Michael Morrison has a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is Dean of Faculty and Instructor in New Testament for Grace Communion Seminary. He is the author of Sabbath, Circumcision and Tithing and Who Needs a New Covenant? The Rhetorical Function of the Covenant Motif in the Argument of Hebrews.
Articles by Michael Morrison:
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Christian churches sometimes talk about the idea of “stewardship,” but especially for new people, it is often an unfamiliar word. We don’t know what stewardship is, and we don’t know what a steward is.
But Jesus used a steward as an example in several of his parables, so it is helpful for us to see what he is talking about.
Basically, a steward is a person who is entrusted with someone else’s money. The modern counterpart might be a business manager. The person can make financial decisions on behalf of someone else – the steward can create obligations for the owner, or on the other hand can make profits for the owner. The steward doesn’t own the business – he or she just manages it for someone else.
Jesus used a steward as an example in several of his parables, because all of us in some way or another manage things that belong to God. The word “stewardship” often refers to the way that we use money, and it is a reminder that the stuff we have is not really our own, and so we ought to be generous in giving some of it back to God for his use.
But stewardship can involve many things in addition to money. We sometimes talk about “time, talents, and treasure,” and we need stewardship in each of those areas – our time is to be used for God’s purposes, our talents and abilities are to be used for his purposes, and our treasures should be, as well.
Today, let’s look together at the parable Jesus told in Matthew 25, starting in verse 14. It is usually called the parable of the talents, because in this parable, the rich man gave his servants various amounts of money, which were called talents. A talent was worth approximately 15 years of a working man’s wages – maybe 200 thousand dollars. The precise amount isn’t important, so Today’s New International Version just calls it “bags of gold.”
So let’s see what Jesus said, starting in Matthew 25:14. He’s talking about the kingdom of God, and he says: “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability.” We might say that he gave them a million dollars, or half a million, or a couple hundred thousand.
Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.” His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
The man with two bags of gold also came. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.” His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. “Master,” he said, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.”
His master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. Take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For those who have will be given more, and they will have an abundance. As for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Parables are notoriously difficult to interpret, but let’s see what we have to work with. First, Jesus said that the kingdom of God is in some way like this story, and it seems that in the story, the owner represents God, who gives stuff to people, judges them on what they’ve done, and throws people out if they haven’t done what they are supposed to do.
Now, what’s the focus of the story? Is it on the way that the money is distributed? No, that gets only one verse. Jesus doesn’t even say how the master decided how much ability they had.
Is the focus on the way that the servants put the money to work? No, that gets only a couple of verses, and Jesus never really tells us how they did it – simply that they did it. We don’t know whether it was farming or shipping, or a chain of coffee shops. It apparently doesn’t matter – the important thing is that they put it to work and they got some more, and they gave it to the master.
The focus of the story seems to be on the judgment scene, which takes up more than half of the story. The two guys who did well get four verses; the one guy who did nothing gets seven verses. That seems to be the main point of the story. This is the surprise ending, the point that Jesus wants to leave people with.
Now, a really important question here is: What does the gold symbolize? People have speculated about that, but it’s all speculation and really hard to prove. I suspect that it is deliberately vague because it can stand for anything that God gives to us, and whatever it is that he gives us, he wants us to put it to use in a productive way.
What has God given us? There’s time, talent, and treasures. There’s physical stuff, and there are intangible things. In our economy, most of the physical things have monetary value, and we can see how much money we get each week, and how much we have in the bank. We can see our cars, we can see the clothes in our closets, we can see the fridge full of food. We can put all that stuff to work, and the setting of the parable reminds us that this stuff is not our own – it is given to us by God and he wants us to use it not for selfish benefit, but to give the profits back to him.
Now, he will certainly reward us, and give us a share in the master’s happiness, but the stuff itself belongs to God, and whatever we gain with it belongs to God, too. We give it all back to him, because it’s all his.
We all have a different amount of stuff, and in the same way, we all have a different amount of time. Some people have many years to live; other people have only a few. Some people have 16 useable hours in a day; some people have 18, and some have only 14. And some people have more energy than others, and some have more strength than others.
Those differences are not really important for the parable – Jesus mentions different amounts, but he doesn’t develop the story in that direction. All he seems to be concerned about in this parable is whether we try or not. Two guys tried and had different amounts of success, and they were praised with identical words. The master was equally pleased. But what he didn’t like was the man who didn’t do anything, who didn’t try at all.
Now, what happens if there is somebody who tries to make a profit, but his investment happens to go sour, and he loses it all? What is Jesus going to do with that sort of person? Is he going to be angry? In other words, is Jesus willing to take the profits, but not the losses? Is this a one-sided business risk?
Well, the third guy worried about that kind of possibility, and he was afraid of what the master might do, so he went and hid the money instead of trying to do something with it. The implication of the parable is that we should not think that our master is like that, and we should not be afraid of the master. If we try and fail, the master is not going to punish us; we should not be afraid. Rather, we should be willing to try, because that is what he wants us to do with whatever it is he gives us.
God also gives us some intangible things, things that cannot be touched or measured. He gives us the ability to learn, to work, and to play. He gives us the ability to enjoy a beautiful sunset, to enjoy a pleasant smell, to enjoy good music. We can laugh at a playful puppy, or be amused by something that a child says.
God gives us joy. Now, what do we do with that joy – do we dig a hole in the ground and stuff it there for safekeeping, or do we use that joy in a positive way? Do we use it in such a way that at the end of the day, there is even more joy than there was before? Do we use that joy for ourselves, or do we try to share that joy with other people? The nice thing about joy is that we can give it to somebody else without ever losing any of it ourselves. In fact, it seems that the more joy we give away, the more we get for ourselves.
It is sometimes said that everything we have comes from God, but that’s not really true. Can you think of something you have that does not come from God? How about pain, and sorrow, and suffering? How about sin? It seems that God gives us the ability to choose good or bad, and he gives us the ability to choose wrong things. So he doesn’t own every thought that goes through our heads – he certainly doesn’t own the bad thoughts.
I think there is another category of thought that is genuinely our own, and that’s because God gives it to us, and that’s the gift of creativity. He lets us create things that didn’t exist before – he lets us invent useful tools, he lets us create an interesting sculpture, he lets us put colors together in a way that no one has ever done before, and maybe in a way that no one ever wants to again, and these are products of our own creativity. He lets us put words together in a new way, to create poetry, to create stories, to create words of instruction, to create music that has never been heard before.
God gives us the ability to create, and with that gift, we can create new things, some of them bad, and some of them good. But even though we have made these creations ourselves, we are to use them for God. At the end of the day, we can say, Master, I used the gift you gave me to create some beauty, to create some joy, to help someone else. You entrusted me with this talent, and with it I have gained some more. Here it is — it is yours.
Some of us are more talented in music, some more talented in art, some more talented in abstract reasoning, some more in compassion, some in the ability to analyze, and some in the ability to get others to open up and talk about their problems. Everyone has a spiritual gift of some sort, and every spiritual gift is a talent of some sort, an ability that can and should be used for God’s kingdom.
There’s another example of an intangible gift from God – and that’s the relationships we have with one another. God gives us the ability to form relationships, to love and be loved. Relationships can be a great source of joy, or also a great source of pain – and because of the possibility of pain, sometimes people are reluctant to use the gift that God has given. But this parable says that we should not be so afraid, that we neglect to use the gift at all.
Our relationships are a combination of God’s gift and our own choices, and like all the other assets that we have, they should be used for God’s kingdom. And indeed, relationships are the core of the kingdom – they have value in their own right, and we can use them to share joy, to encourage others, to gain something for God by using what he has given us. When we enter into the Master’s happiness, relationships are going to be a big part of it. The master likes relationships, and wants relationships. He not only wants to have a relationship with each of us – he wants us to have relationships with each other. That’s what the kingdom is like.
There is one more thing about the parable that I’d like to talk about, and that is the punishment that is given to the third servant, the steward who was afraid, the steward who didn’t do anything with the gift God had given him. That is, after all, a large part of the parable.
First, let’s ask, who is that guy?
It’s me, and it’s you. In some respects, all of us are like the first servant, who was given a lot, and who gained a lot. In other areas, we are like the second servant, who wasn’t as gifted, but still used what he had in a positive way. But none of us are perfect at it; all of us sometimes fail to do what we ought, and so all of us are sometimes like the third guy. Sometimes we are afraid and sometimes we are just plain lazy. But even at our worst, I don’t think there is anyone who does absolutely nothing with the talents God has given.
However, if there is no one solidly in the third category, why did Jesus spend seven verses on the lazy, good-for-nothing evil guy who was afraid to even try? That’s the main point of the parable, and if nobody fits into it, what then was the parable for?
Here’s where we need to learn a little bit about how parables work, and as an illustration of that I would like to turn to Matthew chapter 7, starting in verse 24. This is the parable of the house built on a rock. Matthew 7:24-27:
Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
Jesus did not tell this parable simply as a description, that obedient people end up safe and disobedient people end up with disaster. That’s true, but there is something more to it than that. He was not saying that some people are predestined to end up safe, and some are predestined to end up in disaster, and he doesn’t really care which is which, because either way justice is served.
No, Jesus told the parable because he did care, because he wanted people to avoid the disaster. The parable is not just information – it is also motivation. Jesus told the parable as a warning, and the purpose of a warning is not to predict the future, but so that he can influence the future.
It’s like when I was a little boy, my mother told me that boys who play in the street get run over by a car. She was not telling me that as simply one bit of information to add to my stock of knowledge – she was telling me that so that I would not play in the street and I would not get run over by a car.
As another example, we might consider what Jonah told the people of Nineveh: “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Well, the people of Nineveh knew how to interpret the prophecy, and despite the way that Jonah said it, it was not a message of unavoidable doom.
Rather, the prediction of disaster was actually a warning for them to repent, and to avoid the disaster. And they did. So the prediction turned out to be false, because the function of the prophecy turned out to be true and effective. The prophecy was not so much to predict, as to motivate.
So when Jesus says that people who don’t listen are like foolish builders, he was actually warning them so they would change their ways. We might even paraphrase the point of the parable as a command: “Listen up, so your life doesn’t end in a disaster. Take heed. Put these teachings in to practice!”
If we go back to Matthew 25, we see another warning: people who bury their gifts in the ground are kicked out of the kingdom. This is not intended as a simple prophecy – the purpose of this parable is to get people to escape the punishment. It’s just a Hebrew way of emphasizing the importance of doing what Jesus is saying.
Besides that, the punishment is not intended to be an exact description of what will happen on the day of judgment. It’s not really about bags of money, for one thing. It’s not really about putting money in the bank to get interest. Notice in verse 29 that Jesus talks in terms that seem to contradict themselves: As for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them.
The punishment is an exaggeration, and is not to be taken literally. In another parable, the master says tie the man up and throw him out. In another parable Jesus says the person will be handed over to the torture squad. These are all exaggerations, and not literal descriptions. That’s because the purpose of the parables is not to describe the end-time punishment, but rather to get us to escape it.
Let’s look again at the parable to see what it is we are supposed to avoid. First, in Matthew 25, verse 24, we are not supposed to think that the master is a hard man, demanding more than he has a right to. God is not out to take our stuff away from us. No, he is the one who gave it in the first place. He is not out to get us. He does not want us to fail. Rather, he wants us to succeed.
Second, verse 25, we should not be afraid of God. We should not be afraid of using what he has given us. He has given it for our joy, not as a means of tripping us up. We should not be fearful in the way we use our time, our talents, our relationships, our creativity, or our money. We just recognize that he has given it all to us, and we can rightly give it back to him. When we use it for God’s kingdom, we are actually using it for our future, making an investment for our future, and God will reward us by inviting us to share in his happiness.
Third, in verse 27, God does not demand that we double everything he has given us. Even a small increase is acceptable. We don’t need to worry about the amount of success, as long as we are trying to use what he has given us. Even a feeble effort is better than none at all.
Last, in verse 29, we see that people who do not want to participate in the kingdom will not be forced to. If they are afraid of the master, then they don’t have to live with him. If they are so worried about themselves, then they won’t be able to share in the master’s happiness even if that happiness is all around them. There will be a wonderful party going on and they will be having a miserable time, because they are always afraid that the hard man will suddenly demand something out of them that they don’t have.
So they would be miserable if they stayed inside in the kingdom, and so the master says, well then, you might as well be outside. You’ll be miserable there, too, but at least you won’t be spoiling the party for everyone else. No matter where you live, if you are not going to use the good things of God, then you are not going to be happy about life.
So we can see from the parable that there are some things we ought to avoid. Now, what about some things we ought to do? Mainly, if God gives us something, we ought to use it. We can use it to further his kingdom, we can use it to help other people, we can multiply the good by sharing the good.
The parable doesn’t tell us how – but it does tell us that we aren’t going to be happy unless we learn to use what God has given.
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