30 Mar 2012

What Are Talents Anyway?

One of the most notable aspects of Jesus' teaching is his use of parables to instruct his disciples. These parables have been subject to numerous interpretations and ongoing debate among scholars. One parable that has taken on various interpretations is the Parable of the Talents found in Matthew 25:14-30.

If you're unfamiliar, a talent is simply a large sum of money - exceedingly large, in fact! It's been estimated to be roughly twenty years' worth of an ordinary person's wages. As a reference for Americans, the national average wage in 2010 was just over $41,000. In modern terms, a talent might be the equivalent of roughly $820,000, so the three stewards in the parable would have received approximately $4,000,000, $1,600,000, and $800,000. When we consider that Jesus is sharing this parable with common men, this amount of money would make quite an impression on them. The stewards in the parable were not your typical person on the street.

So, what options do we have in understanding this parable? Is it a parable about financial stewardship? Or making the most of the skill set God has given you? Do we need to be willing to take risks instead of living in fear? In a twist, is Jesus advocating the position of the third steward and encouraging us to willingly suffer for confronting injustice? All of these interpretations have been offered by various commentators.

Rather than pursue any of these interpretations (which you can find easily enough using Google), we'll offer a brief explanation in the style of Jesus' interpretation of the Parable of the Sower, and follow it up with some thoughts that will hopefully make clear why it is a better interpretation than these other options.

The interpretation:

Hear then the parable of the talents: The time will come when you will give an accounting for what you have done with the gospel message entrusted to your care. If you are faithful in proclaiming it so the kingdom expands, you will be rewarded with greater things. If you do nothing with the gospel you will suffer loss and be subject to judgment.

Really? That's it? Where does this interpretation come from? How is it that the talents represent the gospel?

First, let's remember parables are illustrations that paint a picture for the hearer. Though the stories they tell may make natural sense on their own and may even provide practical instruction when taken at face value, they are intended as representations of some other reality. Consider the Parable of the Sower found in Matthew 13. On a purely literal level we might understand Jesus is teaching us how to select the best land for farming, but this would miss the entire point of the parable - it's not about farming, but how the gospel takes root (or doesn't) in someone's heart. The sowing of seed is just a picture used to illustrate this truth. In a similar manner, the Parable of the Talents isn't about fiscal stewardship, risk-taking, or whistle-blowing. If we think Jesus is teaching on these matters, we're reading too literally and missing the point of the parable (see Nicodemus).

Next, let's look at the context. Jesus is teaching his disciples about the time of his return and the final judgment. He's just finished sharing the Parable of the Ten Virgins, encouraging his disciples to settle in for the long haul. They shouldn't expect an immediate return, but they should be prepared for it at any time. The Parable of the Talents expands on this teaching by emphasizing how the disciples should invest their time as they wait. Jesus will be entrusting them with great treasure in the gospel and they should invest in the growth of the kingdom of God until he returns. Failing to do so makes them no better than a worthless servant who buries great wealth in the ground when he could have invested it.

Consider how the following verses reinforce this idea of gospel stewardship:

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. 1 Cor. 4:1-5

Paul recognizes himself as a steward, not of monetary wealth, but of the gospel, and he will ultimately stand before the Lord to give an account for his faithfulness with the gospel. Especially notice the connection between stewardship and judgment at Jesus' coming, which is exactly the context of Matthew 25.

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Matt. 5:13-16

Placing your light under a basket is like burying your talent in the ground. It's the Lord's intent that we place it on a stand where it can be seen. It is the disciples' responsibility to place the gospel "on a stand" where it will be heard and the kingdom will grow.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.1 Cor. 3:10-15

Again, it's the apostle's faithfulness with the gospel that will be subject to the Lord's judgment. He must be a faithful steward in how he builds to avoid loss at the time of judgment.

assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you Eph. 3:2

Paul is a steward of God's grace, not a financial steward.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. Col. 1:24-26

Paul was given a stewardship to make the gospel fully known.

As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. 1 Tim. 1:3-4

Paul reminds Timothy of what appropriate stewardship looks like - it's faithful proclamation of the gospel, rather than involvement in foolish controversies.

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Pet. 4:10-11

We are all stewards of God's grace and we manifest faithful stewardship in how we use the spiritual gifts God has entrusted to us.

While we frequently associate stewardship with financial responsibility, the typical use of this term in the New Testament refers to our faithfulness with gospel. This is at the heart of the Parable of the Talents. We've been given an overwhelming treasure in the gospel and we're called to faithful stewardship of the gospel.

So, what's the significance of the servants receiving different numbers of talents? We can think of this in terms of the platform we're given to hold forth the gospel to the world. Some will be given a large platform while others will be given a smaller one. We see some apostles figuring prominently into the growth of the early church (e.g. Paul, Peter, and James), while we know very little of others (e.g. Andrew, Philip, and Thomas). However, they're all expected to be faithful to the extent of the influence they've received.

Similarly, some pastors are given responsibility to oversee large congregations, while others shepherd smaller flocks. Still other believers may only teach a Sunday school class or lead a Bible study for some neighbors. Some of us may only have charge over our families. Regardless of the number of talents we've been given, even a single talent is of extraordinary value. In light of this parable, all believers should remember to invest even that single talent well by holding forth the gospel and seeking to expand the kingdom of God.

While we are always called to be faithful with the finances God has placed in our hands, the Parable of the Talents is concerned with a stewardship which is far more valuable than whatever money we may have at our disposal. When we use this parable to emphasize other matters, we're missing the real point and unknowingly trading a talent's worth of treasure for lesser things.