What It Means

Parable of the Talents. A question was received concerning this story Jesus told. Bill writes, "Could you please comment on the parable of the talents, especially Matthew 25:30 where the consequence meted out was 'outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth'? It seems like our pastor alluded to losing one's salvation for not using one's talents for the Lord. His motto for Christian living is: 'Recognize that the Christian life is all dependent on God, but live as if it all depends on me.'"

The parable actually addresses Israel in the coming Tribulation. It is not directly about Christians or the Church Age. That is not to say, of course, that there is nothing there for us. "All profitable" (II Tim. 3:16). And there are some lessons on stewardship that may be drawn from the text. But first we must see the passage in its context. Then we can seek to make a secondary application, or an appropriate application in principle, to ourselves.

Matthew 24 (the chapter before) provides Christ's teaching on the coming seven-year Tribulation, during which the raptured Church Age saints will already be with the Lord. It includes many of the plagues described in more detail in Revelation 6-18, and refers to the Antichrist's "abomination" that brings desolation at the mid-point of the seven year period (vs. 15). "Immediately after the Tribulation" (vs. 29), Christ returns in glory.

The references to the "holy place" in the rebuilt temple (vs. 15), and to the Sabbath law (vs. 20) remind us that the audience is Jewish. The parables that follow exhort the believing remnant of Israel to be watchful for Christ's return at the end of the Tribulation, to be prepared for it, and remain faithful to Him.

That helps to put the Parable of the Talents in context–a parable that has nothing directly to do with how to get saved. In any age, sinners are always and only saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9)–though, as always, the Bible treats right living and service for the Lord as an evidence of salvation. "Faith" without attending works is a dead kind of faith, not true saving faith (Jas. 2:17, 19; cf. Matt. 7:20).

The first two servants in the parable are representative of the believing Jewish remnant and their supporters that endure (survive) to the end of the Tribulation (24:13) and see the glorious return of Christ (25:31). They will be rewarded according to their faithfulness with "rulership" (vs. 21, 23) in the coming Kingdom Age. Apparently, positions of authority will be given to them on the millennial earth, according to this criterion.

In the parable, the master who is absent in a far country (vs. 14) is, of course, Christ. To each of three servants he distributes a considerable amount of money. We tend to think of a talent as a skill someone possesses, since that is how we use the word today. But that is not the meaning here. A "talent" (in Greek, talanton) wasn't some kind of giftedness, like the ability to play the piano. It was a unit of weight. A talent of gold would thus be worth more than a talent of silver, but either would be a large sum of money. In this case it was silver talents, as the Greek word translated "money" in vs. 18 indicates. (Five talents could have been worth as much as $150,000–equal to many millions of dollars in today's currency.)

Yet, even though the parable is about money, we can see that, in a general sense, as representative of a resource for service. And the money was given "to each according to his own ability" (vs. 15). Here we can draw one of those lessons in principle that relates to all service for the Lord.

It is significant that the words of the master to the first two men were identical. This teaches an important truth. The Lord will evaluate our service not on the basis of what is accomplished, but according to what we accomplish in relation to how He has equipped and prepared us to serve Him. The emphasis is on faithfulness, not results. "It is required in stewards that one be found faithful"--or, as the NIV translates it, "It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful" (I Cor. 4:2).

And we can draw a further important lesson that relates to eternity. How will each of us be happy in the heavenly kingdom if some have more rewards, more status, and more blessings than others? The answer seems to lie in the fullness of a life relative to its designed capacity. The first servant is given twice as much as the second. However, each exactly doubles what he has, and is acclaimed in exactly the same way. We can conclude from this that in heaven each of us will be blessed abundantly according to the capacity we have, and will find equal contentment and fulfilment in that, whatever others have.

Now, what about the third servant? The third man buried the money, instead of putting it in the bank, where it could have at least collected interest (vs. 27). And he offers what is far more than simply a lame excuse. He says, "Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid" (vs. 24-25).

Consider his words carefully. We can hear echoes of Eden in them. This sounds like the devil's insinuation that God is being unfair, and maybe even deceitful with us (Gen. 3:1). Why serve a Master who is so harsh and unfeeling?

The unprofitable servant plainly has no real understanding of the kind and generous heart of his master. Not only is he accusing his master of injustice, this man does not even have the wit and wisdom to avoid insulting him outright! As to his accusation: No, the master did not personally do the work to earn the money. But since the servants were in his employ, they were expected to seek his enrichment. It would be the same if he had made them stewards of some of his fields. What was sowed and reaped by the servants was the property of the master.

The man likely acted as he did with a desire to steal the funds. If his master did not return, there would be no official bank records to worry about. He would dig up the talent and keep it for himself. If the master did come back, he thought he could simply return the money so as not to be accused of being a thief. Walvoord, in his commentary on Matthew (Thy Kingdom Come) suggests his attitude was much like that of greedy Judas Iscariot.

The third servant was not only lazy, but wicked (vs. 26). He treated what had been entrusted to him as his own rightful property. If we were to describe him in spiritual terms, we could say he not only failed to recognize God as the source of all his blessings, but also served himself, rather than the Lord.

The behaviour of this man indicates he is a picture of the unbelieving sinner whose end is eternal destruction (vs. 30). He did not lose his salvation by his actions. (No one can, who is truly saved.) He was not saved to begin with! No born again believer would ever be described as an "unprofitable [useless, worthless, good for nothing] servant" (vs. 30), fit only for eternal ruin! And even what he had was taken away. William MacDonald comments, "all he had to show for his life was a hole in the ground."

The motto you refer to concerns me. "Recognize that the Christian life is all dependent on God, but live as if it all depends on me." I think I know what is intended–a prod to personal responsibility to maintain a walk of faith and obedience. But where is grace in all of that? Will we, when we get to heaven, be able to claim some credit for helping God to keep us saved because it partly depended on us?

Paul says, "I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells" (Rom. 7:18). He always put the emphasis on what the Lord accomplished in and through him (I Cor. 2:1-5; II Cor. 12:9-10; Phil. 4:13).

What about this as an alternative: Recognize that the Christian life is all dependent on God, and live as if we always need to depend on Him? That is, give full and continuing recognition to enabling grace. It's grace that teaches us to live godly lives, looking expectantly for Christ's return (Tit. 2:11-13). Grace meets each need (Heb. 4:16), and without the Lord we can accomplish nothing (Jn. 15:5). In the words of John Newton, 'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, / And grace will lead me home."