Once upon a time there was a man who went on a journey, and before he left he entrusted three servants with his money. When the man returned, he praised the two servants who had doubled his money, but the third servant, who had done nothing, was thrown outside into the darkness.
The parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) is used by some to say, “Jesus paid a great price for you. If you don’t work hard to give him a return for his investment, he will toss you into the outer darkness. So get busy for Jesus.”
This resonates with those who see themselves as servants rather than sons of God, but it’s not what the parable is about. In the story, the servants don’t work at all; the money works:
The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. (Matt 25:16-17)
How do you put money to work? You invest it. Some translations say the servants traded the money. Perhaps they became money-lenders, or maybe they financed a business venture. I lived in Hong Kong, so I don’t find this hard to imagine. In Hong Kong you can smell the money working.
The parable of the talents is not about how hard you work for God, but what you will do with the riches he has given to you. In the story Jesus is the man going on a journey. The wealth given to the servants represents his grace, for grace is a gift and not a wage.
Jesus has entrusted you with the riches of his grace – his love, favor, and forgiveness. What will you do with his gifts? Will you invest them or scorn them? Will you put his grace to work? Or will you bury it in the ground?
How do you put grace to work?
In the story, two servants put their master’s wealth to work and both get a good return. The master is delighted:
Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matt 25:21)
The master promotes the servants and makes them rulers in charge of many things. The Message Bible says he makes them his partners, which is a very apt description of what Jesus does for us:
For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! (Rom 5:17)
God gives you grace so that you will be set free from servitude and reign in life through Jesus. How does it happen? It begins by believing that God loves you and is pleased with you. When you realize that you are your Father’s dearly-beloved child it will free you from the treadmill of dead works. You won’t exhaust yourself seeking his acceptance and approval because in Christ you already have it! When you know that he has clothed you with his righteousness, you will be free from the law that makes men slaves (Gal 4:24).
How do we make grace work?
By trusting in it from start to finish. As we behold the grace of God revealed in Jesus, we are transformed. We mature into who we already are in Christ, kings and priests who reign over the earth (Rev 1:6, 5:10).
What about the third servant?
In the story the master is unimpressed with the servant who buried the gift:
You wicked, lazy servant! … You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. (Matt 25:26-27)
There are different ways to invest money, but the easiest is to put it in the bank and accumulate interest. Yet the third servant didn’t even do this. He couldn’t be bothered. Instead he makes a speech that reveals his contempt for his master’s grace:
Master, I knew that you are a hard man… (Matt 25:24a)
A hard man?! His master gave him a bag of gold. For free! This was his golden ticket, a way out of servitude, but he scorned it.
You are a hard man harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. (Matt 25:24a)
In other words, “You’re unreasonable Lord. You don’t play by the rules. Who gives bags of gold to servants? You must be nuts. I want nothing to do with your reckless grace and I feel quite justified in not playing your silly games. Besides, you gave me a great deal of money and I didn’t want to be held accountable for it:
So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. (Matt 25:25a)
This actually makes sense to the self-righteous mind. “If I don’t earn it, I don’t want it.”
See, here is what belongs to you. (Matt 25:25b)
In other words, “Take back your bag of grace. I don’t need it, I don’t want it, and I will not be in your debt.”
Needless to say, Jesus is not impressed with the third servant. He calls him wicked, lazy, and worthless, and has him thrown into the outer darkness. His reaction to the self-righteous servant echoes his reaction to the foolish virgins in the preceding parable (“I don’t know you”; Matt 25:12), and the goats in the next one (“Depart from me”; Matt 25:41).
Parabolic pictures of faith
In three parables Jesus gives us three pictures of faith and unbelief. Faith is looking forward to the Lord’s return (the parable of the ten virgins), it’s receiving the wealth of his grace (the parable of the talents), and investing it in the lives of those who need it (the parable of the sheep and goats).
These parables should not be read as moral lessons as in, “You’d better keep watch, get busy, and serve or else!” They are stories about Jesus and what people do with him.
In the parable of the talents the faithful servants were faithful because they received the master’s gift, and the lazy servant was unfaithful because he rejected it.
The faithful servants prospered because they allowed room for God’s grace to work in their lives, but the wicked servant missed out because he didn’t trust the master. In the end the third’s gift is taken away and he is sent into the outer darkness, not in punishment, but because he fears the master and has no wish to share in his happiness.
Ultimately, all three servants get what they desire, and so do we. Those who want to receive the riches of God’s grace shall have it and have it in abundance. And those who prefer the solitary path of the self-made man, even though it leads to misery and darkness, shall have that too.
Take the gold!
So what is the takeaway? Take the Master’s bag of gold and spend it, trade it, invest it, do whatever you like with it, but don’t hand it back unopened and unused. Grace, like gold, is meant to be used, not left in the ground.
But unlike gold, God’s grace never runs out. As you draw on his grace to buy freedom, health, deliverance, and wisdom, his grace grows, and “the one who has will be given more, and they will have an abundance” (Matt 25:29).
To see his children growing and prospering in grace makes the Lord happy.
It will make you happy too!
In the parable of the talents the faithful servants got similar rewards, but in the parable of the minas (Luke 19) they got different rewards (cities). We’ll look at that parable next. Stay tuned!