Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Talents and the Pounds


Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27

There are considerable differences between The Parable of the Talents and The Parable of the Pounds. Plummer has set forth the differences between these parables: "1. In the Talents we have a householder leaving home for a time, in the Pounds a nobleman going in quest of a crown; 2. The Talents are unequally distributed, the Pounds equally; 3. The sums entrusted differ enormously in amount; 4. In the Talents the rewards are the same, in the Pounds they differ and are proportionate to what has been gained; 5. in the Talents the unprofitable servant is severely punished, in the Pounds he is merely deprived of his pound. 1 Yet these parables teach the same basic lesson. While we may be differently endowed, God expects us to be faithful in the use of our talents whether we have many or few.

The parable of the talents follows the parable of the ten virgins that in turn follows the chapter on the signs of the second coming of Christ. The context is the second advent of Christ. The parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the talents describe the ways in which we need to prepare for his coming. Trench has pointed out the two different ways of waiting:

While the virgins were represented as waiting for their Lord, we have here the servants working for Him. There the inward spiritual life of the faithful was described, here, their external activity. There, by the fate of the foolish virgins, we were warned against negligences and decays in the inner life; here, by the doom of the slothful servant, against indolence in our outward vocation and work. That parable enforced the need of keeping the heart with all diligence; this of putting all diligence also into our outward service, if we would give our account at the last with joy and not with sorrow. Very fitly, therefore, that precedes, and this follows, since the maintenance of the life of God in the heart is the sole condition of a profitable outward activity for the kingdom of God. 2

The sums mentioned in these parables are considerable. The modern word “talent” that means a natural ability to do something well should not be confused with the biblical word. A “talent” was enough money to pay a laborer for fifteen years of work. Ten talents, was enough money to pay laborers for 150 work-years. A “pound” or “mina” was equivalent to about three months' wages.

These parables teach us four important lessons. First, men and women do not have equal abilities and/or equal chances to be counted successful in this life.

The second lesson to be learned is that we will not be judged by the accomplishments of others. God evaluates us individually by comparing our achievements with our potential. All who strive to live up to their potential receive the same reward. "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master."

This parable contains a third lesson. All of us are expected to strive to be the best stewards of God’s gifts that we can be, regardless of our innate abilities and our fears. The fear of failure that caused the slave to bury his “talent”, earned the condemnation of his master. This slave’s first mistake was in perceiving his master to be harsh and severe, ready and willing to punish even responsible attempts to increase his master’s wealth that were unsuccessful. His second mistake was succumbing to his fear of failure. Even a very “safe” investment of his talent would have earned interest for his master.

Even the most successful person has had to overcome failure. Robert Fulghum tells the story of a man who paid a visit to a rabbi because he considered himself a failure. "More than half the time I do not succeed in doing what I must do," he explained. The rabbi told him to look on page 930 of The New York Times Almanac for 1970. The man hurriedly went to the library to check the reference. What he found was a list of the lifetime batting averages of all the greatest hitters of all time. Ty Cobb was listed first with an average of .367.

The man couldn't understand why he was asked to look up this reference. "Ty Cobb--.367--that's it?" "Right," said the rabbi. "Ty Cobb--.367. He got a hit once out of every three times at bat. He didn't even bat .500--so what can you expect already?" 3

The slave’s third mistake was assuming that his master would appreciate the fact that his money had not been lost. He failed to understand that stewardship implies effort. Because he wasn’t given as much money as the other slaves, he might have reasoned that his master didn’t believe he was capable of investing it successfully. And if he were even modestly successful, it wouldn’t really matter.

John Warr was a shoemaker's apprentice, and as far as we know continued in that trade throughout his life. Another younger apprentice came to that shop to work. He was at a crucial point in his life and was in danger of abandoning his Christian lifestyle. John Warr continually urged him to give his life to Christ. The younger apprentice finally did at the age of eighteen. This younger apprentice was William Carey. 4 Carey became the founder of modern mission work. He went to India as a Christian missionary in 1793 and served his Lord for forty-one years. What if John Warr felt he was just a shoemaker's apprentice and what he did was not noticed or important? One talent people have an important role in God's scheme of things.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul compares the members of the church to a human body. No part of that body is without value. Sidney Lanier was not only a poet but also a flutist who played in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra while a student at Johns Hopkins University. One day during rehearsal when the orchestra was playing fortissimo, he thought no one would know if he stopped playing while holding his flute to his mouth. Instantly the conductor stopped the orchestra and asked, "Where is the flute?" The sound of his flute had been missed. Its absence affected the total harmony of the piece. God needs our flute and our one talent.

In the parable it is the one talent slave who fails to produce, but in real life there are just as many five or ten talent persons who fail the Master. Because it is so much easier to keep ahead of the crowd without too much effort, these people can become complacent and too easily satisfied with results that are far below their capability. Some of those entrusted with many talents are the greatest disappointments and failures in life. On the other hand, others, like the slave who is entrusted with only two talents, become successful through self-discipline and hard work. Buttrick imagines this slave as

a blunt and honest man with none of the finesse and mental quickness of his more talented neighbor. He plodded away at his task. If his money was invested in farming, he drove his oxen hard If a vineyard was his to tend, he pruned or tied or gathered diligently, working from sunrise to sundown. So by the sheer fidelity of toil he made his two talents yield four. 5

This parable teaches a fourth lesson. Those who produce up to his or her capability gain capability, and those who don’t lose the capability they were born with. For this reason the master commands, "Take the talent from him [the slave with one talent], and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away". At first this seems harsh and arbitrary. However, this is not as much an arbitrary command as a law of life. Those who use their talents faithfully develop other talents, while those who fail to use the gifts they have been entrusted with lose them.

One day we shall be called upon to give an account of our stewardship. God is not unreasonable. However, he expects us to meet the requirements of successful stewardship described in these two parables.

1 Plummer, Alfred, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke, 1901, p. 437.

2 Trench, Richard Chevenix, Notes on the Parables of our Lord (Popular ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1948), p. 270. Reprint of the 1861 edition.

3 Fulghum, Robert, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (New York: Villard Books, 1989), pp. 165-166.

4 Branch, p. 71.

5 Buttrick, p. 243.

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