Sunday, May 2, 2010
The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-28)
13 “Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour. 14 For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work270 and gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. 18 But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. 19 After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. 20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? 27 Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! 28 Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. 29 For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matthew 25:13-30). 271
It is a simple story that our Lord tells here. A man who is preparing to leave on a journey entrusts his possessions to his servants. He distributes his wealth among three servants, apportioned to them on the basis of their abilities. To the first he entrusted five talents, to the second two talents, and to the third one talent. The first two servants quickly272 set to work with their master’s money. The third servant did not invest his master’s money at all; he dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. When the master returned, the first two eagerly met their master, apparently delighted in the opportunity to multiply their master’s money.273 Both were commended as “good and faithful servants”; both were rewarded with increased responsibilities in their master’s service; both were invited to share in their master’s joy.
The master’s dealings with the third servant is a very different matter. This servant came to his master with only the talent his master had originally entrusted to him. He did not increase his master’s money at all. In fact, if this were to take place today, that money would likely be worth less, due to inflation. This servant offered a feeble excuse for his conduct. He told his master that he was a harsh and cruel man, a man who was demanding, and who expected gain where he had not labored. He contended that this is why he was afraid to take a risk with any kind of investment. And so he simply hid the money, and now he returned it, without any gain. The master rebuked this slave for being evil and lazy. He took his talent from him, gave it to the one who earned ten, and cast this fellow into outer darkness, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We should carefully note the outcome of faithful service, and of unfaithful service, in this parable. Faithful service led to increased responsibilities in the kingdom of heaven, and eternal joy in the presence of the Master, Jesus Christ. Unfaithful service led to condemnation, the removal of one’s stewardship, and an eternity of weeping and gnashing of teeth in outer darkness, away from the presence of our Lord.
One must surely conclude that this parable is not just an interesting story, but a message of eternal significance. Let us listen carefully then, looking to God’s Spirit to enlighten our hearts and minds, and to empower our service, to the glory of God and our eternal good.
A Similar Parable
It would probably be unwise to study the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 without also considering a similar parable in Luke 19:11-27:
11 While the people were listening to these things, Jesus proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately. 12 Therefore he said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. 13 And he summoned ten of his slaves, gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Do business with these until I come back.’ 14 But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to be king over us!’ 15 When he returned after receiving the kingdom, he summoned these slaves to whom he had given the money. He wanted to know how much they had earned by trading. 16 So the first one came before him and said, ‘Sir, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 And the king said to him, ‘Well done, good slave! Because you have been faithful in a very small matter, you will have authority over ten cities.’ 18 Then the second one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has made five minas.’ 19 So the king said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ 20 Then another slave came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina that I put away for safekeeping in a piece of cloth. 21 For I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You withdraw what you did not deposit and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 The king said to him, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! So you knew, did you, that I was a severe man, withdrawing what I didn’t deposit and reaping what I didn’t sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money in the bank, so that when I returned I could have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to his attendants, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has ten.’ 25 But they said to him, ‘Sir, he has ten minas already!’ 26 ‘I tell you that everyone who has will be given more, but from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be their king, bring them here and slaughter them in front of me!’”
The similarities between the parable in Matthew 25 and this parable in Luke’s Gospel are easily seen:
* man goes to another country, stays a long time, and then returns.
* man allocates his resources to servants, expecting them to make a profit in his absence.
* first two servants are faithful; they are praised by their master and are given greater authority.
* third servant hides what was entrusted to him.
* third servant seeks to excuse himself by accusing his master of being harsh.
* third servant claims that he was afraid of his master.
* third servant does not make a profit for his master.
* first two servants are commended and go to heaven; the third is condemned and goes to hell.
* master tells his unfaithful servant that he should have put the money in the bank.
* which was given to the third (unfaithful) servant is taken away and given to the faithful servant who gained the most for his master.
While the parable in Luke is similar to our parable in Matthew 25, there are some significant differences:
* parable in Luke is told when Jesus was near Jerusalem, before His triumphal entry; in Matthew, the parable is told when Jesus was in Jerusalem, a few days later.
* Luke there are ten servants; in Matthew, there are only three.
* Luke, the man who went away is a nobleman who leaves to obtain a kingdom; in Matthew, no such information is given.
* Luke, the man who went away gives each servant the same amount of money (one mina); in Matthew, talents are given to the three slaves according to their ability.
* Luke, the slaves are instructed to “do business” with the money entrusted to them; no such statement is found in Matthew (though we can rightly make this inference).
* in Luke is there another group, in addition to the master’s servants – those who don’t want this man to become their king, and who send a message asking him not to return. These rebels are slaughtered.
* Luke, we are told that the reason for the parable was to correct the misconception that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately; no such reason is stated in Matthew.
The temptation is for us to carry details from the parable in Luke’s Gospel over to Matthew’s account, but we should be careful about this, recognizing that these parables, while similar, were told on different occasions and contain significant differences.
An Explanation of the Paragraph Division
My study of this text has caused me to conclude that the paragraph breaks related to our text are confusing at best, and wrong at worst. Specifically, I am speaking of Matthew 25:13:
“Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matthew 25:13).
Does verse 13 belong with verses 1-12, or with verses 14-30? I am now inclined to say that verse 13 fits best with verses 14-30. Let me explain my reasons for reaching this conclusion, in spite of the fact that it differs with the generally accepted divisions (verses 1-13, verses 14-30, verses 31-46).
(1) Verse 13 does not really seem to fit with verses 1-12, or to contribute to their message. How does “not knowing the day or the hour” affect either the five wise virgins or the five foolish virgins? The difference is not that one group knew the hour, and the other didn’t. Neither group knew when the groom was coming. The difference is that one group brought oil for their lamps, and the others did not. As I was teaching the parable of the virgins, I could not see how verse 13 served as any kind of conclusion to the first 12 verses.
(2) Many of the commentaries acknowledge the abruptness of verse 14 as the first verse of a new paragraph. But none of them adequately explain it. I contend that verse 14 does not begin the new paragraph, but that verse 13 does.
(3) In my opinion, the main reason for assuming that verse 13 belongs with verses 1-12 is that the term (Greek, ou=n) is most often inferential, with the meaning “therefore” or “then.”274 It is not always an indication of a logical conclusion, however. Sometimes the term is not translated at all. Sometimes it is merely a connective, a virtual conjunction. I believe this may be the case in our text.
(4) The expression which begins verse 14 (Greek, w[sper ga.r) is employed 11 times elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 12:40; 24:27, 37; 25:14; Luke 17:24; John 5:21, 26; Romans 5:19; 6:19; 11:30; 1 Corinthians 11:12; 15:22; James 2:26). Never, other than in our text (according to most versions), is it employed to begin a new paragraph. Indeed, it is used to explain what has been said before. In Matthew, this is especially clear in 12:40; 24:27, 37.
(5) In the similar parable in Luke 19 (while told at a different time and with numerous variations), it begins with a time indication:
While the people were listening to these things, Jesus proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately (Luke 19:11).
In other words, Luke informs us that Jesus told this parable specifically to correct some misconceptions about the time of His return. Thus, time seems to be a more important factor in verses 14-31 than in 1-13. I thus take verse 13 as the first verse of this new paragraph.
Keys to the Interpretation of Matthew’s Parable of the Talents
In order to understand the meaning and the application of the parable of the talents, we must take note of the crucial terms and their meanings. Let me call your attention to the most important elements of the parable, as I now understand it.
The element of time. Time has been a significant factor in our Lord’s teaching concerning His coming and the end of the age, beginning in chapter 24. Jesus made it clear that His return would not be immediate, but after much trouble and the passing of a considerable period of time. While there would be sufficient evidence for His followers to discern the general “season” of His return, neither the day nor the hour would be known (Matthew 24:32-36, 42). Beyond this, His return would come at a time when it was not expected (Matthew 24:44). In the parable of the talent, there are two clear references to time. First, the master stayed away for a long time (Matthew 25:19). Second, the faithful servants immediately went to work to increase their master’s money (Matthew 25:16-17).
The element of money. It is indeed unfortunate that the term “talent” means something very different today from what our Lord meant when He told this parable. The talent was the largest measurement of money in those days. Since a talent was actually a measurement of weight, it did not have a constant value. A talent of gold, for example, would be worth a whole lot more than a talent of bronze. While commentators differ somewhat over the approximate value of a talent in today’s economy, all would agree that it was a large amount of money. Some say that it was the equivalent to 20 years’ wages for a common laborer.275 We must remember, then, that a talent is a measure of money; it is not a reference to abilities. The talents were distributed on the basis of ability, not as the bestowing of ability.
We should be careful to recognize that in this parable the mere possession of a talent is not evidence of salvation. The one-talent slave is clearly not saved; he is condemned to hell. In a similar way, in the parable of the soils (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23) the mere germination of the seed does not seem to represent salvation. It would appear that only the fourth soil represents the true believer. The second and third soils represent those who initially show some interest in the gospel, but then reject it when the meaning of the gospel becomes clear. The true believer is represented by the seed that grows, that endures, and that bears fruit.
From the parable of the talents we seem to be informed that unbelievers are entrusted with certain things, and that they will also give account for their stewardship. I believe that there are other texts of Scripture which indicate that God has entrusted (by common grace, in some cases) certain assets to all men, and that all men are accountable to God for how they use (or do not use) these resources which God has entrusted to them. I believe that we see this in Romans 9, where Paul speaks of the things God has entrusted Israel:
1 I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed—cut off from Christ—for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, 4 who are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen (Romans 9:1-5).
Our Lord’s rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees is often couched in “stewardship” terms. God entrusted Israel, and especially its leaders, with the truth, and they did not use it properly.
The element of work. This is the reason I was critical of the translation of verse 16 (see footnote 1 above). The original text is quite clear here – it is the first servant (and we assume the second, as well) who immediately sets to work with his master’s money. It is not the money that goes to work, as such, but the worker. When the third servant’s excuses are set aside, it becomes evident that this man is lazy – he didn’t do any work. He didn’t even hand the money over to bankers,276 to let them go to work with it.
The element of profit. I have often been puzzled over these words, repeated several times in the New Testament:
“For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (Matthew 25:29; see also 13:12; Mark 4:25; Luke 8:18; 19:26).
How is it that the one “who does not have” has something taken from him? How can you take something away from a person who has nothing? I now see the answer, which appears to be consistent with all of the places where this principle is set forth. The one “who does not have” but yet does “have” (because what he has is taken away) is the one who has his master’s money, but has made no profit from it. The third servant has no profit, no gain, to give his master, so his talent is taken away and given to the one who went to work with his master’s money and made great gains for him.
We find this same principle stated in connection with the parable of the soils (Matthew 13:12; Mark 4:25; Luke 8:18). The soil which produces no grain (in other instances, no fruit, or no profit) is bad soil. Only the soil that produces a crop is “good” soil. And so it is that those who over time work with what they are entrusted, in order to make a profit for their master, are rewarded for their faithfulness. Those who are unfaithful lose not only their reward, but their stewardship.
Reward and Punishment
After being gone a long time, the master returns to settle up with his slaves (verse 19). Two of the slaves seem eager to show their master what they have accomplished in his absence. The first presents his master with ten talents. He doubled the money his master entrusted to him. The second slave presents his master with four talents. He, too, doubled the money his master left in his care. Both of these faithful slaves are rewarded well for their faithful service. First, they receive their master’s commendation, “Well done, good and faithful slave” (verses 21, 23). Second, because they have proven themselves to be faithful with the few things entrusted to them, they are now given even greater responsibilities by their master.
Third, they are invited to “enter into the joy of your master.” Just what does this mean, to enter into the master’s joy? We’ll talk about this a bit later, but for the moment, I am inclined to understand this expression in contrast to another in our text, “‘And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matthew 25:30). The “joy of the master” must, in some way, equate to enjoying the bliss of heaven, with our Lord. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” in outer darkness” must, on the other hand, involve spending eternity without God, and without joy. I am reminded of this passage in the Book of Hebrews:
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, 2 keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up (Hebrews 12:1-3, emphasis mine).
The “joy” that was before our Lord would seem to include the salvation of lost sinners (Luke 15:4-10). Is the salvation of lost sinners not “profit” in the eternal sense? Is this not fruit? Is this not cause for rejoicing (see Acts 11:19-24)? As a businessman takes pleasure in making a profit, so our Lord takes pleasure in the profit gained by His faithful servants in His absence. And part of the reward the faithful slave is entering into is the joy of his Master in bringing salvation to men.
The third slave is an entirely different matter. This slave does absolutely nothing with the talent that has been entrusted to him, nothing but bury it, that is.277 We need to distinguish between his excuses and the master’s assessment, both of which are conveyed in our text. The slave’s excuse was that his master was a harsh man, and this caused him to be afraid of his master, thus doing nothing with the money entrusted to him.
Assuming, for the moment, that the slave was correct in his assessment, why would he not be motivated by his fear to seek a profit for his master? If he were afraid to take any risk, then why did he not at least put the talent in the hands of the bankers, who would conservatively invest it for him, and gain at least some interest? Granted, the interest one gets from a savings account is not the kind of increase one might get from investing in the stock market, but it would at least be a small increase. This way the slave would not have to attend to the money on a day-by-day basis. A small gain could have been obtained without great risk or effort on the part of the slave, but he chose to do nothing at all. And the longer the master was gone, the more interest was lost by the slave’s inactivity.
Why, then, did the third slave do nothing? What distinguished him from the first two slaves? We should first consider the master’s assessment of all three slaves:
* and faithful (the first two slaves)
* and lazy (the third slave)
The first two slaves were commended as being both “good” and “faithful.” The term “good” is sometimes employed in a moral sense.
He said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).
There was a lot of grumbling about him among the crowds. Some were saying, “He is a good man,” but others, “He deceives the common people” (John 7:12).
But this term is also used of that which is useful or beneficial:
17 “In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:17-18).
“Salt is good, but if salt loses its flavor, how can its flavor be restored?” (Luke 14:34)
“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things and Lazarus likewise bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish’” (Luke 16:25).
In our text, the “good” slave is the useful or beneficial slave, for he has gained a profit for his master.278 He is also “faithful” because he has been at work with his master’s money from the time he left until the time he returned. The third slave is just the opposite. He is “evil” in the sense that he is “useless,” or “unprofitable.” Notice how this same word279 is used in Matthew 7:
“In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad [literally rotten] tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17, emphasis mine).
The third slave is lazy, and thus useless, as opposed to being hard-working, and therefore useful. He does not “go to work” with his master’s money, over a lengthy period of time, and thus make a profit. He does no work for a lengthy period of time and thus is useless.
What, then, is the root of this third slave’s problem? I believe it is his view of his master, and thus the work his master has assigned.
“Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed’” (Matthew 25:24, emphasis mine).
The word “hard,” which this slave used to characterize his master, is far from flattering. It is the word Moses uses in Genesis 42:7,280 to describe Joseph’s disguise of “harshness” before his brothers. It is used in 1 Samuel 25:3 to describe Nabal, Abigail’s husband, who is a stubborn fool.281 Isaiah (48:4) uses this term to describe Israel’s abstinence. It is also found in Jude 1:15 to describe the “harsh words” the unbelieving have said against God. In other words, the third slave looks upon his master as wicked, harsh, and impossible. This is his excuse for doing nothing. It is as though he had said, “I knew you were unreasonable, and that there was no way to please you, and so I decided not even to try.”
As I thought of this slave’s attitude toward his master, I was reminded of this passage in the Book of Exodus:
1 Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Release my people so that they may hold a pilgrim feast to me in the desert.’” 2 But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should obey him by releasing Israel? I do not know the Lord, and I will not release Israel.” 3 And they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Let us go a three-day journey into the desert so that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, so that he does not strike us with plague or the sword.” 4 Then the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you cause the people to refrain from their work? Return to your labor!” 5 Pharaoh was thinking, “The people of the land are now many, and you are giving them rest from their labor.” 6 That same day Pharaoh commanded the slave masters and foremen who were over the people: 7 “You must no longer give straw to the people for making bricks as before. Let them go and collect straw for themselves. 8 But you must require of them the same quota of bricks that they were making before. Do not reduce it, for they are slackers. That is why they are crying, ‘Let us go sacrifice to our God.’ 9 Let the work be harder for the men so they will keep at it and pay no attention to lying words!” (Exodus 5:1-9)
Pharaoh was a “harsh master.” He demanded that the Israelites make bricks, but he refused to supply them with the necessary materials. He demanded that they make something out of nothing, so to speak. This slave actually thinks of his master as though he were a “Pharaoh” in character. But the master did provide the means for his slave to make a profit. He entrusted him with money, money suited to his abilities. It was not the master’s problem; it was the slave’s problem.
Is this not the way that our Lord’s adversaries looked at Him? They justified their rejection of Jesus by claiming that He was the problem. Indeed, they accused Him of being a wicked sinner, more worthy of death than Barabbas. How different was the outlook of the first two slaves. They seemed to delight in serving their master, and they were eager to get to work quickly to produce a profit for him. And they were right because he praised them and invited them to join him as participants in his joy.
It has taken a while for the thrust of this parable to come into focus for me. This parable is not primarily about faith, nor is it about being willing to take a risk (this was merely the wicked slave’s excuse). As we conclude, we should focus on what this parable is really about. Let us then consider the primary message in this text. I believe that this parable focuses on four major themes: resources, work, time and profit. If we were to make an equation of this parable, it would probably go like this:
Resources (talents) + Labor (work) + Time = Profit
Let’s begin with the end result – profit. God expects to see a profit. He is not harsh, nor does He require that we do the impossible (make a profit where He has not provided the means). He does not require us to “make bricks” without providing both the clay and the straw.
Just as a businessman expects to make a profit, and rejoices when his employees increase his wealth, so God expects a profit and rejoices in it. He has granted the time and the resources for men to make a profit for the kingdom of heaven, until He returns. The question for us to consider is this: Just how do we measure “spiritual profit”? This is probably a sermon in itself – perhaps even a book. I think we could all agree that the salvation of lost souls is a profit for the kingdom. Thus, evangelism is one form of spiritual profit. We know that God expects us to grow over time, and that He is displeased when we fail to grow:
11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature (Ephesians 4:11-13).
12 For though you should in fact be teachers by this time, you need someone to teach you the beginning elements of God’s utterances. You have gone back to needing milk, not solid food. 13 For everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced in the message of righteousness, because he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:12-14).
Thus, we can safely conclude that edification or spiritual growth is also profitable for the kingdom of heaven.
Most importantly, bringing glory to God is profitable. Let’s call this aspect of profit exaltation.
27 “Now my soul is greatly distressed. And what should I say? ‘Father, deliver me from this hour’? No, but for this very reason I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (John 12:27-28).
For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body (1 Corinthians 6:20).
So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die (Philippians 1:20).
What if the church were to be scrutinized as a business? The first question one would ask is, “How much profit did it make?” We are so used to thinking in “non-profit” terms that we are almost shocked to hear such a question raised. Yet is this not what our Lord is teaching us in this parable? God expects a profit, and He holds us accountable for what we have done with what He has entrusted to us.
Pressing this matter just a little further, if the church were to be considered a business and every member were to be viewed as an employee, how many of us should reasonably expect to “keep our jobs”? Each one of us needs to ask the question, “Just what is it that I am doing that is kingdom work?” “Just what is it that I am doing for Christ and His kingdom that is “profitable”? This is a sobering question.
This whole matter of “profit” expands the teaching of our Lord in Matthew 6:
19 “Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But accumulate for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
I was talking about this text with a friend, and he said, “God expects the principle, plus interest.” I think that’s right. Too often we think of our Lord’s words in Matthew 6 in terms of the offering plate. We take a little money and put it in the plate, and by doing so we are “laying up treasure in heaven.” I don’t deny that this is true, in part, but it is not the whole of it. Our Lord’s teaching in the parable of the talents is that God expects profit that is the product of our labors. He provides the money and the ability, but we are expected to work hard with what He has given us, for the profit of the kingdom. In our parable, money is given to us to use, to work with, not just to give back. I wonder how many of us are simply giving back money that we have not put to use.
We need to pursue the element of work a bit further. First of all, let us be clear that we are not talking about salvation by works. We are not saved by good works, but we are saved unto good works:
8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them (Ephesians 2:8-10).
4 But “when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, 5 he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. 7 And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life.” 8 This saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on such truths, so that those who have placed their faith in God may be intent on engaging in good works. These things are good and beneficial for all people (Titus 3:4-8).
Works are the result of faith, not a substitute for faith. Works are “fruits” that are evidence of true faith (see James 2). Works that produce a profit for the kingdom282 are the basis for our rewards.
The Relationship of Work to Retirement:
Is Retirement Burying Your Talent?
In one of my early trips to India, I went to the zoo. I saw something there that both amazed and troubled me. A poor man (a sort of enterprising beggar, perhaps) was busy entertaining the visitors to the zoo. It was his hope that in doing something spectacular he might receive a gift or donation. His entertainment was to torment one of the tigers. He made his way up to the bars, and then proceeded to harass this awesome beast. As his grand finale, the man reached in and pulled the tiger’s whiskers. In my opinion, that’s living dangerously.
I realize that I am going to pull some whiskers by what I am about to say, but I think that I am being true to our text, and to the Bible as a whole. I fear that for all too many Christians (not all!) retirement has become a socially acceptable form of burying one’s talent. Let me see if I can defend my allegation.
My thinking on retirement in this lesson started with the observation that heaven is not the end of work, but the multiplication and continuation of work:
20 “The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master’” (Matthew 25:20-21).
We would probably do well to compare this text with a couple of passages in the Gospel of Luke:
16 “So the first one came before him and said, ‘Sir, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 And the king said to him, ‘Well done, good slave! Because you have been faithful in a very small matter, you will have authority over ten cities’” (Luke 19:16-17).
10 “The one who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and the one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you haven’t been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches? 12 And if you haven’t been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you your own?” (Luke 16:10-12)
“Heaven is not to be thought of as me laying beside the pool, sipping a tall, cool one,” as one of my fellow elders commented this past week. Heaven is described in terms of work, not play, of activity, not passivity. The one who has been faithful on earth with a little thing like money will be given greater work to do in heaven. Heaven is not a hammock; it is not a glorified vacation. Heaven involves work, but it is profitable work. Christians will spend all eternity at work, and this work will include ruling with our Lord and praising Him.
Heaven’s work will be joyful labor. “Entering into the joy of our Master” is, in the context of our text, entering into profitable labor for all eternity. The degree to which our earthly labor has been faithful and profitable will determine the degree to which we enter into joyful labor in heaven.
At this point we would probably do well to look at work from a broader perspective; we should consider work from the beginning of time to eternity future. When God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, He gave them work to do. This was paradise, my friend, and thus their work was not drudgery; it was a delight:
8 The Lord God planted an orchard in the east, in Eden; and there he placed the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow from the soil, every tree that was pleasing to look at and good for food. (Now the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were in the middle of the orchard.) … 15 The Lord God took the man and placed him in the orchard in Eden to care for and maintain it (Genesis 2:8-9, 15).
It was not until after the fall of man that man’s labor became toil:
17 But to Adam he said, “Because you obeyed your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground thanks to you; in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, but you will eat the grain of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat food until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you will return”283 (Genesis 3:17-19).
From that point on work was different; there was a certain “futility” to work:
18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now (Romans 8:18-22).
If Adam’s sin brought about painful labor for mankind, the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ (the “last Adam” – 1 Corinthians 15:45) brought rest:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (Matthew 11:28-30).
This “rest” is not the end of all labor, however:
Thus we must make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by following the same pattern of disobedience (Hebrews 4:11).
In the Book of Revelation, heaven is described as a return to paradise lost:
1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life—water as clear as crystal—pouring out from the throne of God and of the Lamb, 2 flowing down the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life producing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month of the year. Its leaves are for the healing of the nations. 3 And there will no longer be any curse, and the throne of God and the Lamb will be in the city. His servants will worship him, 4 and they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads (Revelation 22:1-4).
When our Lord talks about the kingdom of heaven in our text and elsewhere, He speaks of it in terms of work, not of relaxation or of play. Heaven can hardly be described in terms of retirement. Faithful saints are given even greater responsibilities, and even more work. But this work is joyful. Such labor is, to a large degree, entering into the joy of our Master. It is the end of the curse, and thus the end of futile labor. It is the continuation of fruitful, profitable labor.
I wonder how many have given serious thought to what might be called “the theology of retirement.” I would like to challenge every Christian to rethink the subject of retirement. For example, if work is toil, a part of the curse, then is retirement just an excuse to try and escape from the consequences of sin God has decreed? Is retirement a denial, in effect, of the curse?
It is clear that our Lord Jesus intended for us to be found “at work” when He returns:
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom the master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that slave whom the master finds at work when he comes. 47 I tell you the truth, the master will put him in charge of all his possessions” (Matthew 24:45-47).
If this is the case, and we are to be at work until He comes, then why do we think that reaching a certain age entitles us to cease our labors for Him?
I am not arguing against retirement in the economic sense. I’m not saying that one should never cease their employment nor end their career. I am saying that our labors for the kingdom have no point of termination except for our Lord’s return, and even then fruitful labor will continue in heaven. I am suggesting that we have come to view retirement as that time in life when we can greatly reduce or terminate our giving, and when we can cease our service. Retirement is thought of more in terms of the golf course than “finishing our course” in the Pauline sense (2 Timothy 4:7).
The Christian should think about retirement in the same way he or she thinks of being single (if, indeed, you are):
32 And I want you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the things of the world, how to please his wife, 34 and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, to be holy both in body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the things of the world, how to please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your benefit, not to place a limitation on you, but so that without distraction you may give notable and constant service to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).
Retirement is that period in life when one no longer has the distraction of having to work for a livelihood. It is a time when one should have the wisdom of age, financial freedom, and flexibility. Retirement is like the second stage of a rocket booster. Speed and thrust increase. Our labors for the Master should increase, not diminish, if we are kingdom minded.
The lazy, wicked slave in our parable is that person who refuses to go to work with the resources God has provided, to produce profit for the kingdom of heaven. I am suggesting that the way some Christians look forward to, or practice, retirement is a form of burying your talent. There is no end to our labors for our God. If we loved our Master, we would view our labors for Him as joy. Working hard for the profit of the kingdom and the King is entering into the joy of our Master. And if our labors are joyful, we will delight in the thought of further labor. If we seek to shun the work our Lord has given us, it betrays a wrong attitude and relationship with our Master.
And so I will conclude by asking you this, my friend: Do you know and love the Master, Jesus Christ? By faith, have you entered into His labor, His saving work on your behalf on the cross of Calvary? Have you come to see that so far as your salvation is concerned, all of your works are like filthy rags in His sight (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:9-20)? Have you trusted in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and in His death at Calvary for your sins, rather than in your works (Romans 3:21-26)? If so, then what is the fruitful labor God has given to you? What is your ministry, your unique contribution to the kingdom of God? What is it that you want Him to find you doing when He returns? Don’t bury what God has entrusted to you; go to work with it, for the glory of God, and for your eternal rewards.
It may be that you are not like the first two slaves, but like the third. Don’t blame it on God. He has richly provided all that you need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:1-4). Trust in Jesus, for it is His work that will save you.
I will end with these words from our Lord to the church at Sardis. Please consider their relationship to our text, and to money, time, labor, and profit:
1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write the following: “This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a reputation that you are alive, but in reality you are dead. 2 Wake up then, and strengthen what remains that was about to die, because I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3 Therefore, remember what you received and heard, and obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come against you. 4 But you have a few individuals in Sardis who have not stained their clothes, and they will walk with me dressed in white, because they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be dressed like them in white clothing, and I will never erase his name from the book of life, but will declare his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches’” (Revelation 3:1-6, emphasis mine).
269 Copyright © 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 78 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on April 24, 2005. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
270 I hate to have to disagree with the NET Bible translation here, but it seems to me that this translation does not adequately emphasize the force of our Lord’s carefully chosen words, especially in context. The term employed in Matthew 25:16 emphasizes work. Our Lord’s emphasis here is not on “putting the money to work,” but on the servant “going to work” with his master’s money. The third servant is lazy, because he does not go to work with the money. He doesn’t even take the trouble to take it to the money changers, and let them work with it to gain something for his master.
271 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
272 I am assuming that the second servant acted just as quickly as the first, because our Lord tells us that he acted in a similar manner. It seems safe to deal with the first two servants together, since they are so similar. The only difference seems to be in their abilities, and thus in the talents that were entrusted to them. But each man doubled his master’s money.
273 William Hendriksen, in his commentary on Matthew, finds enthusiasm and joy in the accounting the first two servants gave to their master. William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 881.
274 If my concordance program is correct, this term occurs 526 times in the New Testament. In the King James Version, it is rendered “therefore” 263 times and “then” 197 times.
275 See William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 879.
276 Needless to say, bankers and banking were not the same in those days. These folks were a more honest (hopefully) version of money changer than those who did business in the temple precincts. While interest could not be charged of fellow-Israelites, it could be charged of foreigners (see Deuteronomy 23:19-20).
277 There are those who would suggest that this slave buried the talent in hopes that the master might never return. This is only speculation. In my opinion, nothing in our text compels us to think (or even imply) that this might be the case.
278 Actually, the “good” slave is both morally good and useful, but his usefulness is emphasized most in the context.
279 Greek, ponhrouj.
280 Old Testament references here are to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.
281 Remember that one manifestation of the “harshness” or “hardness” of Nabal was that he refused to reward David for his faithful service to him (1 Samuel 25:2-13). Did this third slave think that there would be no reward for his faithful service because his master was a “hard man”?
282 I am trying to be careful here, because some works are not profitable for the kingdom, and these will not be rewarded, but will be destroyed. See 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
283 We should recall that Eve was given her own kind of labor (Genesis 3:16).