, however, highlighting the fact that these slaves belong to him. Stressing the fact that the slaves belong to the master also indicates that the parable is dealing with those who are already a part of God's family. For Jesus' original hearers, especially in the immediate context, this points to Israel and her leadership. For us who hear this story today, the slaves confess to be followers of Jesus Christ.
The master calls three slaves before he sets off on his journey. He takes and gives the first slaves five Talents. A word about Talents is appropriate here. A Talent was the largest denomination of money in Jesus’ day. It would have been equivalent to a year’s wage for about 100 day laborers. It was a substantial amount of money in the form of silver. The Talents in the story do not refer to our “talents” as we commonly understand them.
The master gives five Talents to the first slave; to the second slave, he gives two Talents; and to the third slave, he gives one Talent. Jesus tells us that the master gave "each according to his ability," literally, their own "power." Let's be clear: the money that is given to the slaves is still the property of the master. The master has judged his slaves and has entrusted his money to them by how he thinks they will respond to the responsibility.
The master sets out on his journey, and immediately, the slaves go out and begin to use the money they have been given to make more money. Both the NRSV (went off at once and traded with them…) and the NIV (put his money to work…) translate verse 16 in a rather passive way. The force of the Greek paints a bit of a different picture. It could be translated like this, "The one who had received five talents went off immediately and began to work his money hard, and it produced five more talents." Upon receiving the money, the first servant actively and immediately went and worked hard so that the money he had been entrusted with also worked hard. We are told the second servant does the same thing. Each of the first two servants doubled their money.
The third servant, on the other hand, received his Talent, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his money. Digging a hole in the ground and hiding a treasure was a common way to safeguard things of value. In fact, rabbinical teaching often suggested that this was the safest way of protecting your valuables.
The master returns from his voyage and calls his servants together to get an account of how they have used the money he gave them. The first servant comes forward and calls his master to look at what he has done. The action, according to the Greek, could be considered to be quite formal in the context of a religious setting, as in one bringing a sacrifice before a deity. The first and second slaves bring the fruits of their labor before their master in joy and reverence. Both slaves offer the same words. In joy, they call upon their master to look at the fruit of their labor.
The master responds to both slaves in the same way. Because of their faithfulness and hard work, the master is pleased with them. Their hard work and responsibility will earn them greater responsibility. Not only that, they are invited to “enter into the joy of your master.” Being a slave could be a thankless job, even for slaves who were trusted with great responsibility. Entering into the master's joy may invite us to think back to the joy the bridesmaids experience at the groom's coming. Faithfulness is rewarded with inclusion in the celebration of the master's return.
It’s interesting to note that the reward for being faithful and bearing fruit is more responsibility. Often, we have imagined the reward for a well-lived Christian life to be entering into the rest of heaven when we die. And that is partially true. But the reality is that the reward for a faithful and fruitful Christian life is more responsibility! The more we work hard with the capital that God has entrusted to us, the more capital we will be given.
The third slave, however, is an entirely different matter. He has not acted with zeal and ambition; rather, he has acted safely. The reason for hiding the money in the ground becomes apparent as he addresses his master. Missing in the slave's address to the master is any sense of joy and religious devotion. Rather, there is fear. The third slave tells his master that he is afraid to work with the money because, in doing so, he might lose it and incur his master's wrath.
The picture of the master that the third slave presents can be troublesome for us if we are to consider that the master represents God. Is Jesus depicting God as a "harsh man," one who reaps what he did not sow and gathers where he did not plant? Some think that the slave is giving a backhanded compliment, all the while placing the blame for his inaction on the master himself. Similarly, John Wesley believes the slave blamed the master because the master would expect more from him than he alone could deliver. Instead of trying, the slave merely rolls over and blames the master, as Wesley believes, "every obstinate sinner, in one kind or other, lay the blame of his own sins on God."
The master is none too pleased with this third slave. Whereas the other slaves entered into the master’s joy, the final slave is called wicked and lazy! At the very least, the master says, the slave could have invested his Talent with the banks to earn a little interest! The result is that the third slave has the money for which he was responsible taken from him and given to the slave with ten talents. Not only that but the third slave is tossed out into the outer darkness!
John Wesley brings the uncomfortable point of the parable into focus,
“Cast ye the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness—For what? what had he done? It is true he had not done good. But neither is he charged with doing any harm. Why, for this reason, for barely doing no harm, he is consigned to outer darkness. He is pronounced a wicked [servant], because he was a slothful [servant], an unprofitable servant. So mere harmlessness, on which many build their hope of salvation, was the cause of his damnation! There shall be the weeping—Of the careless thoughtless sinner; and the gnashing of teeth—Of the proud and stubborn.”
The third servant is rejected from service and excluded from the master's joy merely for being unfruitful! Remember that this parable is directed at those who profess to be followers of Jesus. Some, it seems, are zealous for the work of the Lord. They have been given a thing of great value, God's gospel of grace, peace, love, friendship, hospitality, justice, forgiveness, and redemption, and they have taken those things and have invested them in the world around them and have been fruitful. Others, on the other hand, are scared or lazy and have done nothing with the good news we have received.
What does it mean for us to be prepared when Jesus comes back? As ones who have received the gift of Jesus' love and grace, we are to immediately go out and work those gifts to produce a return on Jesus' investment. I fear, however, that all too often, we are like the third slave in this story. We have received this great and valuable gift from God through Jesus, and, for whatever reason, we fail to do anything worthwhile with it. It is not that we are bad or immoral people. We are not! It is not even that we are lazy, for many of us work very hard. Maybe it's because we are apathetic. Maybe we have been defeated by the magnitude of the work before us as we survey the world and only see scenes of hurt and tragedy. Maybe we believe that the gift God has given us to invest is only good for our own personal salvation. Whatever the case is, we have not, as Wesley says, done harm; we just have not done the good we should do.
One commentator (Longenecker 87-88) sums up the passage nicely,
“Thus to be ready for his coming is to be active on behalf of the kingdom of heaven and to have results to show for it. It is to show initiative and to take risks in order to achieve something for God. Those who had cause to fear his coming are those who have not made use of the opportunities and privileges entrusted to them, who have buried their money in the ground and so achieved nothing for the kingdom of heaven –or, to echo another parable, who have hidden their lamp under a meal-tub, with the result that no one has been able to see their light and so been drawn to give glory to their father in heaven (5:15-16). For them there will be no ‘Well done!’”
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
One Talent was equal to about a year’s wages for 100 day laborers. Why does the master entrust his slaves with such a great deal of money?
Jesus tells us that the first two slaves went off and worked their money hard so that it would bring a sizable return. In the Christian life, what might it look like to work the gifts of salvation, love, and grace that God has given us hard so that we might gain a sizable return?
The first two slaves are not afraid that they have not done enough. Rather they present their money to the master with joy and pride. How could this be a model for what we do together as we work in and for our church?
The third slave buried his money in the ground. What do you think he was trying to accomplish?
Have you ever buried the gifts God gave you in the ground? What might that look like?
The third slave has not really done anything wrong. He has not wasted the money the master has given him, yet he is called wicked and lazy. Why does the master call him that?
Are you content with just doing no harm, or are you seeking to do all the good you can as well?
Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004).
Richard Longenecker, The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).
John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Bletchley: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005).
John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Fourth American Edition (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818).