In Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-28, we find accounts of two very similar parables. I’d encourage you to take a moment to read them both and note the differences, but the basic outline is the same: a man entrusts his servants with different amounts of money, and then leaves for a while. When he returns, he asks them what they have done with the money. Two of the servants have used the money to generate a profit for the master, while the servant given the least money has simply buried it, preventing it from being used for anything productive. The master is furious with the unprofitable servant, and either banishes or kills the servant, depending on the version you read. “I tell you,” the master says, "that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Luke 19:26 ESV).
That the parable functions so clearly as an analogy for Christian stewardship of God’s gifts today is no coincidence. In fact, the modern meaning of the English word “talent” is a direct reference to this parable; the word comes from the Greek “talanton,” meaning a “weight” or “sum of money.” The English word “talent” was chosen with the implication that talents are loans from God with the expectation of returns.
The message of the parable is clear: serving God means using our talents to his glory. What that means in practical application, however, is more difficult.
For one thing, many people assume that some talents are meant to glorify God – or can do so more directly – and others are not. A talent for preaching is a Divine gift, we reason, but cake decorating? That’s just a hobby. 1 Peter 4:10, however, says that “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (NIV).
On the other hand is the question of whether talents must be used for something strictly religious to glorify God. Entire industries have formed around people using their talents in ways that explicitly draw attention to God, including Christian comedians, Christian painters, and Christian musicians. Eric Liddell, however, doesn’t organize a Christian fundraising race; he runs in the Olympics. And the workers in the parable don’t build a synagogue or start selling Christian golf balls to turn a profit – they just do business skillfully and ethically.
This question can become especially contentious when we consider specifically Adventist identity. The Adventist church has its own complex society of institutions, and we often have a tendency to believe that people can serve God best within them, regardless of other opportunities. This principle came to the forefront recently when Joy-Leilani Garbutt, an Adventist organist, played for a Mass honoring Pope Francis. Take a moment and read the story here.
A long time ago, a young Hebrew man named Daniel faced a similar challenge: should he use his wise and educated mind to serve the pagan king of Babylon as an advisor, or not? The job was not part of the Jewish religion, and actually would serve the interests of their captors, Babylon. But Daniel chose to use his gifts to engage his situation and exert influence for God. The use of our talents can be difficult, especially when cultural and religious concerns come into view. Still, the Parable of the Talents challenges us not to simply “sit on” our gifts, but to put them to good use. Does God ever want us to turn down opportunities to develop our talents? Is using our talents for God more about attitude, method, or results?
- Does the fact that the word “Talent” in Greek originally meant an amount of money take away from our ability to understand the parable in terms of the English meaning of “Talent”? In other words, do you think it is legitimate to understand the parable as being about “skills” or “abilities” even though the word originally meant an amount of money?
- A related question: Do you think this parable should be understood as instructions about what Christians should do with their money?
- What do you make of the harsh rejection of the servant with the one talent at the end of this parable? How do you reconcile this with the God of infinite grace?
- What do you think of the master’s comment in Luke’s account that part of the servant’s problem was “not wanting me to reign over them”? Does it bother you?
- The servant who received five talents ended up with ten, and the one who received two talents ended up with four. Do you think this means that God expects us to end up with double of whatever he initially gives us? Why or why not?
- Is there a divide between skills to be used for “sacred” tasks and “secular” tasks? In other words, can skills that we would consider “not religious” still be used for God?
- There is a quote that is sometimes (falsely) attributed to Martin Luther, though the idea contained within the quote is still worth consideration. What do you think of the following:
- “The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes [....]” While Luther did not say this, he did say that Christian living entailed using gifts, skills, and trades to serve others. What does that say about using skills and gifts that are not inherently “religious”?
- The versions of the story Matthew 25 and Luke 19 are surrounded by starkly different contexts. What do these contexts add to the meaning of the parable?
- In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the Parable of the Talents as part of a larger discussion about final judgment, and the importance of helping the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, and so on. What does this context add to the meaning of the parable?
- In Luke 19, Jesus tells the Parable of the Talents on his way to make his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Before telling the Parable, Jesus meets Zacchaeus, a tax collector. Zacchaeus commits himself to giving to the poor and repents of his dishonest business dealings - promising to pay back the money he has defrauded from people. After telling the parable, Jesus weeps over the unfaithfulness of Jerusalem and predicts that it will be destroyed, and then goes into the temple and drives out the money changers. What does this context of travelling to Jerusalem and pronouncing judgment on the religious and financial structures of Israel add to the meaning of the parable?
- What talents have you observed to be preferred by the church more than others? Are there some things that we don’t consider to be talents that we should? Are there some things that are considered talents that shouldn’t be?
- Will God ever call us to use a talent outside of our comfort zone? Our understanding of ourselves? Our skills? What do you make of people who claim that they were called to do something they had no aptitude for, and then miraculously were able to do it?
- What talents do you have that you feel God has called you to use?