The Talents

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Don’t waste your life. That’s the title of a book by John Piper. I gave a copy of it to my son. I hope he didn’t take it wrongly. My choice of book wasn’t a comment on his past. It was an encouragement to take up the challenge of the future. It’s a challenge that we all need to hear – not just twenty-something young men. It’s also the message of the bit of the Bible that’s our focus today. It comes with a fierce warning from Jesus to those who do waste their lives. It also comes with wonderful promise about what we can look forward to if we don’t waste our lives but use them well.

The warning is very fierce, but it’s amazing, isn’t it, how strong a warning needs to be before it’s taken seriously. Think, for instance, of smoking, and those warnings on cigarette packets.

Now I can talk about this with some complacency because smoking, at least, is one temptation that has never held much attraction for me. I put that down to the fact that when I was a young boy away at boarding school, I thought I’d have a go at smoking. Some of the others were. We had no access to cigarettes, so we improvised by cutting lengths of bracken with our penknives, setting fire to one end of them, and puffing at the other end, cigarette style. One lungful of acrid bracken smoke cured me of any desire ever to smoke again. Others, I know, haven’t had that aversion therapy.

So we need strong messages. Think of those cigarette packets. Smoking kills. Smoking causes fatal lung cancer. Smokers die younger. Smoking harms you and others. And now gruesome pictures are being added too. And these warnings do get heeded by some, so the research suggests. But for some people in grave danger, even these strong warnings are like water off a duck’s back.

But the warnings are given not from a cruel or unfeeling attitude. They’re given out of concern. They’re given in order to change lives. The same is true of the warnings that Jesus give us, and the gruesome word pictures that he paints. And the warning here is: don’t waste your life. Wasting your life harms you and others. Wasting your life kills.

The particular fierce warning and wonderful promise that we’re listening to comes in Matthew 25.14-30. Over these mornings we’re looking at the teaching of Jesus in chapters 24-26 of Matthew’s Gospel. Today we reach what is generally called ‘The Parable of the Talents’. So that’s Matthew 25.14-30.

Now I want to get at this by asking two questions. First: What will it be like when Jesus comes back? And secondly: How should we live before Jesus comes back?


You can see why that’s the question if you just go to the beginning of this passage. Matthew 25.14. The whole of this passage is in quotation marks – the whole thing is Jesus speaking, telling a story. And he starts like this:

Again, it will be like…

That ‘again’ indicates that this is part of a sequence of teaching on the same theme. So what is ‘it’ – ‘it will be like’? Well, that refers back to 25.1, and the Parable of the Ten Virgins that we looked at a couple of weeks ago. That starts like this:

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like…

So it’s the kingdom of heaven – the kingdom of God, of which he is himself the King – that Jesus is describing. But it’s the kingdom ‘at that time’. At what time? To be clear about that, you have to go back to chapter 24, which is all part of the same sequence. Turn to 24.3:

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen [that’s the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, that Jesus has just prophecied], and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

When are you going to come back and bring in your kingdom? When will history as we know it be wrapped up and the Day of Judgement arrive? Those are the issues that Jesus is dealing with in these chapters. So in 24.36 he says:

“No one knows about that day or hour [the timing of it, that is], not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

And verse 42:

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord [that’s him] will come.”

And on to verse 44:

“So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man [that’s him again], will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

The crucified and risen Jesus is going to return one day in glory. We will all be gathered before him. We don’t know and can’t know when that day will be. So the only way to prepare is to be ready all the time. “You must be ready.” How can we be ready? We have to watch, and we have to work.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins is about watching. So Jesus says at the end of it 25.13:

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

We need to make sure that we have a living relationship with Jesus now, and every day, so that when he returns, he already knows us. And we do that by continuous repentance and continuous trust. Continually depending on his forgiveness through the cross, and living by faith in him. We have to watch.

And we also have to work. Don’t waste your life. That’s what this next parable is all about. So let’s go through this to make sure that we understand it as best we can, and I’ll pick up a number of points on the way. Verse 14:

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.”

Now, there’s no direct parallel with every detail in the parable. But it’s clear that the picture in essence is of Jesus the master absent (in a certain sense) from his world. One day he will come back. But for now, he’s gone. And the master gives his servants a commission to take care of his property for him.

Who are we to think of when we hear of these servants? There are two sorts of servant – the good and faithful servants, and the wicked and lazy servant. So do the servants represent all mankind – Christian or not? Or do they represent only all those who profess faith in Christ – those in the church? That’s not entirely clear it seems to me, but the lessons and the warnings of this parable certainly need to be learned by everyone. So this is a parable for anyone who is willing to hear it. But more to the point, it is a parable for me and for you. It challenges us to examine our own lives. What kind of servant are you? That’s the challenge that comes to us here. Verse 15:

To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

What are these ‘talents’? When we hear the word ‘talents’ in this parable, we need to make sure that we think more widely than talents in the sense in which the word has come to be used as referring to gifts or natural abilities. In the story it means money, of course. And it’s a lot of money. Estimates vary as to the modern equivalent, but we’re talking about many thousands of pounds – maybe in the hundreds of thousands.

And note that this money remains the possession of the absent master. It is entrusted to the care of the servants. In other words they are to look after it in the best interests of their master to the best of their ability. So we’re to think of all the resources of God that he puts at our disposal and that he wants us to use in his service: our time, our energy, our minds, our money, our gifts and skills, the word of God that he puts into our hands, and life itself. All of this belongs to him. It has all been entrusted to us. We are to use them in his best interests to the best of our ability.

And the talents are distributed, says Jesus, ‘according to ability’. We are entrusted with the resources that we also have the capacity to cope with. People do have varying capacities – not as a matter of virtue, but because that’s how God made us. And he matches resources to capacity. But we are not assessed by our capacity or the amount of resources that we have. God is interested in what we do with what we have. He is looking for how we multiply what we’ve been given. So, on to verse 16:

The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more.

These two servants ‘put their money to work’. In other words, they went to work, using the money that had been entrusted to them. They were enterprising. They started up businesses of some sort to make their resources multiply. They applied themselves and their abilities to fulfil the responsibility that had been laid on them. They spent their time and energy working in the interest of their master. And it paid off. ‘But,’ verse 18…

… the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

It’s not immediately clear what this third servant’s motivation is for this easy-care method of preserving the resources entrusted to him. It is immediately clear that what he has not done is ‘put the money to work’ like the other two. We have to wait for the return of the master before his motives are exposed. Verse 19:

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.”

When Jesus says the master returns ‘after a long time’, that is more than a hint that the disciples should not expect the second coming of Christ to take place very rapidly. They were in for a long wait. That was 2000 years ago, and we’re still waiting. But that’s OK. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us. We’ve been warned it’ll be a long time before Jesus returns. We have to learn to wait expectantly.

But the day will come when Jesus does return. And that will be a day for the settling of accounts. Everyone of us is accountable to Christ for what we’ve done with what he’s given us. There will be a day of reckoning. We will have to give account, just as these servants could not escape doing. But of course, this day of reckoning held no fears for the first two servants. From verse 20 to 23:

“The man who had received the five talents brought the other five.” ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ His master replied, ‘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!’ The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master’, he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’ His master replied, '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!’”

Both of these servants double their money. And notice that the commendation that they receive from their returned master is word for word identical. And what a commendation that must be to hear. Are we able to look forward to hearing similar words from the lips of Jesus?:

“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!”

What a day that will be. Yes, we fail. And we sin. And we are utterly dependent on God’s grace. And we have no place in the Kingdom but through the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross for us. And all our ability comes from him. And all our resources are entrusted to us by him. And it his by the power of his Spirit alone that we can be useful in his service. But he is gracious to us. And he does enable us to be useful and fruitful in his service when we go to work with all that he’s entrusted to us.

Arguably, there’s an indication here that the master is not setting the bar especially high for the giving of this commendation. He’s not looking for star performance. It’s been in the news this week that the directors of Qinetiq, a government research establishment that was sold off, invested about £150,000 and after a short time ended up with £20 million. These servants just doubled their money. And that was after ‘a long time’. That’s a reasonable but not spectacular return. But the commendation is spectacular, if you were on the receiving end of it.

What, then, do these commendations tell us about the master? Surely that he is just; he is encouraging; he is generous; he rewards his faithful servants; indeed it seems to me he goes beyond treating them as mere servants and begins to treat them as friends when he invites them to come and share in his own happiness. All they have done is to fulfil their responsibilities. He lavishes blessing on them. He is a good and generous master. That much is clear.

What of the third servant? Verse 24 to 25:

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'”

Now, what is the truth about what’s going on here? Some people take the third servant’s assessment of the character of the master at face value, as if it is the truth about him. And they also accept this servant’s own statement about his motivation for burying the money and not putting it to work – that is, that he was acting out of fear. But I cannot see that.

We’ve seen in the master’s response to the first two servants that he is not the hard man the third servant describes. And the master is precisely not ‘harvesting where he has not sown’ and ‘gathering where he has not scattered seed’. Whose money does this servant think he’s been given as seed corn? It’s not his own. It belongs to the master. The master is scattering his own seed, and quite reasonably expecting a harvest. This servant is distorting the character of the master to excuse his behaviour. The master is not a hard man, grasping and exploiting others. Yesterday I saw the exhibition in the Laing Art Gallery to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Those plantation owners were hard men. The cap would fit them. But it doesn’t fit this master. And when we hear the master’s response, we can see through this servant’s excuse of fear. Verse 26 to 27:

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.’”

Who are we going to believe here? The master or the servant? The servant says he was motivated by fear. The master says he was motivated by laziness and wickedness. He wasn’t interested in serving the interests of his master, as was his responsibility. He was only interested in an easy life for himself. And he thought that he could talk his way round and pull the wool over the master’s eyes and get away with it. He couldn’t. As someone has said:

His failure betrays his lack of love for his master which he masks by blaming his master and excusing himself.

And if we live like that, then, like those labels on the outside of cigarette packets, the warning is fierce. Verse 28 to 30:

“ ‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ”

The servant is condemned out of his own mouth and by his own standards. He couldn’t even be bothered to put the money in the bank so that it would earn interest. He wasn’t really thinking about his master at all. He was thinking only of himself. So he is not condemned because he had nothing. After all, he had been given money to use. The judgement says ‘what he has will be taken from him’. He did have money.
What he doesn’t have, fatally, is the fruitful service that flows from love for his master and concern for his master’s interests. In gospel terms, what he lacks is not resources from God with which to serve. What he lacks is faith and fruitfulness. He is lazy and wicked. He loves himself and he hates his master.
And the verdict is that he is banished to outer darkness, to the agony of hell. His relationship with the master is severed for ever. And, like that warning ‘Smoking Kills’, this is a warning intended to make sure that we never hear the same verdict over our own lives. This is a loving warning from the lips of Jesus. We need to heed it.

So to sum up what we need to learn, let me try and answer that second question that I posed at the start:


Anticipate the return of Jesus. He is coming back. The day will come. We will give account for how we have spent our lives.

Understand that all you have – your life and all your resources – belongs to Christ and is entrusted to you. God expects that we will use it well for him.

Live for Jesus and not for yourself. Live a life spent in his service, not a lazy, self-serving life. That means living a life trusting him, obeying him, telling the world, serving the church, caring for needs and contending for truth.

Don’t imagine that you can pull the wool over the eyes of Jesus when the day of reckoning comes. Put like that it sounds ridiculous that we should think we can – and it is ridiculous. Don’t even think of trying it.

Don’t twist the character of God and start thinking of him as hard, uncaring and exploitative. That is not what he is like. He is a good and faithful master.

So live for the day when you will hear Jesus say to you: 'Well done, good and faithful servant!

Heed Jesus’s warning about the fate of the wicked.

Don’t waste your life.

And then, if we do these things, we can look forward to sharing in the happiness of our master for all eternity.

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