Hearing the parable of the talents is difficult (see Matthew 25:14-30). We are distanced from the cultural setting of the story. It was a world of masters and slaves. A wealthy master departing on a journey entrusts his possessions to his three slaves. He gives to each according to their ability. The relationship itself says that the possessions are not their own, and they will have to give an account.
The word, talent, is also easily misunderstood. Today, the word, talent, normally means a special ability, and I have heard quite a few sermons about using our talents (i.e., abilities). In the ancient world, the talent had originally been a measurement of weight varying between 57 to 80 pounds and then a unit of coinage. Verse 27 specifically mentions silver, although most English translations just say “money” in this verse, and the NCV inexplicably talks of gold. It’s difficult to translate into dollar amounts, but comparisons help. One talent is about twenty years of wages for a common laborer, so 5 talents, 3 talents, and 1 talent would be 100 years of wages, 60 years of wages, and 20 years of wages. The “poor” one talent man received nearly a million dollars in our currency.
Imagine burying 20 years worth of wages in silver in your field. What were the original hearers thinking as the story was told? Maybe some thought, “If I had that much money, I’d know what to do with it. I wouldn’t just bury it.”
The servants didn’t receive just a few dollars. Even the Message’s $5,000, $3,000, and $1,000 is paltry in comparison with the text. The servants received major investment capital, and economic terms describe their master’s return. He wants to “settle accounts.” The one talent man describes his master as being a “hard man.” The word refers to “being unyielding in behavior or attitude” and in this context, “demanding”. It makes hiding his talent even more difficult to understand, although I suspect we are tempted to do the same. The master calls the one talent man “wicked and slothful” or “worthless and lazy.”
What are we to learn? We have a master – God Himself, the creator of the universe. Everything we have is a matter of stewardship – our money, possessions, time, abilities, and opportunities. We take nothing out of this world except for what we “treasure in heaven.” There are no U-hauls attached to hearses. The greatest treasure we have been given is the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:7). Is not the gospel worth a million dollars to us? Will we bury it or use it to achieve gain for our master?
The question is never how much has been entrusted to us. That will in fact vary. The question is whether we are faithful. From our master’s point of view, are we “worthless and lazy” or are we “good and trustworthy”? The bottom line is stewardship.