As we turn our attention to the New Testament, there are few more obvious starting points than Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:13–40). Anecdotally, this passage is mentioned to me more than any other when discussing the theme of achievement. We’ll need two weeks to explore the parable. First, what is the basic meaning of this teaching of Jesus?

It is the last parable in a series dealing with the return of Jesus and the call for every believer to be ready (Matt 24:36–25:30). While the framework of the parable is set by the expectation of the master’s return, its main focus is on the responsibility to serve the master with all of one’s earthly resources and abilities. Final judgment brings each servant’s actions to account.

The parable is well known. Jesus tells of a man going on a journey, who entrusts differing amounts of his wealth to his servants—“each according to his ability” (25:14–15). The servant entrusted with five talents. One talent would be worth somewhere between $300,000 and $800,000 today, so five talents is a lot of money. He put it to work and gained five more (25:16); the one with two talents gained two more (25:17); but the third with one talent buried his master’s gold (25:18).

It’s a tricky parable in a number of respects, but most difficult is the overly harsh punishment for the third servant’s crime.

Upon the master’s return, the first and second servants are rewarded with those famed words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Their faithfulness with a few things leads to greater responsibility and the invitation to share in his master’s joy (25:19–23).

The third servant, however, tells the master,

“Master, I know you. You’re a difficult man, reaping where you haven’t sown and gathering where you haven’t scattered seed. So I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. Look, you have what is yours.” (25:24–25)

The master calls this servant a “wicked, lazy servant,” and rebukes him for not putting the talent to work to earn him interest (25:26). His talent is to be taken away and given to the servant who (now) has ten talents. The master’s interpretation of this follows:

“For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have more than enough. But from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” (25:29)

Then the good-for-nothing servant is to be thrown in the outer darkness (25:30).

It’s a tricky parable in a number of respects, but most difficult is the overly harsh punishment for the third servant’s crime. The best way to understand this is to remember that the parable is framed by the eschatological expectation of the return of Jesus. So, being thrown into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth is a description that has “stepped out of parable mode” and depicts the “real” fate of those who find themselves on the wrong side of the Master when he returns.

Craig Blomberg summarizes the theological teaching of the parable in three points: (1) God, like the master, entrusts his resources to his people and expects them to be good stewards of it. (2) Those who faithfully work for the kingdom and enhance it will be both commended and rewarded for their efforts. (3) Those who do not use their gifts and the kingdom resources will be condemned and separated from the very presence of God.[1]

Next week we’ll explore how the parable of the talents relates to the theme of achievement.

[1] Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1990), 214.