In the last study, Jesus was urging his disciples to be ready for the day of his return. But what does it mean to be ready? What are we to do whilst we wait for what he warns us here will be “a long time” (v.19)? This parable unpacks that for us.
A talent was a sum of money, a vast sum of money: 20 years wages for a labourer. (My NIV footnote says it equates to several hundred pounds, but more likely it is tens/hundreds of thousands of pounds.) So even to the servant with one talent the master was enormously generous. He was going away, but these were no mere leaving presents, he was entrusting his property to them whilst he was away that they might put it to work. Our word “talent” comes from this parable, but it is not so much referring to our flute playing ability or skill at maths (or whatever talent you may have), but rather to all that Christ has given us to use in his service. It could include gifts and abilities, but also our differing opportunities, our time, our money and possessions, our training etc. Whatever we are given (and the parable recognises that we have not all be given the same opportunities etc), one day we will have to give account for what we have done with them for him.
To the first is given 5 talents. And there is a lovely sense of eagerness to serve his master well as he can in the way we are he told “at once” he set about putting it to work. And in verse 20 there is a sense, not of self-centred pride, but of delight that he should have been able produce a return for his master. The master too is delighted, and the reward is of a scale that makes the 5 talents seem trifling. Heaven is shown to be a place of profound joy and fellowship: a sharing in Jesus’ happiness. But it is not an eternal retirement home, but a place of service: further, even more fruitful and satisfying service.
The second servant is entrusted with less, but is no less eager to serve, and his master is no less pleased and grateful for what he does. The two talents may not have looked much alongside the other’s five talents, but the master’s response is identical. We are to understand that Jesus will judge us on the basis of what we have done with what we have been given. We shouldn’t seek to compare ourselves with others, looking enviously at five talent people, but seek to be faithful with what we have been given. (Christ won’t look at us and say “How disappointing that you weren’t more like Hudson Taylor/Roger Carswell or whoever” but he may say “How disappointing you weren’t more like the person I made you to be, and didn’t better put to use the gifts and opportunities I gave you”)
The third “servant” must be at least a professing Christian, but he fails to do anything to serve his master – maybe doing nothing especially bad, but not doing anything good. One old commentator makes a telling comment:
“ Christ took as his example of negligence the case of him to whom least was entrusted, that no one may hope to be excused because he has not received any distinguished gifts from God”
Even if we are just one talent people, we have a responsibility to seek to put what we have been given to work for him. This servant though did nothing, and on the day of reckoning could only offer excuses, but Jesus makes it clear his excuses won’t wash. Far from being harsh, the master is described as being phenomenally generous. And if the servant really feared his master, he would done something. He has shown himself to be “wicked and lazy”. His total lack of service has shown that at heart he is not truly a servant of the master at all, so for him there are the terrifying consequences described in v.30. NB this is not saying that we earn our place in heaven through what we do for Christ in this life, but we show that we are his servants through our good works. All is grace: even our work for him is enabled by his grace, and the reward of heaven will far exceed anything we could ever deserve.