COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 25:14-30
by Dr. Knox Chamblin
VIII. THE PARABLE OF THE TALENTS. 25:14-30.
A. The Parable Itself.
1. The introduction, v. 14. There is the closest literary connection between this parable and the preceding; the opening of v. 14 is merely transitional ("Again, it will be like..."), suggesting that v. 1 is meant to introduce this parable too (thus Carson, 515). That connection points in turn to the parables' thematic unity (cf. the introductory words under VII.).
2. The talents. The "talent" (Greek talanton) was far more valuable than the "mina" (mna), the term used in the similar (but distinctive) parable of Lk 19:11-27. "In fact, the talents were the largest of all denominations and varied from $300 to $1700 each [depending on the time and place; see BAGD, s.v.], or from 50 to 80 pounds each in weight" (Gundry, 503). The smaller mina might be "laid away in a piece of cloth" (Lk 19:20), but the larger -- and much more valuable -- talent had to be buried (25:18, 25).
3. The master and the slaves.
a. The relationship. Behind NIV's "servants" is douloi (vv. 14, 19, 21, 23, 26, 30; diakonos, "servant," does not occur). Jesus speaks of bondslaves. They themselves belong to the master; likewise the money put at their disposal belongs to him (25:25b, "See, here is what belongs to you"; 27a, "my money"), a fact which the greatness of the slaves' responsibility must not obscure. By the same token, whatever profit may come from their investments (vv. 16, 17) shall be his (Manson, Sayings, 245).
b. The third slave. He clearly perceives the nature of the relationship: the master "harvests where he has not sown and gathers where he has not scattered" (v. 24); it is the slave who does the work, but the master who reaps the benefits (a judgment with which the master agrees, v. 26). He reasons, "If I make a profit, it shall go to the master. And if I lose the money entrusted to me, he shall deal harshly with me." Therefore he concludes that the best response is no response; he buries the talent in the ground to keep it safely hidden away for the master's return. The slave's main reason for inaction is dread of failure and its consequences (24, "you are a hard man"; 25, "So I was afraid"); cf. Jeremias, Parables, 61. Thinking he will share none of the profits, he has no counter-incentive to offset his fear.
c. The first two slaves. We are not told whether, or to what extent, they share the third slave's reasoning. What is recorded is their obedient action. They do exactly what slaves are expected to do; they heed the master's command by investing his talents. It should be noted that this response comes from those slaves whom the master considers, on the basis of their past actions, to be the more able of the three (v. 15). Significantly, the reaction of v. 24 comes from the person originally judged to be the least able, rather than from one of the other two.
B. The Message of the Parable.
1. The requirement. The master represents Jesus Christ. Jesus is "going on a journey" (v. 1-4): he shall ascend to the Father. During his absence, he demands that his people not only wait for his return but also that their lives be productive. "Vigilance is not simply a matter of fervour, joy, or even faith -- it entails active and responsible service" (Hill, Matthew, 328). For one day -- after however long a time (v. 19, cf. v. 5) -- the Master shall indeed return to judge his people for what they have done in his absence (v. 19b). The investing of the talents does not illustrate the developing of one's natural abilities (apud Manson, Sayings, 246; Gundry, 510) but the seizing of opportunities to do good works -- not for one's own sake but for the sake of the master (to whom the "talents" belong; cf. 5:14-16). As in the story each slave is given talents "according to his ability" (v. 15b), so Jesus recognizes that some disciples have greater capacities and more opportunities for fruitfulness than do others (cf. 13:8, 23). The requirement is that each one be productive according to his own capacities and opportunities. "For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have" (2 Cor 8:12).
2. The responses. The responses of the first two slaves illustrate precisely what Jesus seeks from his followers -- unquestioning and productive obedience to his teachings. The response of the third slave is based on a correct perception of his obligation -- to obey the master for the master's own sake (as noted, v. 26 echoes v. 24). But his response is also based on a very incorrect perception of the master's character. Very significantly, the master's words do not echo the slave's evaluation of him as "a hard man." Viewing his master as he does, he cannot act in love, only in fear.
3. The rewards.
a. Blessing. The obedient slaves are richly rewarded: "Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!" (v. 21; v. 23 is identical). The master remains the master, the slaves remain slaves. But now the master is shown to be one who treats his slaves with love and benevolence. They are allowed to keep >u>all the money -- both the original talents and those they have gained (v. 28, "give it to the one who has the ten talents"). Christians gain great blessing from their very acts of obedience (just as greatness lies precisely in their service, 20:26). Beyond that, Christ rewards their faithfulness by ushering them into the joy of heaven (cf. v. 10). There God honors their service by granting them -- yet more service. In heaven, as on earth, disciples' joy shall lie in showing their love for the Master by serving him. Heaven shall mean not inactivity (such boredom is reserved for hell), but increased activity (from which all laboriousness and tedium will have been removed). This passage beautifully echoes the teaching of Mt 6. Those who are enslaved to God and intent on obeying him, discover that he gladly and freely grants all their needs and much more besides.
b. Loss. The tragic irony of the story is that the last slave experiences just what he feared -- the master's wrath. Even the action described in v. 27 would have been better than the burial of the talent: even partial obedience would have been better than sheer disobedience. Had he obeyed for no other reason than that the master commanded it, he too would have recognized how badly he had misjudged the master, and would have received the blessings granted the other two (that both others receive the same response, indicates that all who faithfully obey, however varied their capacities or opportunities, v. 15, shall equally share in heaven's riches). As matters turn out, "the punishment for neglected opportunity is deprivation of opportunity" (Manson, Sayings, 248). The judgment upon this slave (v. 30) is again (as in vv. 11-13; 22:11-14, especially v. 13) a solemn warning to disciples to demonstrate the authenticity of their profession by steadfast obedience to Jesus. The fact that the one talent is given not to the man with four but to the one with ten (v. 28), provides an especially forceful illustration of the principle of v. 29, and calls disciples to the greatest possible obedience (cf. Gundry, 509).