Identifying the talents. It is a well-known parable but what was Jesus talking about?

I spent three years studying Jesus’ parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) for my Masters of Theology. Was it worth it? Did I learn anything? Actually it was and I did.

Most Christians interpret the parable of the Talents as teaching that God has given each one of us various gifts and abilities and if we put these gifts to good use then he will reward us. For example, if God has given me a natural musical ability, and I practice daily on the piano, then that natural musical ability will be enhanced. Some go on and apply this principle spiritually implying that if we don’t work at our relationship with God then it will atrophy.

Now all of this is true but is that really why Jesus gave us this parable? Personally, I don’t think Jesus told parables to make such simple points. Jesus’ parables confronted his audience. They went against common wisdom, not with it. They challenged people to change their behaviour. So we should expect that the parable of the Talents does the same.

The central problem of Jesus’ parables is that they are allegorical. But they are more like C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe than John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. While you can’t go through and work out what every character and event means in the real-world there are still intentional allegorical connections. With the parable of the Talents we need to ask: who does the rich man represent? Who do the servants represent? And, perhaps most importantly, what do the talents represent?

Who does the rich man represent? Who do the servants represent? What do the talents represent?

First, the master. Some people will argue that the master represents God on the basis that the central authority figure in the story must represent the central authority figure in our life. But in the present context of the parable, the master represents Jesus. The parable comes in a section dealing with the return of the Son of Man, and the passages on either side of the parable of the Talents both involve central authority figures who are clearly representative of Jesus.

Next, the servants. Some think the servants represent people in general. But I think we need to be more specific: the servants represent Jesus’ disciples. After all, the Gospels refer to disciples as servants often. And again the context gives us important clues: the parable of the Talents is part of the Mount of Olives discourse, which is clearly directed to Jesus’ disciples (cf. Matthew 24:3).

So far so good. But now we come to the hardest one: the talents.

Let’s deal with one possibility quickly. Most people assume the talents represent gifts and abilities that God has given to each one of us. After all, the three servants are given “talents” according to their ability. But you have to realise that the English word “talent” in the sense of something you are good at doing is derived from this very passage of Scripture. But Matthew was certainly not thinking of gifts and abilities, because a talent was a measure of weight varying in size from about 26 to 36 kilograms. This became a unit of coinage when you measured out that weight of a metal, either gold, silver or copper. Clearly then, one talent was a very large amount of money, more money than the average person would possess over their entire lifetime.

Others argue that the talents shouldn’t be equated with anything specific, that the money is simply part of the necessary detail of the parable. The servants are supposed to demonstrate their stewardship abilities and they do this in the parable with money. Those that follow this approach see the parable teaching that we should be faithful with everything God has given to us. In other words, they are even less specific than those that think the talents represent gifts and abilities. But once again, these resulting interpretations just aren’t very confronting.

Now I think we need to assume that the talents represent something. But if they don’t represent gifts and abilities then what do they represent? Well, what did Matthew intend us to think? After all, his is the earliest form of the parable that we have so if anyone knew what it meant it has to be Matthew. Are there any clues in Matthew’s gospel that suggest what he thought the talents represented? I think there is.

Back in Matt. 13 Jesus told a lot of other parables, but this time he was speaking to the crowds of people who followed him around. Then, when the crowds dispersed, Jesus told the disciples what the parables meant. The disciples were clearly puzzled by this. Why would Jesus tell them what the parables meant and not the crowds? In Matt. 13:10-12 they ask Jesus about this and he gives them an extremely interesting answer: The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given to you, but not to them.  Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance.  Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.

Does that sound familiar? Yes: that enigmatic statement about whoever has will be given more crops up at the conclusion of the parable of the Talents. This is an explicit literary connection between the two passages, which means we can legitimately look for other, more subtle, connections. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells the disciples that he has entrusted them with the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. Then in Matthew 25 we have the master (who is Jesus) entrusting talents to the servants (who are disciples). So what do the talents represent? The talents must represent “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven”.

But what is “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven”? In Matthew 13, Jesus told parables to the crowds; but he only gave the interpretation of the parables to the disciples. In other words, he spoke to them explicitly about the Kingdom. The disciples were given “inside information” about the Kingdom; and it was a “secret” because the crowds didn’t get to hear it. So the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven is simply explicit teaching about the Kingdom of God.

We are now able to describe the teaching of the parable, by peeling back the allegorical elements so that what is represented is laid bare. Jesus has entrusted the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven to his disciples.

He has given more to some and less to others according to their abilities. Some of his disciples go out immediately and “make increase”. In other words, they make use of what has been given to them in a way that brings about a profit for Jesus; and they are rewarded. However, some of his disciples sit on that knowledge; they act in a way that does not result in profit for Jesus; and they are punished. In fact, they are treated as outsiders; they have revealed by their behaviour that they are not true disciples of Jesus at all.

Now do you see that this is a rather scary parable! We are Jesus’ disciples and – by virtue of having read Matthew’s gospel – we have also been given “inside information” about the Kingdom. But what are we doing with that knowledge? Are we using it in such a way that we are bringing profit to Jesus? Or are we selfishly sitting on that knowledge?

It all has to do with making increase with the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. But how do we do that? Each one of us might answer that question differently. One person might become a Bible college lecturer and teach others about the Kingdom. Another person might become an evangelist and bring others into the kingdom by sharing that “inside information” with them. Another might become a missionary and take the Gospel cross-culturally and expand the kingdom in another country. Another might become a pastor and use what they know about the kingdom of God as they disciple their congregation.

But you don’t have to be in full-time Christian ministry to apply this parable; it’s all about utilising the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven and expanding the kingdom as a result. If you are a witness in your place of work then you are living out what you know about the kingdom day by day. And when things of a religious nature come up in conversation, your answers will reflect the “inside information” that has been entrusted to you. On a personal level, I teach in a Christian school, which gives me the chance to tell my students about the kingdom in various ways. I’ve also written three historical novels as a way of sharing what I have learned about God’s Kingdom in an accessible way. More recently I’ve started putting videos out on YouTube.

In the parable, the master berates the lazy servant and says that he should have at the very least put the money on deposit, so that the master could have received a little interest. What this tells us is that even the barest minimum effort will be enough. You don’t have to be a world-renowned evangelist. You don’t have to be the pastor of a huge church.

You don’t even have to write a novel.

But you must do something with what you know about the Kingdom of God. Because someone who does nothing with that knowledge is either wicked or lazy or both, and according to this parable they will not make it into the Kingdom. And that is a scary thought.

Ben Chenoweth is a secondary teacher, historical fiction author and budding YouTuber. He lives in Melbourne.