The parable of the talents, as recorded in Luke chapter 19 verses 11 to 27, must surely number among the most challenging told by the Lord Jesus. The clear central message of the parable - that we are responsible to Christ for our stewardship of the resources that He has entrusted to us - is a vital and sobering lesson.1 This lesson does not, however, exhaust the teaching of this parable. At this crucial point in His journey to the cross, the Lord uses this parable to teach His disciples about the whole sweep of the dispensation that was about to dawn and of the roles that would be played, in that dispensation, by Himself, Israel, and you and me.
One of the issues that we must address is the relationship of this parable with the parable recorded in Matthew chapter 25 verses 14 to 30. The similarities between the two passages are obvious - in both, an authority figure goes away for a period of time, leaving his servants with financial resources that they must invest on his behalf. In both, there is a return and a review, with a particular focus on the performance of three servants, two of whom receive commendation for the profit they have generated, and a third who is condemned for his failure, not just to generate a profit, but to make even the most rudimentary effort to do so. In addition, there are a number of verbal similarities between the two passages.2 These resemblances have led some to conclude that Matthew and Luke present two records of one parable, and that the inconsistencies between the two reflect different recollections of Christ’s words and the different emphases of the two Gospels. This explanation is, to put it mildly, suspect on the grounds of the low view of scripture that it expresses. We believe that ‘all scripture is given by inspiration of God’, 2 Tim. 3. 16, and, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, we are not at the mercy of Matthew’s memory or the memory of Luke’s sources.
Even leaving this important issue to one side, however, a closer examination of the two parables reveals significant differences between them that are best accounted for not as distortions of a common source but as authentic differences between two independent accounts of two distinct parables.
The parables have a different setting -Matthew’s is set in Jerusalem, Luke’s in Jericho; Matthew’s is delivered before a crowd while Luke’s account has the Lord speaking to His disciples. The personnel in the parables also differ; Matthew has a businessman, while Luke has a king; Matthew’s account features three servants,
Luke’s ten. In Matthew’s parable, the servants are given differing numbers of talents (a very large sum of money), but in Luke’s account, each servant receives one pound or mina (a considerably smaller sum).3In Matthew’s account, each of the good servants is given the same reward (‘I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord’, Matt. 25. 21, 23), while in Luke, the rewards distributed vary.
In Matthew, the unfaithful servant is cast ‘into outer darkness: [where] there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth’, Matt. 25. 30; no such judgement awaits the failing servant in Luke.
In the face of these differences, quite apart from the implications of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, the most plausible solution is that we are dealing not with one but with two parables, and that the parable recorded in Luke chapter 19 is unique to this Gospel.
This is an important insight because the full significance of this parable is closely tied to its context. The Lord, with His disciples, has left Jericho on His final journey to Jerusalem and, as Luke makes explicit, the teaching of this parable arises directly out of the circumstances of this journey, ‘And as they heard these things, he added and spake a parable, because he was nigh to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear’, 19. 11. Although the Lord had made it clear to His disciples that He was going to Jerusalem to be rejected and crucified, the disciples had been unable to grasp the meaning of His words, ‘Let these sayings sink down into your ears: for the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men. But they understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not: and they feared to ask him of that saying’, Luke 9. 44, 45. Still, they clung to the idea that the long-awaited kingdom was about to be inaugurated, and where else, other than Jerusalem, would that great event take place? Surely it was this prospect that drew their Lord inexorably to the city of the great king!
The disciples were right that Christ was going to inaugurate the kingdom. They were right about the significance of Jerusalem as the place where that event would take place. But they were wrong about both the timing and the sequence of the arrival of the kingdom, and it is because of this error, ‘because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear’, that the Saviour speaks this parable.
As the parable begins, we are introduced to the three parties who will play a role in this story - the nobleman, his servants, and his citizens. That the man of noble birth is central to the story is immediately clear: both the servants and the citizens are defined in relation to him, it is his actions and initiative that drive the action of the whole narrative, and we begin with an overview of the story from his perspective. There are three stages to his story - he is going into a far country to receive a kingdom, and then to return. He leaves as a nobleman but will return as a king; he goes to the far country not to receive a kingdom there but to receive a kingdom in the place from which he left.
The application of this to the Lord Jesus requires no special insight. He is, we recall, addressing the disciples’ misapprehension that the kingdom ‘should immediately appear’. He does so by reminding them, in parabolic form, of the sequence of events that must take place. He must go away, by way of the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension and, in exaltation, He receives the kingdom.4 There will be a period during which He is absent, when He will have received the kingdom but before He has returned to claim it.
In that period, the nobleman will be absent but not unrepresented. He leaves ten servants - literally slaves - behind to work for him, using the resources that he has entrusted to them. That there are ten servants is striking - not just because of the contrast with Matthew’s parable, but because at the end of the parable only a sample of three is reviewed and rewarded. Ten in scripture is the number of responsibility - there were ten commandments, ten plagues on Egypt, and ten spies who brought back an evil report from Canaan. In contrast to the servants in Matthew chapter 25, there is no differentiation in the amount entrusted to each servant - they each receive one pound, or mina. ‘One mina was worth about four month’s wages’ for a labourer - a substantial, but by no means enormous amount.5 With this amount came the instruction, ‘Occupy till I come’. Pragmateuomai, the word translated ‘occupy’ in the KJV, is the word from which we get the English ‘pragmatic’, and it means ‘to carry on a business or to trade’ and its force here is ‘make a profit’.6 The nobleman expects his servants not to be idle, certainly, but more than that, he expects them to engage in activity that will further his interests.
The interpretation of this verse is as solemn as it is obvious - especially as it refers directly to believers of this dispensation. We have been left here in our Lord’s absence. To each of us have been given resources of all sorts. Some of what has been entrusted to us is spiritual, but the juxtaposition of this parable with the story of Zacchaeus and the implications that salvation had for his management of his material possessions should keep us from restricting the teaching of the parable only to spiritual resources. After all, ‘nothing’ is the only honest answer that any of us can give to the question, ‘What hast thou that thou didst not receive?’ 1 Cor. 4. 7 - everything we are and have has been given to us and no part of us or of our possessions is unaffected by the command to ‘Occupy till I come’.
As Christians, we are expected to be active, ‘redeeming the time, because the days are evil’, Eph. 5. 16. But mere activity is not our goal - it is alarmingly easy to be active to little or no purpose. Like these servants, our highest aim is our Master’s business - we are active to advance His interests.
The respect and obedience of the nobleman’s servants stands in sharp contrast to that of the citizenry more widely. They ‘hated him’ is the sad summary of their attitude. It was not so much that they objected to the idea of a kingdom; rather, they detested the man who had gone to receive it. Their message to the far country is not, ‘We will not have someone to reign over us’; it is, ‘We will not have this man’, literally, the derogatory ‘this one’, ‘to reign over us’.
Again, the interpretation need not puzzle us. In these rebellious and rejecting citizens we see the response of the Jews to their true King. Very shortly, the streets around Gabbatha would echo with the cry, ‘Away with him, away with him, crucify him … We have no king but Caesar’, John 19. 15. It was not that the Jews did not want a kingdom or a king -they longed fervently for both of those things. The issue was, not this King, not this One, not the One they hated.
Clear, that is, to most commentators. Cp., however, David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Zondervan, 2011, pp. 754-763. Garland interprets the parable as portraying the grasping and exploitative nature of the human rule that will continue until Christ returns. Thus, he does not see Christ or the concept of stewardship in the parable. There are good reasons why this remains a minority view.
These resemblances are outlined in J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke (x-xxiv), Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 1985, pg. 1230.
See Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Moody Press, 1988, ‘Metrology’, s.v.
The verb used here (poreuo) is the same one that the Lord uses of His death in Luke chapter 22 verse 22, ‘truly the Son of man goeth’.
Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9. 51-24. 53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Baker Academic, 1996, pg. 1533.
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