14 “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. 15 To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.
16 “After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. 18 But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.
19 “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’
21 “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’
22 “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’
23 “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’
24 “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. 25 So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? 27 In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. 28 Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. 29 Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. 30 Now take the worthless servant and throw him outside into the darkness.’
“People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth. (CEB)
The Valuable Coins
This is the third of the four advent parables in Matthew. This parable, like the previous ones, also emphasizes in its own way the delay of the Kingdom of God. Jesus really wanted people to understand that, while the kingdom of God is indeed coming, the time of its arrival is completely unknown to us. We, therefore, need to be ready for it to come immediately, but also be prepared for the possibility of delay.
It is important to note that the valuable coins, often translated as a talent, is a very large sum of money: about fifteen years’ wages for a typical worker. It is perhaps unfortunate that it’s been called a talent for so long, because it tempts us to confuse this with the ordinary definition of talent and leads to a common misinterpretation of this parable.
Often times, this parable is taken as an encouragement to discover what gifts and talents we all have, and to use them for God. Taken this way, the parable teaches that everybody has a talent; some have many, others have a few, but all of us have at least one. Maybe one’s talent is playing the piano, or perhaps it’s the gift of hospitality or the skill of organization, or playing quarterback, or point guard. Regardless of how many talents we may have, and whatever those talents may be, God wants us to use them wisely and not waste them. So goes the conventional interpretation.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with the idea of using our talents to glorify God. Indeed, we ought to use our God-given talents in that way. But that idea alone is much too tame for this parable. The parable is not a gentle tale about what Christians should do with our individual gifts and talents, as helpful as that may be. Really, it’s a disturbing story about what Christians do or do not do with the gospel—the Good News of Jesus Christ—as they wait for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The first two servants are called “good and trustworthy” because they set out immediately to work with the treasure entrusted to them. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this treasure is the gospel—the teachings of Jesus—and these two “good and faithful” servants symbolize all wise and faithful disciples who hear Jesus’ words and act on them. The third servant is called “evil and lazy” because he’s a living embodiment of Jesus’ warning that “everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built his house on sand,” (Matthew 7:26).
The reason it’s good and faithful to act on the gospel is not simply that Jesus said so and the disciples need to learn to be obedient and to follow orders. Living out the truth of the Gospel—living lives of mercy, peace, and forgiveness—is wise because the future belongs to God. Mercy, peace, and forgiveness are the values of God’s kingdom. The master will return. The promised Kingdom is coming. And its advent will render all the false values of this age—the accumulation of power, wealth, status, and possessions—obsolete.
Sometimes we look back on the anger, the harshness, the indifference toward others in our past and say, if I had only known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have treated anyone like that. One purpose of this parable is to say that we can know now what we will know in the future. What will stand at the end is the gospel. One might call it true wisdom to live out God’s future, today.
So, the parable is about wise and foolish disciples—those who live the gospel now, and those who don’t. But the parable also cuts in another direction. It is not only a story about the moral character of disciples, but also about the moral character of God. What kind of God do we serve? The voice of the one-talent servant is trembling and full of fear: “Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid,” (Matt. 25:24-25 CEB).
The thing is, at this point in the parable there is no basis whatsoever for this kind of depiction of the master. Quite to the contrary, the master has entrusted his servants with vast sums of money, not just for a night or two but for an extended period of time. Moreover, in a culture where servants were expected to do their duty without receiving praise, pats on the back, brass plaques, or trophies, this master astonishingly gives them extravagant tribute, increased authority, and apparently, with the words, “Come celebrate with me,” he welcomes them into his home as members of the family. There’s even the implication that he lets them keep the money entrusted to them along with all the profits they made.
In other words, everything in the story leads us to see the master as an extraordinary person—trusting, welcoming, generous, and benevolent. That’s the way the first two servants view him, otherwise they wouldn’t have been so free to risk and act, and that’s the way the master conducts himself. Clearly the one-talent servant has badly misjudged the master, distorting the master into a tough, uncaring tyrant, and has acted accordingly.
When the master finds out that this servant has buried the money entrusted to him and why, the master responds, “You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest,” (Matt. 25:26-27 CEB). This reply exposes the one-talent servant even more. Even if the one-talent servant missed all the trust, joy, and generosity in his master, he could still have done a little low-risk investing.
However, the man’s problem with the master goes deeper. He viewed the master as evil, not just tough. In this servant’s twisted mind, the master is so pernicious that there’s no room whatsoever for freedom or responsible action; only paralysis. He’s so afraid of this terrible master that the only choice left to him is to shove the talent back as soon as possible and have nothing to do with this master that he perceives as a spiteful tyrant.
We may know people like this. I remember that one of my fraternity brothers thought God was out to get him. He thought God was some big ogre in the sky who was trying to send everyone to hell. I don’t know that I ever convinced him otherwise, but I sure tried to talk about the loving God that I know whenever he would listen.
The tragic news of this parable is that the one-talent servant pronounces his own judgment. He gets the master he believes he serves; he gets only the master his tiny and warped vision can see. In theological terms, he gets the peevish little tyrant god he believes in.
The story is not about a generous master suddenly turning cruel and punitive; it’s about living with the consequences of one’s own faith. If we trust the goodness of God, we can boldly venture out with eyes wide open to the wonder of grace in our life, we can discover the joy of God’s providence everywhere. But to be the child of a generous, gracious, and life-giving God and, despite this, to insist upon viewing God as oppressive, cruel, and fear-provoking, is to live a life that is tragically impoverished.
There is a kind of theological economy at work here. For those people who live in the confidence that God is trustworthy and generous, they find more and more of that generosity everywhere they look; but for those who run and hide under the bed from a bad, mean, and scolding God, they condemn themselves to a life spent under the bed alone, quivering in needless fear. Verse 29 sums up the whole parable, “Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them,” (CEB).
God is a God of deep love, generous beyond measure. We’ve been given a Gospel—Good News—about salvation through Jesus Christ. This isn’t something we bury in the ground, but something we shout from the mountain tops. God has given us a great treasure—God’s only Son—so we could be redeemed from the power of sin and live forever with God. It’s something we ought to joyously celebrate and share with everyone we know.
When our master returns, what will we have to say? Will we dig up our talent and say, I didn’t want to bother with all this, here’s your gift back. Or will we say, Here’s what you have given me, and I’ve made this much more!
We don’t know when our master will return, and it’s not our job to worry about the timing of Jesus’ Second Advent. The kingdom may come before our worship service is finished, or it may not come until my great-great-grandchildren are all in their 90s. Our job isn’t to worry about when. Our job is to work for God’s kingdom until the master returns and we finally see our trusting, welcoming, generous, and benevolent master face-to-face.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!