In the parable of the talents Jesus reminds us that the Master will inevitably return. In that day, God's blessings will abound for those who retain their faith, but for those whose faith is but a distant memory, there is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth.
v14. The statement, "again it will be like", is probably a shorthand way of saying "for the kingdom of heaven will be like (can be compared to the situation where) a man, going on a journey", leaves his assets with three associates, expecting to return and share in the profits.
v15. A talent is a variable, but worth something like six thousand denarii, $300,000. Numerous meanings are suggested for the "talent", eg. God-given resources, the gifts of the Spirit, etc. The trouble is, this parable is not an allegory and should not be interpreted like one.
v16-18. The faithful associates put the money to work, in the sense of using it in a business enterprise. The faithless associate buries it out of fear, laziness or plain nastiness.
v19-23. After a long time the master returns. The faithful associates, given graded resources comparable to their abilities, are equally rewarded with greater responsibilities and receive the master's "well done."
v24-25. On the surface, the third associate does seem to act carefully and with respect, even diligence, toward the master. Of course, it could be argued that his actions, in a sense, accused the master of being grasping. If he increases the master's capital he will not share in any of it, while if he loses any of the capital he will be held responsible. So, out of spite, he gives the master back what belonged to him, no more and no less.
v26-27. It could be argue that the third associate virtually condemns himself. He could have easily put the talent out on loan and so gained some income for the master. To act with such spite toward a "hard" master is only asking for trouble. It's worth noting that in New Testament times the distinction between "interest" and "usury" was well understood. Even Roman law set a maximum rate of 12%.
v28. The faithless associate loses his talent, along with everything else.
v29. This verse serves to apply the parable. Its logic is anything but logical to a Western mindset - God can add something to a full vessel, but adds nothing to an empty one. Joel Marcus explains the point nicely for the Western mindset; "if a person takes a tiny step toward God, God will more than match this movement." Of course, the opposite also applies. So, the person who has accomplished, who holds firmly to God's promises in Christ, that person will possess those promises in abundance.
v30. Jesus concludes with the language of judgment, of a coming day of reckoning.
The parable of the talents, particularly v29, is applied in many and various ways. For example, Willoughby Allen says the parable concerns the spiritual opportunities available to believers, and the use made of them. "The man who had ten talents had his chance and used it. He deserved encouragement. The man who had buried his talent had missed his chance. It was therefore withdrawn from him." Dick France says the "parable takes up the question which that of the bridesmaids left unanswered: what is readiness? It is not a matter of passively waiting, but of responsible activity, producing results which the coming master can see and approve. For the period of waiting was not intended to be an empty, meaningless delay, but a period of opportunity to put to good use the talents entrusted to his slaves." Frank Gaebelein says "the parable insists that the watchfulness that must mark all Jesus' disciples does not lead to passivity, but to doing one's duty, to growing, to husbanding and developing the resources God entrusts to us, 'till after a long time' the master returns and settles accounts."
I have to say I like all these ideas, they are true, but they probably don't represent the teaching of this parable. Just take a look at the parable for a moment; what's it all about? Isn't it about the settling of accounts? It's not about what goes on while the master is away, but what happens when he gets back. This is a good news, bad news story; a reward and punishment story. The parable is all about God's eternal reign bursting in upon at this very moment and the settling of accounts that will soon take place.
In verse twenty nine Matthew has helped us out by reproducing a saying of Jesus which serves to focus our thinking. When God settles our accounts, its the full glass that gets topped up with God's blessings, not the empty one; the empty one is sucked dry. This image doesn't actually work for a Western mindset, but the point is simple enough, the person who "has", who hold firmly to God's promises in Christ with all their doubts and fears, the faith as small as a mustard seed, it is that person who fully receives God's promises on the day when he settles the accounts.
I will let Emily Dickinson sum it up for us; "As if I asked a common Alms, And in my wondering hand, A stranger pressed a Kingdom, And I, bewildered, stand."
1. Does the "talent" represent anything?
2. What is the situation represented by the third servant?
3. Discuss the proposition that the third servant's failure had more to do with his attitude toward the master than his management of his "talent", ie. his problem was faded faith, not failed works.