The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
One of Jesus’ most significant parables regarding work is set in the context of investments (Matt. 25:14-30). A rich man delegates the management of his wealth to his servants, much as investors in today’s markets do. He gives five talents (a large unit of money) to the first servant, two talents to the second, and one talent to the third. Two of the servants earn 100 percent returns by trading with the funds, but the third servant hides the money in the ground and earns nothing. The rich man returns, rewards the two who made money, but severely punishes the servant who did nothing.
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The meaning of the parable extends far beyond financial investments. God has given each person a wide variety of gifts, and he expects us to employ those gifts in his service. It is not acceptable merely to put those gifts on a closet shelf and ignore them. Like the three servants, we do not have gifts of the same degree. The return God expects of us is commensurate with the gifts we have been given. The servant who received one talent was not condemned for failing to reach the five-talent goal; he was condemned because he did nothing with what he was given. The gifts we receive from God include skills, abilities, family connections, social positions, education, experiences, and more. The point of the parable is that we are to use whatever we have been given for God’s purposes. The severe consequences to the unproductive servant, far beyond anything triggered by mere business mediocrity, tell us that we are to invest our lives, not waste them.
Yet the particular talent invested in the parable is money, on the order of a million U.S. dollars in today’s world. In modern English, this fact is obscured because the word talent has come to refer mainly to skills or abilities. But this parable concerns money. It depicts investing, not hoarding, as a godly thing to do if it accomplishes godly purposes in a godly manner. In the end, the master praises the two trustworthy servants with the words, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave” (Matthew 25:23). In these words, we see that the master cares about the results (“well done”), the methods ("good”), and the motivation (“trustworthy”).
More pointedly for the workplace, it commends putting capital at risk in pursuit of earning a return. Sometimes Christians speak as if growth, productivity, and return on investment were unholy to God. But this parable overturns that notion. We should invest our skills and abilities, but also our wealth and the resources made available to us at work, all for the affairs of God’s kingdom. This includes the production of needed goods and services. The volunteer who teaches Sunday school is fulfilling this parable. So are the entrepreneur who starts a new business and gives jobs to others, the health service administrator who initiates an AIDS-awareness campaign, and the machine operator who develops a process innovation.
God does not endow people with identical or necessarily equal gifts. And God does not expect identical or necessarily equal results from everyone's work. In the parable, one servant makes a return of five talents, while another makes two talents. The master praises both equally (Matthew 25:23). It's important to observe that both servants invest for the benefit of their master, and they return to him not only his original investment, but also what they make on his behalf. When we say that everything we have is a "gift" form God, we don't mean that what we have belongs to us now, instead of to God. We mean that it is a privilege to be entrusted with talents, resources, and opportunities to work toward God's purposes in the world. The implication of the parable is that we if we do so, we take our place among all the faithful, trustworthy servants of God, no matter how big or small our accomplishments may seem.
For a discussion of the highly similar parable of the ten minas see "Luke 19:11-27" in Luke and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.
To read more about gifts and calling, see our Calling and Vocation Overview. To read more about using our gifts in community, see "Gifted Communities (1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40)."