The Parable of the Talents, sometimes called the Parable of the Minas, is one of the most searched for parables on Google. And rightfully so, it’s a fascinating story. But there’s also a lot of misunderstanding surrounding this parable.
Before we get to the actual story we need to take a look at the context in which Jesus told it.
So often we read the Bible and spend little to no time thinking about who the words we are reading were originally intended for. To have a deeper (and more accurate) understanding of the Bible we need to understand who the audience was and their current situation.
In Matthew 25:14-30’s record of this parable, Jesus is in the middle of a rather lengthy private teaching with the disciples. This parable isn’t direct at the Pharisees, as so many are. Jesus isn’t teaching the masses. This is just Jesus and the twelve. And it’s one of many teachings he’s given them that day.
This isn’t the only time Jesus tells this story. Four days later Jesus tells a very similar, albeit slightly different detailed story to a crowd of people. Luke 19:11-27 records this account.
This parable is so important that Jesus teaches it twice. Once privately and once publicly. While both stories have the same outcome, Jesus adds a few details to his public teaching.
The questions we should be asking are, Why this story? And why now? The context of this story hinges on answering those questions.
Jesus is currently on his way to Jerusalem, to the biggest moment of his life. But there’s a disconnect between what he’s going to do and what everyone thinks he’s going to do. He’s going to Jerusalem to lay down his life, establishing a new kind of kingdom. But the anticipation of the crowds, even some of his disciples, is that he will be establishing a militaristic kingdom, like the ones of the day. They thought he was going to overthrow the Romans and establish a new kingdom.
To correct this misguided notion Jesus tells this parable.
Before we look at what the story means go read both the accounts: Matthew 25:14-30 & Luke 19:11-27
The Set Up (Matthew 25:14-15 and Luke 19:11-15)
Since both accounts tell such similar stories we will look at Luke’s account a little closer because of the added details.
The plot of the story is relatively simple. A man leaves on a journey and entrusts his estate to several servants. This is where Luke’s story gets interesting; he adds that it was a rich man who is attempting to become king of a distant land through diplomatic measures. But this man is hated. So while he is traveling to the distant land the local council sends a delegation to urge the distant government to not make him king. There’s two things we need to know about this.
First. Jesus’ audience would surely have chuckled when they heard this. Just 25 years earlier something very similar took place. Archelaus succeed his father, Herod the Great, and became a Tetrarch (a ruler) over Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. But that wasn’t enough. He left his palace, traveled to Rome, and requested the title of king. The Jews hated him and sent a delegation to plead with Caesar not to make him king. The Jews won their case. The twist of Jesus’ story is that the man returns king; the locals lost.
Second. There is another historical parallel here, one that the audience would not have caught. This story parallels Jesus. In just over a week from now many in this very crowd will be shouting, “Crucify him.” Just like the man in the story went away to become king, so will Jesus. And the locals hate him. But despite the protests he will return king.
The set up of this story is brilliant.
The Return (Matthew 25:28-30 and Luke 19:16-23)
In both stories the master returns and checks in to see how his servants did with what they were entrusted. The stories record different amounts given, but the plot remains largely the same. Again, Luke adds more details than Matthew. The man checks with his first servant and finds that they did exceptionally well. He is praised and given more. The second servant comes forward; he didn’t do as well as the first, but still did an admiral job. He too is praised and given more.
But then the third servant comes in…
This guy didn’t even do anything. He just sat on what the master gave him, not even attempting anything. When questioned why, his excuse is fear. Instead of accepting responsibility he blames the king for being a hard man. But that excuse can’t live up. If he truly was afraid he would have at least put the money in the bank so it could accrue interest. This guy isn’t afraid of his master, he hates him. And he was sure that the master wouldn’t return king. Then he could keep it all for himself. He isn’t afraid, he’s selfish. And the king knows what he’s really after.
The Outcome (Matthew 25:16-27 and Luke 19:24-28)
Jesus ends his story the same way in both Matthew and Luke. He takes away from the lazy servant and gives to the one that did the best. As a king, the master oversees the wealth of the land. And this guy is managing it poorly. So he takes it away and gives it to someone who will handle it well.
Before we think that’s harsh let’s put it in perspective. Let’s say you trust a portion of your retirement to a broker. Your expectation is that those funds will grow. If after some time you find that your broker is mismanaging your funds, what are you going to do? If you are wise you will pull those funds and give to someone who will manage them well. That’s what the king is doing in this story.
Jesus isn’t really talking about money in this parable. You got that right? This isn’t about investing so we can be rich. God entrusts us with money, yes, but also with skills, relationships, time, opportunities, and much more. This parable isn’t solely about our money. Jesus is just putting the bigger idea into terms his audience would understand. It’s about what we do with what God has given us.
The story is simple enough and the message is direct. The Parable of the Talents describe how Jesus’ followers should be acting between now and his return. However the genius of this story is not only found in the message, but the details. Jesus subtly places himself as a character in the story. His audience that day would have missed this detail. But they would understand soon enough.
The implications are the same for us today. We’ve all been given skills, opportunities, and resources and we are expected to invest them. But unlike the example we aren’t too invested so that the king may have more wealth. God has no use for that. We are expected to invest in those around us. Our returns aren’t financial, they’re relational. One day the king will return, and we will be held accountable for how we used what God has given us. Did we use them on ourselves or for the benefit of others?
I can’t help but wonder what the outcome would have been for the servant that sat on his talent had he fessed up. What if he owned his mistakes and didn’t come up with excuses and blame the king for his harshness. I suspect had he repented when his master, the king, returned things would have ended very differently. My guess is he would have found grace and restoration.
Perhaps that’s the final lesson of this parable. When confronted with our mistakes, or when we have been found out and revealed that we have been using what God has given on ourselves, repent. Don’t make excuses or pass the blame. Admit your failure. Don’t be like the lazy servant.
This is part of a series looking at Jesus’ parables. Check out last week’s here: The Parable of the Wedding Feast (and what it means)
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