Why did Jesus tell the Parable of the Talents?
The stated reason is in Luke 19:11 “While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. “
So there are two parts to the explanation: the first relates to “this,” which is the account of Zaccheus’ financial shenanigans which have just come under a very public scrutiny (in Luke 19:1-10) and are connected to “salvation” coming to “this house.”
And, second, whereas contrary to public expectation, the kingdom of God was not going to come straight away, there was to be a time when resources like those of Mr Z were to be put to the test.
So Jesus takes the present event and weaves it into a story about future stewardship of time and resources. Maybe it presents a list of possible sequels for a person like Zaccheus.
“He said: ‘A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. “Put this money to work,” he said, “until I come back.”
14 ‘But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, “We don’t want this man to be our king.”
15 ‘He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.
16 ‘The first one came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned ten more.”
17 ‘“Well done, my good servant!” his master replied. “Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.”
18 ‘The second came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned five more.”
19 ‘His master answered, “You take charge of five cities.”
20 ‘Then another servant came and said, “Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.”
22 ‘His master replied, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?”
24 ‘Then he said to those standing by, “Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.”
25 ‘“Sir,” they said, “he already has ten!”
26 ‘He replied, “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me.”’
You can tell that there are some other threads woven in to the familiar parable. Josephus, as a contemporary historian to Luke, wrote of Herod Archelaus whose vicious treatment of dissidents may well be part of the background of v14 and v27.
Other explanations -that this is a story about economic exploitation and that the third servant is the whistle-blowing hero; or that this is about religious leaders mishandling the word of God fail to convince, except in the broadest of terms.
Which is that this story is about the evaluation of stewardship. As May Oliver put it: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
It’s an encouragement to Jesus’s disciples to use their God-given gifts in the service of God, and to take risks for the sake of the Kingdom of God. These gifts have been seen to include personal abilities (“talents” in the everyday sense), as well as personal wealth.
Failure to use one’s gifts, the parable suggests, will result in judgment.
The positive rewards for two of the servants is based upon their faithfulness to properly use what Christ has entrusted to them. This probably speaks of positive reward for believers who are faithful to serve Christ.
The negative reward (or rather, recompense) for the unfaithful servant likely speaks of some negative dealing by Christ with an unfaithful believer.
The poet John Milton was fascinated by the parable (interpreted in this sense), referring to it repeatedly, but notably in the sonnet “When I Consider How My Light is Spent”:
“When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent, which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he, returning, chide…”
In Ireland, where I live, this is a curriculum favourite, and I’ve often taught this sonnet to High School students, (around age 18). Once they get their heads around the new and strange idea that they might be answerable for what they do with their time, energy and resources to some “higher power” invariably appreciate the concept of accountability. “That makes sense,” someone said to me. The poem (and the parable) appealed to their sense of fairness. Ultimately, you get what you give to life.
They saw immediately that this was nothing to do with amassing wealth to prove your worth! Milton does an effective job of exposing that as a metaphor, and of contrasting God (as King) with the lord of the parable.
And they saw too that Milton worried over his limited accomplishments, -as we all must do, if we’re to be honest- but that God does not need “man’s work” at all. This mustn’t be translated into a kind of salvation by works.
Take it from any teenager.
And then that typical volte-face, as Jesus flips all expectation on its head: “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. “
Which is to say, Jesus loves it when we take risks and throw ourselves completely into what God is doing. In Eric Jong’s Fear of Flying there’s a marvellous decription of the life of love and passion that God calls us to:
“Do you want me to tell you something really subversive? Love is everything it’s cracked up to be. That’s why people are so cynical about it. It really is worth fighting for, being brave for, risking everything for. And the trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.”
Jesus calls us to take risks.