MATTHEW 21-25. THE CONTEXT
The religious authorities were unhappy about Jesus before the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday (21:1-11), but the acclaim that he received on that day and his subsequent cleansing of the temple hardened their antagonism. They made several attempts to trip up Jesus with hard questions (21:23; 22:15; 22:23-28; 22:34-36), but were unsuccessful.
Chapters 23-25 are Jesus’ final discourse (lengthy speech) in this Gospel. The setting is the temple, and the time is early Holy Week—between Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday.
In chapter 23, Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees and lamented over Jerusalem. Chapters 24-25 deal with eschatology (last days—end of time). Jesus prophesies persecutions (24:9-14) and the Desolating Sacrilege (24:15-28), and tells of the coming of the Son of Man (24:29-31). He then gives the lesson of the fig tree (24:32-35) and tells of the necessity of watchfulness (24:36-44).
Jesus’ discourse includes several parables that emphasize preparation for the master’s (Jesus’) return:
• The Faithful and the Unfaithful Servant (24:45-51), where readiness for Christ’s coming consists of being found at work when the master arrives.
• The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (25:1-13), where readiness consists of carefully checking preparations prior to sleeping.
• The Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), where readiness consists of faithful stewardship over that which the master has provided.
The Eschatological Discourse concludes with The Judgment of the Nations (25:31-46), which portrays Judgment Day. Readiness there consists of faithfulness in “the least of these” (25:40) ministry.
Judgment is central to all of these. The unexpected nature of the master’s coming is important to the three parables.
However, it is important to see beyond the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” aspect of judgment to the great joy that believers will experience at Jesus’ coming. That will be the day that we receive our inheritance—the day that we will be clothed with resurrection bodies free of all defects—the day that we will see Christ face to face and hear his words, “Well done, good and faithful servant…Enter into the joy of your lord” (v. 21).
MATTHEW 25:14-30. THE PARABLE OF THE TALENTS
Given the time of year—the time of annual pledge campaigns— the preacher might want to turn this parable into a stewardship sermon to emphasize generosity in the pledge campaign. While this parable deals with stewardship, we must be careful not to lose sight of the fact that it is set in the context of an eschatological discourse where Jesus encourages us to be ready for his Second Coming (chapters 23-25). This is not so much a “Let’s keep the doors of the church open” parable as it is a “Let’s get ready for Jesus’ coming” parable. Faithful stewardship of money, time and talent is part of getting ready, but we should make explicit the link between stewardship and being prepared for Jesus’ coming.
When we hear the word, talent, today, we think of a special ability, such as musical talent. That meaning came into the English language through this parable and is derived from it. In Jesus’ day, however, a talent was a measure of weight—and later of money. It had nothing to do with abilities.
The Parable of the Talents is found only in Matthew. It is similar to The Parable of the Ten Pounds in Luke 19:11-27, but there are significant differences. In Luke, there are ten servants, each of whom receives the same amount—a mina—each mina amounting to only a small fraction of a talent.
The Parable of the Talents is found only in Matthew. It is similar to The Parable of the Ten Pounds in Luke 19:11-27, but there are significant differences. In Luke, there are ten servants, each of whom receives the same amount—a mina—each mina amounting to only a small fraction of a talent. It would probably be better to treat these parables separately rather than trying to cross-reference them.
This parable has certain allegorical elements (where certain persons or events have particular symbolic meaning). Allegorical interpretation became suspect some time ago when it was being overused, so we might be tempted to discount all allegorical interpretation. We must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Some Biblical passages clearly involve allegory—including this one. In this parable:
• The man going on a journey represents Jesus.
• His going on a journey represents Jesus’ ascension.
• The slaves represent Christians who are awaiting the Second Coming.
• The talents represent the blessings (financial, social, intellectual, athletic, etc.) with which God has bestowed us.
• The man’s return represents Jesus’ Second Coming.
• The master’s assessment of the faithfulness of the slaves represents Jesus’ judgment of us on Judgment Day.
MATTHEW 25:14-15. TO EACH ACCORDING TO HIS OWN ABILITY
14“For it is like a man, going into another country, who called his own servants (Greek:doulos—slaves or servants), and entrusted his goods to them. 15To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one; to each according to his own ability (Greek:dunamis—power, strength, ability). Then he went on his journey.”
“For it is like a man, going into another country” (v. 14a). Keep in mind that:
• Jesus is now preparing to die—to go on a journey back to the Father. The passion story begins in the next chapter with the plot to kill Jesus (26:1-5) and his anointing at Bethany (26:6-13).
• This parable is embedded in Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse, in which he is urging preparation for his Second Coming.
• Matthew is writing this Gospel late in the first century when the church is struggling with the issue of Jesus’ delayed Parousia (Second Coming). This parable reminds Matthew’s church (and us) that they (and us) have been entrusted with the great treasure of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and will be held accountable at the Second Coming for their (our) stewardship of this Gospel.
“who called his own servants” (doulos) (v. 14b). The Greek word, doulos can be translated slave or servant, and can reflect either involuntary service (as a slave) or voluntary service (as a servant). New Testament writers use doulos to refer to their own service to Christ (Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Philippians 1:1; 2 Timothy 2:24; Titus 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1). This is clearly voluntary service, not slavery.
Because the word slave is so inflammatory and has the potential to distract listeners from the central message of this parable, I use the word servant in this exegesis and recommend its use in your sermon. However, I recommend reading the scripture as written, because changes (unless carefully explained) are also distracting.
“and entrusted his goods to them” (v. 14c). The master summons three servants, and entrusts his property to them. This is very much like Jesus entrusting his work to the church and to individual members thereof.
“To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one; to each according to his own ability”(dunamis—power, strength, ability) (v. 15a). Note Jesus’ approach to these servants:
• While he could dictate exactly how each servant will use his money, he instead exhibits great trust, leaving them latitude to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
• He treats each of the three as an individual, allocating resources in accord with each person’s ability. He neither insults the most able servant with trivial responsibilities nor overwhelms the least able servant with an impossible task.
Scholars estimate the value of a talent variously. A talent was first a measure of weight—”the heaviest weight in the Hebrew system…. The common talent weighed about 3000 shekels or the full weight that a man could carry (2 Kings 5:23)” (Lockyer, 1096).
In time, a talent came to mean a certain sum of money —probably 6,000 denarii. In the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, we learned that a denarius was a day’s wage for a common laborer (20:2). 6,000 denarii would therefore represent earnings for 1,000 six-day workweeks (19+ years) for the common man. The precise value of the talent, however, is less important than that it is a great sum—a ton of money, so to speak—like our “zillions.” Even the one-talent man receives a substantial treasure, while the five-talent man receives a treasure equal to the earnings of several lifetimes.
“Then he went on his journey” (v. 15b). As every supervisor or parent knows, walking away is the hardest step—and the one that demonstrates the greatest trust.
MATTHEW 25:16-18. BUT HE WHO RECEIVED THE ONE TALENT…
16“Immediately he who received the five talents went (Greek: eutheos—immediately) and traded (Greek: ergasato—worked) with them, and made (Greek: ekerdesen—gained, won) another five talents. 17In the same way, he also who got the two gained another two. 18But he who received the one went away and dug in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.”
“Immediately he who received the five talents went” (eutheos) (v. 16a). There is a sense of enthusiasm here. Nobody has to light a fire under this servant. He is excited to be trusted with such a great treasure—to do something positive—to prove himself. He puts his five talents to work, and gains five more talents.
In the Greek, the word eutheos—”at once” or “immediately”—is either the last word of verse 15 or the first word of verse 16. If we count it as part of verse 15, it means that the master went away immediately, and that is how the KJV translates it. If we count it as part of verse 16, as the NRSV and the WEB translate it, it means that the five-talent servant went off immediately to put the money to work. While either grouping is possible, including eutheos in verse 16 better fits the context.
“and traded (Greek: ergasato—worked) with them, and made (Greek: ekerdesen—gained, won) another five talents” (v. 16b). The Greek word, ekerdesen —from kerdaino (gain, win)—is used earlier in this Gospel to speak of regaining or winning back a sinful Christian (18:15). It is appropriate to think of this parable as emphasizing the proclamation of the Gospel to win people to Christ or to win back an errant disciple. Jesus tells us that to fail to do so—to hide one’s light under a bushel—makes absolutely no sense (5:15). This parable tells us that it is dangerous to do so.
“In the same way, he also who got the two gained another two” (v. 17). The two-talent servant does the same as the five-talent servant—responds with enthusiasm—uses initiative—goes off at once—works—makes two more talents. Like the first servant, his gain is 100 percent.
“But he who received the one went away and dug in the earth, and hid his lord’s money” (v. 18). The one-talent servant, however, digs a hole and buries the master’s money—an accepted way of safeguarding money. According to rabbinical law, the person who buries money in a hidden location cannot be held accountable for its loss. It is a conservative form of safekeeping—but accomplishes nothing.
Note the contrast between the verbs used for the five- and two-talent servants and those used for the one-talent servant:
• The five- and two-talent servants “went,” (v. 16) whereas the one-talent servant “went away.”
• The five- and two-talent servants “traded” with the money that had been entrusted to them, while the one-talent servant “dug in the earth”.
• The five- and two-talent servants “made” additional talents, but the one-talent man “hid” his master’s money.
The verbs used for the five- and two-talent servants are progressive (“went off at once”—“traded”—“made”), whereas the verbs used for the one-talent servant are regressive (“went away”—“dug in the earth”—“hid”). This difference reflects contrasting opinions of the master. The master’s trust emboldens the five- and two-talent servants, who realize that the master has given them a chance to make something of themselves—to earn a promotion—to please the master. Their trust in the master reflects the trust that the master has shown in them. But, as we shall see in verses 24-25, the one-talent servant has a very different view of the master.
“went away” (v. 18). There are many ways to go about digging a hole, burying one’s gift, and going away:
• The person who is called to a great calling who chooses to follow a lesser pathway instead would be one example.
• The person who sees a wounded man alongside the road and chooses to walk by on the other side is another example.
But this parable celebrates active, forward-leaning, risk-taking, involved-in-the-world, where-the-rubber-hits-the-road ministry.
MATTHEW 25:19-23. AFTER A LONG TIME
19“Now after a long time the lord (Greek: kyrios—master, Lord) of those servants came, and reconciled accounts with them. 20He who received the five talents came and brought another five talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents. Behold, I have gained another five talents besides them.’
21“His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things, I will set you over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’
22“He also who got the two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents. Behold, I have gained another two talents besides them.’
23“His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things, I will set you over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.'”
“Now after a long time” (v. 19a). When Jesus first used these words, they would have brought to Jewish minds the delayed Day of the Lord—a day when God would save the righteous and damn the unrighteous—”a great and terrible day” (Joel 2:11)—a day when “The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled; and the Lord alone will be exalted” (Isaiah 2:11)—a day when God would “bring…distress upon people… because they have sinned against the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:17).
Matthew is conscious of the delay of the Second Coming, and that would be in his mind as he pens these words of Jesus. He and the rest of the church have waited a long time for Jesus’ return—an event for which we continue to wait.
Nevertheless, in the parable, the master does return, at which time he settles accounts. This parable holds out the promise that Jesus will not delay forever, but will come to reward the faithful. There is also, of course, a corresponding warning in this parable—Jesus will punish the unfaithful.
“the lord (Greek: kyrios—master, Lord) of those servants came, and reconciled accounts with them” (v. 19). Kyrios can be translated Lord, which becomes a messianic title when applied to Jesus.
“He who received the five talents came and brought another five talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents. Behold, I have gained another five talents besides them'” (v. 20). When the master returns, there is a time for accountability. Each servant is given opportunity to show the master what he has done with the master’s money. This is analogous to the great judgment that will follow the Second Coming. That, too, will be a time of accountability in which each of us will be asked to show what we have done for the Master.
“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things, I will set you over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” (v. 21, 23). Anyone who has worked hard to establish a business knows that the five-and two-talent servants deserve to be honored. They didn’t just deposit their money in an interest-bearing account. They have taken risks. They have sweated the details. They have remained at their post after others have gone home. They have prayed that they might be able to cover payroll and to pay bills at the end of the month. Even after they have gone to sleep, their minds have continued to seek solutions to the day’s problems. They have given their best—their hearts—their whole beings—to serving the master faithfully.
The master-Lord rewards the five- and two-talent servants in four ways:
• First, he accords each servant equal treatment even though one made five talents and the other made only two. His words of praise to the two servants are identical (vv. 21, 23). While one servant made considerably more money than the other, the profits of each were proportional to what he/she had been given. This master is clearly no bean counter, obsessed with numbers. We can be sure that he will be generous to anyone who gives it his/her best.
• Second, he pronounces them “good and faithful”. While this might seem like a small thing, we can expect these servants to remember these words fondly, probably for the rest of their lives. Very few things feel better than words of praise given by a highly respected person.
• Third, he gives them increased responsibility—a promotion, as it were. We might prefer that he would allow them to retire, but instead he increases their workload. Service, not retirement, is the goal of Christian discipleship. While a pastor might retire from shepherding a congregation day-to-day, no Christian ever retires from caring for others. This ministry of love need not be a burden, and has the potential to be a great joy.
• Fourth, he says, “Enter into the joy of your lord.” This is what the faithful Christian can expect to hear when Christ comes again.
There is a sense of irony in the contrast between “a few things” and “many things” (vv. 21, 23), because a talent is a very large sum of money and five talents is almost unimaginably large. Jesus, however, is really contrasting the small blessings that we can offer to God with the great blessings that he will grant us at the end of time.
MATTHEW 25:24-28. YOU WICKED AND SLOTHFUL SERVANT!
24“He also who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you that you are a hard (Greek: skleros—hard, harsh, severe) man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter. 25I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the earth. Behold, you have what is yours.’
26“But his lord answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant. You knew that I reap where I didn’t sow, and gather where I didn’t scatter. 27You ought therefore to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received back my own with interest. 28Take away therefore the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents.”
While we enjoy hearing of the master’s generosity to the five- and two-talent servants, this parable really turns on the actions of the one-talent servant and the master’s response to those actions.
“Lord, I knew you that you are a hard (Greek: skleros—hard, harsh, severe) man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter” (v. 24). The one-talent servant addresses the master in an apologetic, defensive tone, making it clear that he understands his failure. He hopes that he can escape punishment by explaining.
He says that he knew the master to be a harsh man—reaping where he did not sow. That surprises us, because everything that we have seen of the master so far has been generous. He entrusted his servants with a fortune and left them great latitude in its use. He praised and rewarded the first two servants. We wonder why the one-talent servant feels that the master is harsh—and why that harshness didn’t come to light earlier. The answer, of course, is that this characterization is unfair. The master, encountering faithful service, goes beyond fairness to generosity.
“I was afraid” (v. 25a). Fear tends to be a disabler rather than an enabler. Andrew Jackson said, “Never take counsel of your fears.” Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid” (10:26)—and “Don’t be afraid” (10:31; 28:5)—and “Don’t be afraid. Only believe” (Luke 8:50). We cannot defeat fear on our own, but belief in Jesus can help us to overcome fear. The greater our faith, the less our fear.
“and went away and hid your talent in the earth. Behold, you have what is yours” (v. 25b). This servant made no effort to use the treasure with which he had been entrusted. He did not extend himself at all except to bury the treasure for safeguarding. That, of course, was preferable to squandering the treasure, but the next verse reveals that the master expected the servant to use the treasure for some good purpose.
“You wicked and slothful servant. You knew that I reap where I didn’t sow, and gather where I didn’t scatter” (v. 26). Now we are about to see the master’s harsh side. The one-talent servant correctly assessed that the master is capable of harsh judgment. In this case, the master calls the one-talent servant “wicked and slothful”, and uses the servant’s own words (“You knew that I reap where I didn’t sow”) to convict him.
“You ought therefore to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received back my own with interest” (v. 27). The master gave each of the three servants a great treasure and a wonderful opportunity. The first two servants put the money to work and doubled it. While they made the best of their opportunity, they also took a risk. They could not have acted so boldly had they not trusted the master. If they had believed that the master would punish them for every mistake, they would not have felt free enough to do what they did. They acted with confidence, not just in themselves, but also in their master.
The one-talent servant, however, acted in fear. He has no affection for the master, is concerned only for his own security, and does not aspire to serve the master well. He buried the money, assuming that this would protect him from criticism. After all, the rabbis say that burying money ends one’s responsibility.
The master takes the money from the one-talent servant and has him thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 30).
MATTHEW 25:29-30. FOR TO EVERYONE WHO HAS, MORE WILL BE GIVEN
29“For to everyone who has will be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who doesn’t have, even that which he has will be taken away. 30Throw out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”
“For to everyone who has will be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who doesn’t have, even that which he has will be taken away” (v. 29). We should be careful not to read this as “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer”—good news only for the wealthy. Throughout the Gospels Jesus shows concern for the poor, a concern most dramatically illustrated by his conclusion to this lengthy discourse (25:31-46). There he commends some and condemns the rest—the dividing line being whether they fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited the prisoner. It is inconceivable that Jesus would bless a “rich get richer” theology.
In verse 29, Jesus is concluding the story of the three servants. His point isn’t that one of the three was poor, because even one talent is a considerable sum of money. It is rather than the two servants (“everyone who has”) were faithful and productive, while the third servant (“him who doesn’t have”) was not.
“Throw out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness” (v. 30a). The master, although a generous man, can muster no generosity for this lazy servant. He gave this servant a smaller amount than the others, but it was nevertheless a small fortune. It had great potential for good, which this servant failed to harness because of his timidity and selfishness. Therefore, the master takes the money from him and banishes him to outer darkness. The irony is that the one-talent servant, concerned only for his personal security, loses that security because of his unwillingness to take even a small risk or to make even a small effort. As Jesus said earlier, “He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (10:39).
“where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 30b). This is a standard formula in this Gospel, often used by Jesus to describe the fate of those who receive harsh judgment (8:12; 13:42; 22:13; 24:51).
For Matthew, the emphasis here is whether his disciples will be faithful in exploiting opportunities to bring people into the kingdom of God. The Gospel with which we are entrusted is the Good News of a God who risked even his own Son to redeem humanity. God now expects us to use our opportunities—great or small—to boldly proclaim the Gospel, even in the face of danger.
Christians also have an obligation to stand for that which is right—and to oppose evil with all his or her energy.
The person who believes that he/she can accomplish nothing significant demonstrates lack of faith in God as well as low self-esteem. Taking the opposite tack, Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
As John Shedd observed, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.” So also a silent Christian is safe, but that is not what Christians are for. We might add that Pearl Harbor proved that ships in harbor are not really safe after all—and this parable shows that silent Christians are not really safe after all.
This parable tells us that God will hold us accountable for what we have done—and for what we have failed to do. That, of course, seems incompatible with the emphasis on grace that we find elsewhere in the New Testament. However, both judgment and grace are part of God’s plan. Yes, God will forgive us for our sins. But yes, he will also hold us accountable. Someone has said that the mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain opposing opinions—the ability to keep an open mind and to appreciate the truth on both sides. That’s what is needed here.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan