The last parable in Matthew’s gospel is familiarly known as “the parable of the talents,” from 25:14-30.
Someone says, “Wait a minute. What about the story that follows this parable, the judgement of the nations in which the Lord divides mankind into the sheep and the goats?” Answer: it’s not a parable. It’s the real thing.
A parable is an illustration thrown alongside a reality to make some significant point. But we must always be careful to discern when Jesus is not telling a story but dealing with the actual reality.
The basic points in this story–this parable of the talents–are these:
1. Before leaving for an indefinite period of time, the master of three slaves gives each a certain sum of money to invest.
2. The understanding is that each will give account on his return.
3. The amount each receives is based on that servant’s abilities as the master discerns.
4. Two servants put the money to work–we’re not told how–and doubled theirs.
5. One servant, the slave judged by the master to be worthy of only the smallest portion, buried his.
6. The master is delayed ‘a long time.’ (vs. 19)
7. On his return–sudden, no doubt, although this is not a point of the story–the master called the servants for an accounting of their stewardship.
8. Two had done well and thus received great rewards. In both cases, the reward was a greater responsibility.
9. The servant who buried his money was in trouble and knew it. He pleads that it was his fear of the master that prevented him from taking a risk. “Look, here it is–you have what is yours!” (vs. 25)
10. The master had no patience with such laziness. The man was banished.
11. The money entrusted to the lazy servant was awarded the one who had been most faithful. “To him who has, it shall be given.”
12. The corollary of that principle is also stated: “To him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (vs. 29)
That’s the story.
How fitting that this should be the last of our Lord’s parables in Matthew.
Jesus is about to go away. He’s been preparing the disciples for His absence, although at the moment they are still oblivious to what awaits them. He is entrusting the gospel and His resources and a world of opportunity to them. On His return, there will be an accounting. The disciples are not to be so conservative in their approach, not afraid to do something unprecedented, but to take risks and to use what they’ve been given.
“Occupy til I come.” (Luke 19:13)
It’s impossible not to think of parables from the other gospels that closely resemble this one.
“The parable of the 10 minas” in Luke 19 is one.
Luke 13:6-9 gives a brief account of a landowner who instructs the gardener to cut down a certain barren fig tree. “Why cumberest it the ground?” is the quaint expression the KJV uses, and that says it well. The gardener suggests they give it one more chance.
Our Lord uses numerous opportunities, it seems clear, to get across to the disciples that–
–He expects them to use what He has given them and to bear much fruit. (John 15) However, we must not forget that Scripture speaks of numerous kinds of fruit, from the winning of souls to praise as the fruit of our lips (Hebrews 13:15) to the Christlike character called the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
–Barrenness is closely akin to wickedness in the mind of the Lord. A healthy tree produces healthy fruit; only the dead or diseased do not. (Matthew 7:15-20)
–Faithfulness will involve risk-taking; burying one’s talent is rebellion.
–There will be a final exam.
Our readers know that in no way do I attempt to cover every aspect of these parables, but only some high points which need stressing.
Here are three we could wish every believer took seriously:
There is no prize on conservatism in the Kingdom of God. Liberality and even aggressiveness are the order of the day. We are to get out of our comfort zones and take risks for His sake.
You’ve heard of the three stages of churches: risk-taking, care-taking, and undertaking.
God expects us to pray big. Plan big. Execute big. Expect big. When we do, He promises we will harvest big.
The sermon of William Carey in 1792–just before he became the “father of modern missions” for Protestantism–comes to mind. Based on Isaiah 54:2, Carey urged England’s believers to “attempt great things for God” and “expect great things from God.”
Anyone who has spent time in today’s churches has heard variations of this theme: “We’d better hold off; we’re not sure what the economy is going to do.” “This is not a good time; my business is hurting.” “Well, now, pastor, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.” “We’ve never done it that way before.”
John Newton’s counsel on prayer reminds us of the approach the Lord wants in all our discipleship:
“Thou art coming to a King
Large petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and power are such
None can ever ask too much.”
“Go ahead and ask for a sign from me,” the Lord God said to King Ahaz. “Make it reach from the depths of Sheol to the heights of Heaven.” When the wicked king hesitated, God said, “All right then. I’ll give you a sign myself. Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and shall call His name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:10-14, my paraphrase)
We pay the Lord no compliment when we cringe in the shadows, fearing the world, fearing people, fearing one another, and fearing tomorrow. “God has not given us the spirit of timidity, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind.” (II Timothy 1:7)
In the missionary instructions Jesus gave the disciples found in Matthew 10, He counseled them to–
–Wise up: “be shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves.” 10:16
–Speak up: “what I tell you in the dark, speak in the light.” 10:27
–Confess up: “everyone who will acknowledge me before men, I will also acknowledge before My Father in heaven.” 10:32
–Give up: “whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” 10:38
–Look up: “He will not lose his reward.” 10:42
The Lord does not hold me responsible for gifts He did not give me. I am accountable only for what I do with what He gave me.
That explains a lot of things; it liberates us from the unrealistic expectations of others and the joy-destroying expectations of ourselves.
“Pastor, why aren’t you doing what the pastor of Shiloh church is doing? Why, they’re on television, he’s writing books, and they are putting up a new sanctuary.”
Answer: “That’s wonderful, isn’t it. But that pastor has different gifts from mine. He does what God calls and equips and gifts him to do, and I do what God calls and equips me to do.”
Okay, that little conversation does not happen, does it? Your church members do not ask you why you are not doing what Pastor X is doing.
You are the one asking that question, aren’t you, pastor? You wonder why you are not being as successful as that pastor–not growing as they are, not publishing books, not receiving the acclaim he is.
You are the one who feels overlooked when spiritual gifts were handed out.
Don’t do that to yourself. It’s playing into the hands of the enemy; his best tactic is discouragement and we must always resist it.
I’ll tell you this. Sometimes that pastor you found yourself envying for his notoriety, his success, and his acclaim, burns out and all his glittering accomplishments disappear into thin air. Meanwhile, the pastor who steadily did the work God gave him using the gifts entrusted to him, that pastor builds a solid work that steadily grows year by year.
Given a choice, you would prefer to be the latter.
To be sure–and in this we rejoice–sometimes the good-looking, charismatic, soulwinning pastor with the , beautiful family, terrific mind and great personality does indeed stick. Sometimes he lasts, and the work he does for Christ accomplishes great things.
If you are smart and if you are faithful, you will not envy or resent him but rejoice in what he does. You will not try to imitate it. (That’s the hardest thing of all, because he holds these conferences on “how we did it,” and you learn his techniques and try to copy them in your congregation. But they rarely work for you. You’re not him. His gifts are special and so are yours.)
“Thou has been faithful over a few things…” (25:21,23)
“Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)
“It is required in stewards that they be faithful.” (I Corinthians 4:2)
The old minister was kneeling in quiet conversation with His Master. “I have so little fruit to show for these years of labor, Lord. I’m ashamed to come before Thee with so few trophies.”
The voice from Heaven answered, “I did not send you to be successful, my son. I sent you to be faithful.”
You and I would add that this kind of faithfulness is the best kind of success there is.
(Sorry, pastors. I know you expected a ‘ness’ word there. Couldn’t think of one! And ‘expectancy’ is the word we need here.)
The theme of this parable is that the Master is going away and He is coming back again. Let’s not lose sight of that.
How long will He be gone? Some commentators tell us the early believers all expected Jesus’ return within their lifetime and were disappointed when it did not happen. However, we respond that those first believers are the ones who remembered and then recorded these parables from the Lord Jesus. Both parables from Matthew 25 make the point that His return may not be as quickly as some expect.
They were to expect His return momentarily, but work as if it would not occur in their lifetimes. That, not incidentally, is where we are also.
The disciple of the Lord Jesus has no patience with those who issue predictions as to His return. Those predictions ran rampant after the Balfour Declaration at the end of World War I allowed Jews to return to Palestine. Then, in 1948, when Israel officially became a nation unto itself, the predictions went to warp speed. “It’s going to occur within this generation,” we were repeatedly told, as the preachers interpreted Matthew 24:34.
Hal Lindsey created a furor in the late 1960s with his book “The Late Great Planet Earth.” As I recall, he did not issue a specific date for the Lord’s return, but left no doubt that it was about to happen quickly. Recently I noticed someone selling an updated version of that book. There’s a good reason we’ve not heard anything about it. People quickly get burned out on this kind of speculation.
God’s people should have no truck with it.
The answer to those who engage in such speculation and outright date-setting is to quote the Lord: “Now concerning that day and hour no one knows–neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son–except the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36)
Somewhere I heard of the false prophet responding to that, “Sure no one knows the exact day and hour, but the Lord has told us the month and the year.”
In the parable–hope I haven’t digressed so far you’ve forgotten where we were!–the Master returns unexpectedly and calls His servants in for an accounting.
“So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:12)
For the faithful, the news is good.
–He receives the commendation of the Lord. “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
–He receives a greater assignment from the Lord: “I will put you in charge of many things.” The reward for a job well done is a greater task. What that is, we will have to leave to the Lord, but it may well be a glimpse into one aspect of Heaven. Far from lying around on clouds strumming harps, we may be serving Jesus in greater ways than we have ever imagined.
–He is ushered into the joy of the Lord: “Enter your master’s joy!” (“In thy presence there is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16:11)
It is not carnal to work for reward. God’s Word promises rewards to His faithful servants from one end to the other. God knows human nature and that one aspect of motivating us is with rewards.
When Peter said, “Lord we have left everything for you,” Jesus responded, “Anyone who has done that will receive a hundred times as much in this life and in the world to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30, my paraphrase)
Toward the end of Paul’s life, he said, “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that day; and not only me, but all those who have loved His appearing.” (II Timothy 4:8)
We who follow the Lord Jesus are to be faithful in our discipleship, bold in our service, and expectant concerning the future.
And with that, we end the articles on the parables of Matthew.
“Thank you, Lord Jesus, for Thy incredible teaching. May we who pass them on to your people be true to the meaning but creative in our approach. Keep us from being bored and from boring our hearers. Show us insights we have missed before that will excite us and challenge us and grow our people. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”