Matthew 25:14-30, a story known as “The Parable of the Talents,” is a wonderful illustration of a Wesleyan understanding of salvation. However it presents several contextual challenges to contemporary North American Christians, cultural stumbling blocks that hinder our understanding of the lessons woven into the parable.
It begins with a man entrusting (Gk. paradidomi, “to give into the hand of another”) of massive sums of money to his servants. Unbidden. Unasked. They do nothing to earn this gift. It is given into their hands with no instruction, just the act of giving.
And they are given differing amounts, “to each according to his ability.” We are tempted to make too much of these differences; the lowest amount given, “one talent,” was equal to 15 years’ salary. The point is not to quibble over the differences in the amounts given, but rather to be amazed by the abundance of the gift.
God gives abundantly to all, and to each one is given a unique life. Because the metaphor of the parable is financial, that unique, personalized giving is indicated by differing amounts of money. Our capitalistic culture has conditioned us to think first, “Five talents is more than one, so five talents is better.” I believe this to be a significant block to understanding this parable. One talent is an enormous, virtually inconceivable gift, and any servant ought to feel the significance of it.
But Servant 3 (shall we call him Dwight?), does not understand the significance of the gift he has been given, and so Dwight does nothing with it. Actually, he does something, but what he does is go and bury the gift in a hole in the ground. His action proves that the gift is not irresistible. Rather than embrace and utilize the gift, he rejects it and hides it away.
Is he (like us) obsessing over and jealous of the differing amounts given? Is he perhaps apathetic to the gift or to the giver? Is he so wrapped up in his life that he can’t be bothered to deal with this gift, even as wonderful as it is? Is he actually afraid to take a risk, thinking the master will punish him if the risk fails?
In the meantime servants 1 and 2 (shall we call them Pam and Jim?) receive the inconceivable gift entrusted to them and put it to work. As they do, they find that the gift multiplies, expands, and returns to them doubled.
Remember that they were not instructed as to what exactly to do with the gift they had been given; it was up to them to take the initiative and utilize the gift, risking it all, not clinging to it for their own security or comfort, but “putting it out there” and hoping for the best.
What motivates Pam and Jim? Why do they do what they do, in such dramatic contrast to what Dwight did? Don’t they fear the master’s punishment if their risk fails? With the enormous gift given them, they might have just called it quits, headed off to the Riviera, and lived a life of ease for the rest of their days - but they didn’t. Why not?
The master returns.
And here, we come to a telling moment. We assume that the master will now ask for the talents back, right? The text tells us he has come to “settle accounts,” so we are actually set up to assume as much.
But imagine our surprise when we do not hear the master ask for the money back, but rather gives Pam and Jim even more. That’s right, when Pam and Jim give their report to the master, he praises them, gives them more, and invites them to “enter into his joy.” He never asks for the talents they have made, let alone the principle originally entrusted.
Here’s another enormous cultural blockage. Even without reading it, the ears of our imagination actually hear the master ask the servants for the money. But he doesn’t. He gives them more.
And then it’s Dwight’s turn.
Dwight comes up to the master and the first thing he says is, “You are a rotten master.” This is probably not the best way to start the conversation.
He continues, “You’re mean and selfish and take things that you don’t earn yourself. So here’s your stupid talent back.”
Notice that, of the three, Dwight is the only one who actually offers to give the talent back to the master, Pam and Jim just show the master what they have done with what they have been given. It’s almost as if Pam and Jim are eager to continue, and are simply giving a status report on their projects to date. Dwight, in contrast, is done with this whole endeavor and is rejecting the gift, and with it any ongoing relationship with the giver as well.
Dwight’s bitter words and his rejection of the gift have consequences. The talent, which was so freely and abundantly given, is no longer available to him. And in a stark contrast to “entering into the joy of the master,” Dwight is forcibly evicted into the mysterious “outer darkness,” a phrase used only three times in the entire New Testament and only in the Gospel of Matthew.
And so the story ends … with gnashing teeth. (Idea for new business: “Outer Darkness Orthodontics.”)
There are at least three contemporary assumptions we make about this parable that I believe hinder our understanding:
1) 5 talents is better than 1. We need to think “different” instead of “better.”
2) The master asks Pam and Jim to return the talents. He doesn’t; he gives them more. (“To those who have, more will be given.” (v. 29))
3) “The joy of the master” equals “heaven” and “the outer darkness” equals “hell.” This is not stated in the parable anywhere; in fact there is no reason not to interpret these two ideas as here-and-now realities in this world rather than somewhere in the next.
If we lay these assumptions aside, this parable may be able to teach us something new. Often, the lesson is minimized to “use it or lose it.” As in, you have been given certain skills by God, and you have to utilize those skills or they will deteriorate. But that doesn’t feel entirely right to me, since this parable is among those that are describing the return of Christ and the realization of the reign of God on earth; the “coming of the end of the age.” (Take a look at Matthew 24:1-3 to read the set-up question for this section.)
So it seems to me that this parable may be able to teach us more than that we need to practice piano at least 30 minutes a day or we won’t get any better. (Although that certainly is true, kids. Do what your teacher tells you.)
With what have we been entrusted by God? What has God given to us?
… It would be better to ask, what hasn’t been.
All that we are comes from God. Life - Love - Grace - Salvation - Truth - Justice - Shalom. Everything. And it is such an inconceivably large gift, true. But what makes it even more inconceivable is that it is given without our asking for it. God’s gift is “prevenient,” that is, it comes prior to the event of our accepting it. God offers first, before we are even aware that an offer has been made.
Discovering that this immeasurable gift is offered to us, we then either accept it or not. Accepting the gift is the moment of “justification” in a Wesleyan viewpoint; other traditions call it “getting saved.” It is a powerful moment. It happens differently for different people; sometimes in one euphoric instant, and sometimes in subtle little moments here and there over time.
And then, if we accept the gift, we may be dismayed to discover that it does not come with instructions. This is called “free will.” Remember that Dwight received the gift, too. The master gave him a gigantic gift, and he accepted it. It’s what he did next that was his downfall.
Yes, we are free to do with the gift whatever we will. Are we going to display it in a curio cabinet in the living room? Are going to store it away in the attic and only get it out when the giver comes to visit? Or will we understand that there is more to do with the gift, that we can use it day by day to live better lives? In a Wesleyan view, there certainly is more that we are to do, once we have received the gift.
This “more to do” is called “sanctification” and it is the process of salvation by which, in cooperation with God’s grace, we grow closer and closer to God, by which we become more and more Christlike, by which the pattern of discipleship becomes more and more deeply imprinted upon us. Having received the gift, we must utilize it in order that it would expand. If we do not, it will wither away and we’ll lose it.
And as we increase the gift God has given, “working out our salvation,” we await the return of the master, the completion of God’s reign, the parousia, the “end of the age,” or any other of a number of metaphors to describe that-for-which-we-wait. And when that moment arrives …. wait for it …
We discover that there is even more!
As unimaginable as God’s gift is in this age, in the next it is even more so. Can you believe that? Just pondering that idea makes my mind swirl. That’s why nobody can know exactly what “that-for-which-we-wait” looks like. In fact I’m kind of suspicious of those who claim they are privy to this knowledge. It is just too huge.
And so the parable has something to teach about using our God-given skills, certainly. It has something to do with unleashing our spiritual gifts, no doubt. But that is because the parable has to do with how we are living our lives as a whole - skills, gifts, words, actions, attitudes, thoughts, relationships, health, resources - everything.
Live life in a way that builds up, multiplies, expands. Focus outwardly. Radiate. Receiving God’s gift is just one moment, it’s what you do with the gift for the rest of your life that matters most.
What will you do with what God has given you?