The Parable of the Talents is a Kingdom Parable couched in terms of reward and punishment, outlining the consequences awaiting those who have been entrusted with God’s word and given the freedom and ability to make it bear fruit. God seeks the active cooperation of the faithful in the establishment of His kingdom, and failure to act is a dereliction of duty and sin of omission. The parable is a sober warning that the People of God are expected to use the gifts they have been given, or suffer the pain of banishment on top of the loss of what they had received; at the same time, it is a promise of abundant increase for those who fulfill the will of the Lord.
The Parable of the Talents immediately follows the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, which is explicitly introduced by Jesus as referring to the Kingdom of Heaven. The two parables are told following Christ’s foretelling of His Second Coming, the Parousia heralding the end of this world. At this point in the Gospel, Jesus has just departed the Temple, where He roundly chastised the scribes and Pharisees for neglecting the teachings of the Law, namely judgment, mercy and faith. He predicted their certain doom for ignoring the Word of God and being hypocrites, seeking only their personal comfort and reputation, at the expense of the fulfillment of God’s will.
The parables are told while Jesus speaks privately to His disciples of the signs that will accompany the consummation of the world, in response to their queries on the subject. They are related to the disciples as the Messiah approaches Jerusalem and they directly precede a description of the Last Judgement as well as Jesus’ declaration of His impending crucifixion.
Thus, the Parable of the Talents can be seen as a direct commentary on the behavior of the religious leaders of the Jewish nation, the scribes and the Pharisees. Like the lazy servant, they have failed to invest what they had been entrusted with: namely, the holy teachings which are the key to the Kingdom of God. Instead, they have perverted God’s teachings, burying them beneath their convoluted religious restrictions and regulations, oppressing the faithful with heavy tithes.
Moreover, the parable has eschatological import, being an illustration of the reckoning that will occur at the Second Coming of Christ. It demonstrates the necessity of being ready for His impending advent. This is paralleled in the preceding parable where the foolish virgins, lacking oil for their lamps, pay the penalty for their unpreparedness and are left out of the wedding celebration. Throughout Holy Scripture, the wedding feast is a symbol of Heaven, the Lamb’s Supper which is the union of Christ and His Bride the Holy Church. At the same time, Jesus instructs his listeners that the Kingdom of God is not commencing at once upon His entry into Jerusalem, as those who anticipated a worldly Messiah expected. The master, representing Himself, departs for an extended, unspecified period of time.
Jesus follows the Parable of the Talents with an account of the Last Judgement, where He will judge everyone according to their deeds, separating the just from the wicked, sending the latter to eternal punishment while bestowing eternal life upon the former. Likewise, in the parable, the master rewards or penalizes the servants according to what they have done with his property in his absence. The talents are thus clearly symbols of the ability to perform the works of charity which fulfill the Law.
The line introducing the Parable of the Talents is a segueing into that parable from the one of the Virgins, stating: “Watch ye therefore, because you know not the day nor the hour.” Matthew emphasizes that Christ’s return will be unexpected, with judgment falling suddenly upon the wicked and unfaithful. Before the Parables of the Virgins and the Talents, Jesus is recorded as referring to His second coming as being like the Great Flood which took mankind unawares, then drumming in the point with the parable of the thief coming unforeseen in the night, as well as the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants whose master returns at an unanticipated moment and deals with them accordingly. The Parable of the Talents can be seen as an extension of the point made in the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants.
The Parable of the Talents begins with a man preparing for his departure to a distant land by bestowing his property upon his three servants, dividing his assets between each of them “according to his proper ability”; this implies that they are expected to manage those assets. In Judaism, as can be seen throughout the Old Testament, the relationship between God and Israel was often referred to in terms of Lord and servant; more particularly, the leaders of God’s people were called His servants. Therefore, Jesus’ disciples would have instantly recognized this parable as reflecting upon the behavior of the Jews, as well as all who purported to be faithful followers of Christ.
The immensity of the trust which the master has placed in each of his servants is comprehended when one realizes the value of a talent. A single talent was worth about 6,000 denarii and constituted the equivalent of about two decades’ labor. Considering the shorter life expectancy at the time of Christ, a talent represented just about the entire sum earned in an average man’s life. Thus, a talent could be figurative of the graces received for a lifetime, with the varying amounts signifying different graces received by members of the faithful. It was a massive sum which a mere servant would have been unable to repay.
The two servants who have been entrusted with much more, in line with their abilities, trade their master’s property and earn even more, doubling the amounts in their keeping. The third servant, in contrast, does less than the bare minimum of depositing the money in the bank; in fact, he buries it in the ground, where it remains utterly unproductive until the master’s return.
In Jewish numerology, the number ten symbolized absolute completeness, and the number five indicated semi-completeness. One may interpret the first servant as having the best ability to employ what he receives, since he is allotted the maximum of five talents and gains five more with them, reaching the symbolic level of perfection. In addition, the number two was one short of the number of holiness, while the number four referred to the quarternity of the universe, encompassing Heaven and Earth and testifying to the glory of God. Thus, although the second servant receives less than the first, he is still able to serve his master and symbolically glorify God through his actions: in Judaism, the wealthy were regarded as blessed by God. Both the servants are praised equally by the master for their efforts and acumen, for they have both done just as well in producing full returns of the amounts entrusted to them. They “are received with equal favor by the Master of the household, who looks not to the largeness of their profit, but to the disposition of their will.”
Moreover, “the greater the gifts, the greater the reckoning for them” – the master commends the second servant for earning two more talents, thus presenting four in total; but if the first servant had come back with just four, that would have been a grievous loss. Religious leaders like the scribes and Pharisees, who were learned and blessed with a deeper understanding of the scriptures than the average person, would reasonably have been expected to render more to God; similarly, faithful disciples of Christ who have been enlightened by His teachings are more culpable than those who do not know Him that well.
The third servant is given a lesser, though still considerable amount, because the master knows he is not ready to handle more than that. Yet, he is inhibited by fear at taking the risk of investing the money, and in burying it seeks to divest himself of the responsibility for any loss. However, in doing so, he breaches his trust. As a servant, he is duty-bound to seek his master’s interests, but he acts self-interestedly, with cowardice.
His self-protective mindset is revealed in the speech he makes when he is brought to account by the master. He blatantly accuses his master of being a hard man, because he reaps where he has not sown, and gathers where he has not strewed. He has misconceived the character of his master, who was generous with his faithful servants. The servant tries to excuse his own behavior by claiming that his fear of the master motivated him to bury the talent, a common way of preserving money in Christ’s day. He returns the single talent, declaring, “Behold here thou hast that which is thine.” He did not fritter the money away for his own ends, and he hopes he might be recognized for his frankness and cautiousness in remitting the exact sum he was given. His delusion is soon exposed.
The servant’s clumsy attempt to excuse himself is turned against him; the master uses the servant’s own words to condemn him: “Wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sow not, and gather where I have not strewed.” Instead of truthfully admitting his guilt or even expressing some gratitude for the great trust placed in him, the servant tried to shift the blame and maligned his master in the process. This of course enrages his master, who adds the epithet “wicked” on top of decrying the servant for his sloth, chastising him for his intolerable pride.
The servant’s protest, “I was afraid of thee,” brings to mind Adam and Eve after their transgression, hiding for fear of the Lord. They too tried to pin the blame on someone else, with Adam pointing out to God that it was the woman He gave him for company who enticed him to sin. God punished them for their disobedience, removing His gifts from them and banishing them from paradise. The unprofitable servant is condemned to the same fate, with his talent given to the most productive servant, and he himself thrown out into the dark to lament his sorry end.
In contrast, the good servants are entrusted with even more, since they have proved their faithfulness, and they are invited to enter into the joy of their lord. This is a direct allusion to Heaven, where those who are judged worthy are allowed to enjoy the bliss of the Beatific Vision and complete union with God. In the end, the first servant is rewarded even more greatly than the second, as he receives the unfaithful servant’s talent. This is fitting because he has had to work harder than the second in order to reap five more talents.
Furthermore, in Christian tradition, the talents have been taken to signify particular gifts from God, with the five talents corresponding to the five senses, which are the means to knowledge; the two talents standing for understanding and action, and the single talent representing understanding alone. Thus, the servant with the five talents was appropriately awarded the additional virtue of understanding.
The master, representing God, reaps where he has not sown – this indicates His decision to save the Gentiles, who were not originally endowed with the seeds of salvation inherent in the Law and the Prophets, but in the end come to constitute part of the Kingdom of God, His property.
The parable, just like Jesus’ other parables, is set in an ordinary situation, teaching the lesson that “the eschatological occurs within the everyday.” Christian faith and the spiritual life are at one with human earthly existence. One encounters God – represented by the master – in commonplace events and is held liable for one’s freely-chosen actions or lack thereof in response to the privileges and accompanying responsibilities accorded by Him. The servant deliberately chose not to do any good with the talent, and for that exercise of his free will, he must pay for his decision to neglect his master’s affairs. The master was a long time away, allowing ample time for the servants to carry out their duties, so practically speaking the capital must have surely depreciated with rising inflation in the meantime. This is analogous to the spiritual life, where God gives sufficient time for the salvation of souls, and if virtue is not willingly exercised, it is lost. The lazy servant acted as one obstinate in sin, unwilling to invest in the spiritual life, instead dedicating his God-given abilities to earthly things. The master is merciful, for he does not even require the servant to perform the more onerous task of reclaiming the money if he had banked it; the master would have done it himself. Similarly, as long as we commit ourselves to God’s work, He will attend to its fulfillment.
The Parable of the Talents is related at a particularly crucial moment in Jesus’ mission, shortly before His descent into Jerusalem to undergo His Passion and Death. It is His indictment of the scribes and Pharisees for willfully neglecting the will of God in the interests of self-preservation. Ironically, in seeking to preserve his life, the faithless servant loses it. The parable is also an answer to Christ’s disciples’ question regarding the eschaton, instructing them on the behavior expected of them as servants of the Lord. As they await His Second Coming, they cannot remain idle, but must prepare for the coming of the Kingdom, using all that God has given them for their task.