The Parable of the Talents

September 10, 2017 sermon
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor

Matthew 25:14-30

Near the end of his gospel, Matthew gives us two chapters of Jesus’ extended teachings about His second coming (Matthew 24, 25). Inside these chapters, Jesus enhances these teachings with three parables. Today we focus on “The Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30).

Although some questions may be raised about the specific details of the “Parable of the Talents”, the overwhelming message is that that Jesus wants us to prepare for His return by building His kingdom as we wait, and we are to use every resource we have in this process.

In this story, the parting master entrusts his wealth to his servants, and holds them accountable for their investment of it when he returns. Servants one and two double the master’s money; but servant three hides his money, returns only the original amount with no investment, and then delivers an insulting speech blaming the master.

Observations on The Parable of Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)

  1. The talents represent “any” resource God has given us to build His kingdom. This parable forces us to ask ourselves: What did God give me to build His Kingdom? It might be money, material resources, spiritual gifts (especially the gift of the assurance of the truth of the Gospel), or even non-spiritual gifts, such as: character traits, health, talents, Godly family, life experiences, connections, or influences.
  2. There is the possibility of real loss. Like the third servant, we might suffer real loss: of God’s praise, of our material goods (I Cor. 3), and even of our current standing in God’s Kingdom at judgment. This story warns all people that disobedience and self righteousness just might ultimately land them outside God’s Kingdom and in judgment.
  3. There is the opportunity for real reward. Like the first and second servants, this story suggests that persons actively involved in the building of God’s Kingdom will be given: approval from our Creator (“well done”), the possibility of reward (perhaps on different levels eternally), and by increased intimacy with God (sharing “our master’s happiness”).

This parable shows us that it is not about what has not been entrusted to us, but about using the gifts God has actually put at our disposal to build His Kingdom as we wait for Jesus’ return. Pray that God will reveal your gifts to you so that His Spirit can help you invest in, serve, and grow God’s Kingdom right here in this world. This is what will bring you the possibility of God’s praise, increased reward, and intimacy with our Lord.

Discussion Questions

  1. Can you name two gifts that God has given you to increase His Kingdom? Would you allow your small group members, who know you, to assist you with a couple more?
  2. What gift have you actually used to build the Kingdom? How did you invest your gift?
  3. What excuses have you used to explain your failures? Have you ever blamed or falsely testified about God or others to justify your failures?
  4. Can we know “increased intimacy” with God here on earth? Have you ever experienced it?
  5. Is there a tension between investing money (usually involving risk) and hoarding money (to be sure you keep it)? How do we handle this as Christians?
  6. Are we to rejoice in the opportunity for real reward for using our gifts, or fear for the possibility of real loss when we do not use our gifts for His Kingdom? Or both? How do we live this out daily?


Near the end of Jesus’ ministry in the last week before his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus gave his disciples an extended teaching on the topic of his second coming – the time when he will suddenly, unexpectedly return in great power to set up his kingdom on earth. It’s a long teaching. It takes up two chapters in Matt’s gospel – almost 100 verses. In this teaching, Jesus gave his disciples three parables – each one teaching a different truth about how his followers should prepare for his return:

  • The first parable is often called “the Parable of the servants given authority.” It’s a lesser-known parable that teaches the disciples that the way to prepare for Jesus’ return is not to figure out the exact date when he is coming, but rather to live obediently. Remembering that when Jesus returns, we will give an account of our behavior.
  • The second parable is called “the Parable of the 10 young women or 10 Virgins.” It teaches that the way to prepare for Jesus’ return is again not to figure out the exact date when he is coming, but rather the way to prepare for his return is to always be ready.
  • The third parable that Jesus gave in this teaching is the one that Kelley read earlier. It’s a little more well-known. How many of you have heard this parable before? It’s called “the Parable of the Talents.” Jesus gave us this parable to teach us that the way to prepare for his second coming is not by simply waiting for his return, but rather the way we prepare is by building his kingdom expanding his domain, his influence. The parable teaches that we are to use every resource at our disposal to do that. That’s the point of the parable. We are to build Jesus’ kingdom as we await his return.

When we first read the parable or certainly when I first read the parable, there are lots of questions that come to mind. Obviously, the Master in the parable represents Jesus and the servants represent those who claim to follow him, but there are lots of questions:

  • Was the servant who buried his one talent really such a bad guy? The Master calls him wicked, but he just says he was responding out of fear. Was what he did he really that bad?
  • Does the Master really represent Jesus? He is described as one who reaps where he hasn’t sown, almost like he takes what doesn’t belong to him. Is Jesus really like that?
  • What exactly do the talents represent in our lives? How does that play out in our day-to-day living?

Lots of questions!

Today we’re going to look at that parable. As we look at it, I want to do two things:

  1. I’m going to re-tell the story of this parable with some background information and clarifying some things, so that we understand what happened in the story and what it would mean to the original hearers.
  2. I’m going to talk about what this parable has to do with you and me and the way we live out our day-to-day lives. We will make three observations about how this applies to us.

We’re going to do that today. As we go through this parable and move toward application, I want you to be asking yourself this question: What has God entrusted to me that I can use to build his kingdom? What is it? Is it a spiritual gift, like teaching, or administration or hospitality? Is it money? Or some other material resource? Or maybe is it something you never thought of as spiritual? A sphere of influence? A location? A hobby? Your job? What is it that God has entrusted to you that you can use to build his kingdom?

Let’s pray – pray that God will reveal something to everyone.

The Parable of the Talents

Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 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. 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. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 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!’
“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.’
“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.
“ ‘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.
– Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus starts this parable by telling us the story of a well-to-do man who calls his servants together to prepare them for his lengthy absence. He’s going on a journey. As he prepares them for his departure, this man does something that would have surprised Jesus’ listeners: He entrusts his wealth to his servants. It might have been all of this man’s wealth. Certainly it was a great deal of his wealth, because the amount he shares with his servants is astounding: He gives his servants eight “talents” in total.

A talent was 75 pounds of precious metal. The way Jesus describes this it was probably silver, and a talent of silver was worth 20 years’ worth of wages for a common laborer. The New International Version Bible has a footnote that says “A talent was worth more than $1,000.” You could say that! Scholars estimate that in modern terms, these talents were each worth around $300,000, making the total amount that the master gave his servants $2.4 million. That is one trusting, generous Master!

Now, the Master knew his servants well. He knew that they were not equally capable, so he distributed his wealth taking into account each servant’s ability. He gave five talents to one servant, two talents to another and one talent to a third. Then, the Master went away on his journey.

Once the Master was gone, the laborers had two different responses to the Master’s gift. The five talent and two talent servants put the money to work. That doesn’t mean that they just gave it to a banker and said “make me some money.” Rather, they immediately got with it. They got about the business of increasing the Master’s estate. They invested the money, maybe started businesses, maybe made deals, and worked hard to see that the Master’s interests grew. Sure enough it did! As time went on, they got to the point where they had doubled the resources that had been given to them. The first servant now had ten talents, and the second servant had four!

But the third servant took a different approach. Rather than getting to work with his money, he found a secluded spot, dug a hole and buried it in the ground. We’re not sure why he did this:

  • Maybe he was disappointed that he only received one talent and was being passive-aggressive
  • Maybe he didn’t think he could accomplish anything with just one talent
  • Maybe he didn’t think the Master was going to be gone very long
  • Maybe he was fearful that he would lose it if he invested it (that’s his excuse later)

We’re not told exactly why he did it. What we do know is that he simply buried the money. That means that while the other servants were working to increase their talents, he decided to spend his time on other things – maybe on a new hobby, maybe on relaxing, maybe on a second job, probably on himself but definitely not on his Master. That was his response to the gift.

Jesus tells us that a time came when the Master returned from his trip. It took a long time for the Master to return (just like it has taken a long time for Jesus to return). When he returned, there was a reckoning. There was a time of evaluation – a time when accounts were settled. He called his servants to him one by one.

The first servant the one who had received five talents brought to his master all the profit he had made. Like I said, he had used his five talents to make five more! This was great news! The master now had a larger estate than he had started out with. He went from eight talents to ten talents. His fortune had gone from $2.4 million to $3 million! The master responded with delight, and he did three things:

  1. First, he praised his servant. He told the servant that he had done well and called him a good and faithful servant. To please his master is what any servant lives for. That must have felt good!
  2. He increased the first servant’s authority. Because he had been faithful with the money that had been entrusted to him, the Master put him in charge of many things. The man now had more freedom, more resources, more productivity at his disposal. So the master praised him and gave him more authority.
  3. There was one more thing the Master did: He invited the man to share in his happiness. He made that man an intimate part of his life. He literally gave him a place at the table. He was now, like part of the Master’s family. The man’s station in life had just gone up way up! The first servant was overjoyed.

The second servant came in to give his report. He had not gained five talents like the first servant. He had only gained two. Like the first servant, he had worked hard and had doubled what the Master had invested in him. The other household servants must have wondered how the Master was going to respond. They probably assumed the Master would give this two talent servant a nice reward, but smaller reward than the first man. The Master delighted them! He showed his generosity by giving this second servant the exact same reward as he had given the first! He:

  1. Praised him with the same words
  2. Made the same promise of increased authority word for word
  3. Gave the man the very same invitation to join him in his happiness

Can you imagine the second servant’s delight? He too was a faithful servant!

Then the time came for the third servant to give an account to the Master. This was a very different scene from the abundance and rejoicing of the first two servants. This last servant didn’t have two talents of profit to present to the Master. He didn’t have two talents of profit to present. In fact, he didn’t have any profit. What he had was the original talent that had been given to him and a speech. I don’t know if he had worked on the speech for a long time, developing his excuses during his idle days while the master was gone, or if he came up with it on the spot when he saw the celebration that the other servants had caused and knew he was going to suffer by comparison. But he had a speech – a speech of full excuses as to why no one should have expected him to make a profit with his one talent. He needed someone else to take the blame for his lack of profit. He couldn’t blame the circumstances and markets, because both of his other servants had turned a 100% profit on their investments. He couldn’t blame the size of the Master’s gift. $300,000 is a lot of money. The size of the gift hadn’t made any difference with the other two servants. They had both made a profit. The master had given the one who made less the same commendation as the one who gained more. He couldn’t blame those things.

He didn’t want to blame himself, so he chose to blame the Master. In a brazen speech, he said “I know that you are someone to be feared. You are a hard man, a tight-fisted man who takes not just what is his, but takes things that don’t belong to him. That caused me to be afraid. I knew you would be angry if I lost your money while I was investing it, so I did the only thing I could. I buried your talent in the ground. Here is what you gave me.”

That speech probably seemed very reasonable to the servant when he was preparing it. Maybe his friends had told him it would work. Maybe his wife had told him the Master would have to see the logic in it. But it was an awful choice! Not only had he insulted a Master who was obviously generous, entrusting his estate to his servants and rewarding them richly for their work. Not only had he called that Master stingy, but his speech was self-contradictory. If he really believed his Master was so demanding, he should have worked twice as hard! Rather than sitting idly by, he should have gotten with it, but he had spent his time on other things – not the response of a faithful but fearful servant!

Everybody watching that day had to wonder what would the Master say? His response was direct and intense. As generous as he had been with the other two servants, that’s how severe he was with this one. He responded to the man by doing the exact opposite of the three things he had done for the other servants:

First, rather than praising the man’s faithfulness the Master rebuked him harshly. He started by identifying the man’s real problem. The problem wasn’t the environment, or the amount he had been given, or the other servants, or the Master. The problem was his character. He was lazy. He somehow misunderstood his purpose in life. This incredible amount of money, this generous endowment, had been given to him for a reason – not just to sit on and spend his days as if he was his own master! If the master had wanted his money buried, he could have dug the pit himself! No this man was a servant! He had apparently forgotten that! Because he was a servant who didn’t do his job, he was wicked! The master stated that straight up.

But the Master’s rebuke went on. He showed the man’s self-contradiction. This charge that the Master was greedy and tight-fisted was so ridiculous that it didn’t even merit an answer. His response to the other two servants showed that charge to be nonsense. But even if one assumed for the sake of argument that the Master was hard and greedy like the servant said, the servant’s response didn’t make any sense! He should have doubled down. He should have worked harder to make sure his “greedy” master would make a profit. At the very least, he should have given the money to someone who lent money for interest then the master could have gotten a percentage on it. As the Master rebuked rather than praised the man, the servant’s excuses melted away.

The master went beyond taking away the man’s excuses. The second thing he did was take away the man’s gift. It’s interesting that when the other two servants came to settle with the Master, Jesus doesn’t actually say that they gave the original gift back. In fact, it sounds like they didn’t. It simply says the man who had received five talents brought the additional five to his Master. Whether the first five talents was his to keep or just his to keep on using, I don’t know. In either case, the first two servants were allowed to hold on to what was originally given to them.

But not this man. The master took not the interest (there wasn’t any of that) but the talent itself – everything that had been entrusted to the man away from him. He gave to the servant with ten talents. He gave the money to the servant who had acted like a servant! He took it away from the man who lived for himself, and he gave it to the man who knew his job was to serve the master and use the Masters gifts to build the Master’s domain.

The Master did one more thing to this last servant. Instead of praise, the Master had given rebuke. Instead of giving additional resources, the Master had taken even what the man originally had. Now instead of inviting the man to the intimacy of his table, he cast him out of his estate – out of his Kingdom. Because this man didn’t want to act like a servant of the Master, the Master removed him from his service. The man was taken from the orderly, generous, prosperous realm of the Master and cast out into a place that Jesus describes as a place of outer darkness of misery, where there will be weeping and cries of pain.

So that’s the parable of the Talents (and it ends there ) – a parable that Jesus told to show us that we as disciples are not just to wait for his return, we are to invest in and build his kingdom while we are waiting.

Observations that help us apply this passage to our lives

I said I want to give us some observations that help us apply this passage to our lives. The first observation is about the talents, and it’s this:

1. The talents represent any resource God has given us that we can use to build his Kingdom

Whenever I’ve read this parable in the past, I’ve always wondered: What do the talents represent? What part of our lives do they relate to? Do they represent our money? Do they represent spiritual gifts? Do they represent talents abilities? In English, our word “talent” usually refers to an ability. In fact, that usage was developed in part from this parable. Is that what the talents represent? What are they? I think the best way to say it is that they represent any resource that God has given us that we can use to build his kingdom any resource.

Just like in the parable, that resource might actually be our money. Sometimes money is a necessary resource to the building of God’s Kingdom. God has made it clear in Scripture that he expects each of us, as his people, to be generous with the wealth that he has given us and to use it to build his Kingdom. So, yes, the talents can represent money.

Talents also include our Spiritual gifts. If you are a believer in Jesus, the bible tells us that you have at least one spiritual gift. Did you know that? You have at least one special ability that God has given you, like teaching or compassion or hospitality or service – at least one gift. The Bible tells us the purpose of that gift is to build up the body of Christ – to expand and strengthen God’s Kingdom.
So talents do relate to spiritual gifts.

It’s broader than that. The talents represent anything that God has given us that can be used to build his kingdom. Anything. That can be anything that is spiritual. Some of you have a godly upbringing. Because of your upbringing, you know your Bible. You were taught a Bible-based sense of right and wrong, a biblical view of family and possessions. That’s a gift from God. It allows you to minister to other people. You can use that to build his kingdom. So maybe it’s something spiritual.

It can also be something that doesn’t seem spiritual in any way. Some of you have a business or an ability or knowledge that is really needed in places where God’s Kingdom needs to grow. Did you know that’s a resource you could use to build God’s kingdom? When Kelley and I went to Zimbabwe, it was a closed mission field. You could not go to the Zimbabwe government and say “I’m a missionary” and get into the country. But you could say “I’m a Doctor” or “I’m a College Professor” (that’s how I got in) or “I train people for business,” or “I do community development.” Those were abilities that could be used for the Kingdom.

Jennifer Schaafsma, one of our members, makes beautiful hand-crafted jewelry – that’s her business. She does it in a way that allows her to do mission work in Haiti. She trades there, and serves there, and increases God’s influence there. She has seen that ability as a resource she can use to build God’s kingdom.

Amanda Conner has an ability to write. Did you read her article this week? Amanda has chosen to use that not just for academics, but for God’s Kingdom.

What do you have that can help build God’s kingdom? What gives you access or influence or the ability to help people? That’s what the talents represent. First, the talents are anything that enables us to increase God’s Kingdom. The second observation relates to the sort of darker side of this parable, and it’s this:

2. There is the possibility of real loss

This is a tough point. It’s hard, but it is a point that this parable makes, so we need to talk about this. In the parable, the third servant who did not invest and increase what had been given to him suffered real loss. Jesus tells us this parable, because there is the possibility that we also could suffer real loss. We could lose God’s praise like the servant did. We could lose what’s been given to us like the servant did. The Bible talks about that in 1 Corinthians 3. It says we could build our lives with wood, hay, and straw – temporary things – and have everything stripped away in the fire of judgment. Like this servant, we could lose our apparent standing in God’s Kingdom. We could end up outside God’s Kingdom and in judgment.

Let me just be clear here: I don’t think this servant is supposed to represent a born-again Christian who loses his salvation. I don’t have time to go into that in depth today, but I don’t think he represents a born-again Christian. He represents someone who sure looks like one, and he doesn’t end up in the Kingdom. He has no standing there.

I have to speak these words, because Jesus gives us this parable as a warning that loss is a real possibility. I’m concerned that some of you might be right where this servant was. God has entrusted you with great resources. He has given you spiritual truth. There are people in this world who have never heard the name of Jesus and who have no way of knowing the true God, but not you. You were raised in a Christian home. You’ve heard the gospel. You sit under the preaching of the Word of God week in and week out. God has gifted you. He’s given you the mental capacity and the people skills to share spiritual truth. He’s blessed you with finances and connections and influence.

Your response hasn’t been to invest, and serve, and grow God’s Kingdom. Like this servant your response has been to bury what God gave you. To say “Yeah, I’ve got that thing that God gave me. I know where that’s at. I’ll pull it out when I really need it . But right now I don’t want to mess with it. What I really want to invest in is me. I want to grow my kingdom.“

Some of you may be there. I spoke with someone the other day who has had major tragedy in their life, and as we spoke, this man was being very honest. He said “Before this tragedy, God had invested great resources in me – health, and abilities and wealth – and a godly upbringing and a strong family. My response was to invest everything I had in the kingdom of me.”

Some of you, if you’re honest, you’re there. God has invested great resources in you, and you have done precious little to build his kingdom. Like this servant, we have our excuses. We have our reasons that God shouldn’t expect much of us. We have our little speeches ready, and they seem so logical. Who would possibly expect me to grow God’s Kingdom when I have such a busy schedule? When I have so much less money than others? When I don’t know my Bible that well? When I’d rather do my hobby? We have our excuses. Maybe we even blame God.

Our little speeches are going to evaporate. They are going to melt away, when we stand before the Master, and he asks what we’ve done with what he’s given us. He will expose our true character. Jesus gives us this parable as a warning that loss is a real possibility.

First, the talents represent anything God has given us that we can use to build God’s kingdom. Second, there is a possibility of real loss. Thirdly:

3. There is the opportunity for real reward

It is true this parable clearly makes the point that real loss is a possibility. The parable even finishes on that note. Indeed, this parable should sober us up as we think about Jesus’ return. That’s all true, but that’s not the only point that this parable makes. It’s not my desire or God’s desire that you should live in fear. This parable just as clearly makes the point that there is the opportunity for real reward.

Real reward is a possibility! Just like in this parable, we could receive commendation from the Master. We could hear “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Don’t dismiss that. Don’t sell it short as a reward. Think for a minute how powerful a force in most people’s lives the approval or disapproval of their parents is – whether they want it to be or not! I know people who would do anything to hear the praise of the mother or father. Now add to that the fact that this isn’t your parent. This is your Creator. You were literally made to serve him, and his opinion is totally based on truth. Listen, it’s a big deal. You could receive the Master’s commendation. He could thank you for serving him. It’s a possibility.

Just like in this parable, there is the possibility of increased eternal reward. I have to say there’s much that I don’t understand about eternity, but I do know one thing: We are not just going to be sitting around in clouds strumming harps! That’s what happens when you die in Bugs Bunny, but that’s not what it’s really going to be like! In eternity, we’re not going to be in clouds! God is going to renew the earth. Life is going to be full of meaningful choices and discoveries and fulfilling work. It’s going to be different. Not everyone’s experience in heaven will be equal. In this parable, the faithful servants are given increased authority and increased resources. It’s a possibility for you and me!

Lastly, there’s the possibility of increased intimacy. We could gain a place not just in the Kingdom, but at the table of the King. We could truly, intimately share in our Master’s happiness.

You know there’s an immigration crisis all over the world. Thousands upon thousands of refugees are trying to enter safe countries, and many of them would really love to enter the U.S. I don’t know if you know that, but it’s true! For many of my friends in Zimbabwe coming to the U.S. would have been the ultimate dream. Imagine that you were a refugee trying to make it into the U.S. Now imagine that you got a phone call. In that call, you were given not just entry into the country, not just instant citizenship and voting rights, but imagine that caller identified himself as the president of the U.S and that he invited you to come live at the White House and eat at the table any time you wanted. That would be a pretty big deal, wouldn’t it?

We could have all these rewards. Here’s the thing: These rewards are equal opportunity. Anyone here today, anyone, could hear Jesus say “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Maybe you say “Well, I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. I don’t know my Bible like a Carol Clark does.” That’s OK. Maybe you would say “I’m not a gifted teacher like John Maiden.” That’s OK. Maybe you would say “I can’t pray in public like Joel Brown does.” That’s OK.

You don’t have to worry about what’s not been entrusted to you. The servant who was given two talents got the same reward as the servant who was given five! It’s not about you being a great preacher or knowing the answer to every Bible question or being a gifted evangelist. It’s not about what’s not been entrusted to you. It’s about using the gifts that God has put at your disposal to build his kingdom:

  • That’s what will bring his commendation
  • That’s what will bring increased reward
  • That’s what will bring eternal intimacy

The question this parable puts to us in dramatic fashion is this: What have I done with the resources that God has entrusted to me? Have I ignored them? Buried them? Maybe even used them to build my own kingdom? Or have I been a wise servant, investing what God has given me to spread the influence of the Master and build his Kingdom? Loss and reward in eternity are what’s at stake.