The Parable of the Talents
Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27
Mark Walker


Setting

Matthew's Parable of the Talents is set in the context of Jesus’ eschatological discourse. In 24:2 Jesus announces that the temple will one day be destroyed. Then, as Jesus sits on the Mount of Olives, his disciples come to him and ask when all of this -- "your coming and . . . the end of the age" (Matt. 24:3) -- will happen. Jesus' eschatological discourse in chs. 24 and 25 answers their question. The Parable of the Talents is one part of this discourse.

Luke's Parable of the Ten Minas has a quite different setting. In Luke 18:31-34, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem, where he will die. But the disciples do not understand what Jesus is doing. The disciples think Jesus will be crowned king when he arrives in Jerusalem. Knowing this, Jesus tells the parable as they near Jerusalem in order to ward off any misunderstandings of the Parousia and what would happen in Jerusalem.

There is yet another version of this parable that deserves mention. In the Gospel of the Nazarenes there is one servant who multiplied the money entrusted to him, one servant who hid the money entrusted to him, and one servant who spent the money on harlots and flute-girls. The first servant is commended; the second servant is blamed; and the third servant is thrown into prison. Here we see a substitution of extravagance for unfaithfulness (Jeremias 58). Jeremias identifies this version as "a moralistic perversion which the parable has undergone in the Jewish-Christian Church" (58).


Exegetical Analysis

Despite a number of differences between the parables in Matthew and in Luke, the main story line is fairly similar. Crossan claims that this suggests Matthew and Luke did not get this parable from Q, but from their own independent sources (98). The basic story is as follows:

A man (a nobleman in Luke) went on a journey and entrusted his property to three of his servants (ten servants in Luke). While the man was gone two of the servants increased the amount of money given to them, but one of the servants simply hid the money away. Upon the man's return home, the first two servants are rewarded for their actions and the third servant is condemned for his lack of action.

Matthew and Luke cite differing amounts of money. In Matthew five talents, two talents, and one talent are given to the servants. One talent is equivalent to 6,000 denarii or the earnings of a day laborer for about 20 years. In Luke’s Gospel each of the servants is given ten pounds, or minas. One mina is equal to a salary for about three months (Hare 286). While both gospels speak of a large sum of money that is entrusted to the servants, the amount in Matthew is much larger than that in Luke. Douglas Hare suggests that the significance of the amount of money in Matthew could be intended to remind us of the preciousness of the gifts that God has given us (286).

In Luke all of the servants receive an equal amount of money. In Matthew each receives according to his ability. However, even the servant who received one talent in Matthew has been entrusted with an enormous amount of money.

It is at this point that Luke’s story strays significantly from Matthew’s. Luke interjects another element -- what is called the story of the Throne Claimant. The Throne Claimant refers to a nobleman who went away to receive a client-kingdom. However, his citizens hated him and so they sent a group of people after him to try to prevent the man from receiving the kingdom. When the man returned as king he rewarded his faithful servants and punished those who objected to his rule.

Scholars believe that the Throne Claimant refers to a situation of 4 BC in which "Archelaus journeyed to Rome to get his kingship over Judaea confirmed; at the same time a Jewish embassy of fifty persons also went to Rome in order to resist his appointment" (Jeremias 59). This event remained engrained in the minds of the people. In Luke the Parable of the Minas is thoroughly intertwined with that of the Throne Claimant so as to create one parable. This accounts for some of the differences between the two Gospels (e.g., faithful servants being rewarded with cities to rule in Luke).

Matthew reports (in 25:16-17) that the first two servants doubled their money. We do not know how the money was doubled, but that is not important. What is important is that they made a wise investment and received a return. The third servant buried his talent. This might seem absurd today, but as Blomberg suggests, "an oft-cited rabbinic maxim commends the burial of money as one of the safest ways of protecting it" (215). In fact, "Jesus’ condemnation of the man who hid his master’s money may thus have caused strong shockwaves" (Blomberg 215). In Luke’s account the servant merely hides the money in a napkin, showing little or no concern for his responsibilities as a steward of his master's resources.

After some time the master returns to settle accounts with his servants. The settling of accounts is a stock-figure for eschatological judgement (Hagner 734). The faithful servants are rewarded for what they have done, and are invited to "enter into the joy of [their] master" (Matt. 25:21b, 23b). "The joy of [their] master" was probably connected with eschatological blessing, while the judgement of the wicked servant is connected with eschatological judgement. The same praise is given to the one who made five talents and to the one who made two talents. Presumably, if the third servant had made good use of his talent, he would have received the same praise as well.

Although the faithful servants are rewarded, more attention is focused on the third servant. Instead of "pleading the Fifth Amendment," the servant tries to rationalize what he did. He thought that he was wise for preserving his master’s capital; but his own description of the master incriminates him. The servant was lazy and dreaded responsibility. He was only looking out for his own ease and not the good of his master. He did not love his master, and he had no gratitude for being entrusted with so much (Hare 287). The master quickly criticizes the servant as being wicked and lazy, and then the master takes the talent from him and gives it to the servant who had made ten talents.

Both Matthew and Luke include the idea that "for to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away" (Matt. 25:29). It may seem unjust to make the rich man richer and the poor man poorer, but it is important to remember whose money it is. Blomberg suggests that "verse 29 fits best in the context of the narrative as referring to ‘everyone who has’ or ‘has not’ earned something during his period of stewardship" (217). Another possibility is that Jesus is not condoning this practice, he is simply stating how the economic order operates. If there is any doubt about this, then look at the world today (Lyons).

It was the master’s money to do with as he pleased, and he simply wanted to get the best return on his investments. Joachim Jeremias suggests that "the primitive Christian teaching affirms that this is what God’s justice is like, hence all the more urgent is the need to avoid failure!" (62-63).

As a punishment the lazy servant is to be cast "into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth" (Matt. 25:30). "These are Matthew’s favorite metaphors for the final lot of the wicked" (Hagner 736). Hell awaits not only those who do evil, but also those who do nothing.

Statement of Teaching

Although most interpreters consider The Parable of the Talents a Parousia parable, Joachim Jeremias interprets it differently. He acknowledges that both Matthew and Luke have interpreted the parable as a Parousia parable, but Jeremias believes that they have done so incorrectly (60). Jeremias suggests that Jesus originally addressed the parable of the Talents to the scribes. He says that "much had been entrusted to them: the Word of God, but like the servants in the parable, they would shortly have to render account of how they had used that which had been committed to them" (Jeremias 62). Jeremias’ interpretation is unique, but it is probably not correct. There is a general consensus amongst scholars that this parable is concerning the delay of the Parousia and a warning to not be lazy and irresponsible.

Application

God has entrusted all people with a portion of gifts (talents). Although people may have a differing amount of gifts, what is important is to be good stewards of what they have been entrusted. As Christians we are to make full use of the gifts that God has given us. Too often we try to excuse ourselves by saying that our gifts are too modest. The parable reminds us that all gifts are precious and should be used to their full. Like the two good servants, God will reward those who are faithful with what has been entrusted to them. However, "like the wicked servant, those who fail to use the gifts God has given them for his service will be punished by separation from God and all things good" (Blomberg 214). What must one do in order to be cast out where "men will weep and gnash their teeth?" (Matt. 25:30)? According to this parable: absolutely nothing.