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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
TALENTS (Parable of).—In Matthew 25:14-30 we have the story of a man who went away on a journey into a far country, and entrusted to one of his slaves five talents, to another two, and to another one. The story resembles so closely the parable of the Pounds in Luke 19:11-27 that many scholars have considered them to be different versions of the same parable.
1. It is therefore necessary to begin with an investigation of the relations between the two parables. (a) In the parable of the Talents we have three slaves mentioned, who seem from the expression chosen—‘his own slaves’—to stand in a relation of peculiar intimacy to their master. He is, therefore, already familiar with their capacity, and allots the talents he distributes to them in harmony with his knowledge. To the most capable he gives five talents, to one not so capable he entrusts two, and to a third with less ability than either he entrusts one. He does not give them any instructions, since they ought to understand that such large sums of money are not intended to lie idle, but should be used in increasing their master’s possessions. As soon as his master has departed, the first servant goes at once and trades with his lord’s money. The master is absent for a long time, so that by legitimate trading the servant doubles the capital he has received. The second servant, although of less capacity, exhibits an equal devotion to his lord’s interests, and while his capital is smaller, he also succeeds in doubling it. The third servant, however, while he does not squander the money entrusted to him, buries it in the earth, and keeps it safe for his master’s return. After a long period has elapsed, the master comes back and reckons with his servants. The first two slaves bring the capital they have originally received and that which they have made by trading. In each case they use the same formula; each receives precisely the same commendation and reward. The third servant is conscious that he must find some excuse for his failure, and he throws the responsibility for it on the character of his master. He is a driving, avaricious man, determined to enrich himself even at the cost of dishonest reaping where others have sown. He was therefore afraid to trade with the money lest misfortune should overtake him, and he lose some or all of the capital entrusted to him. The master, without deigning to justify himself from the harsh character thus given to him, points out that were the slave right in his estimate, he ought at least to have taken the trouble to see that the money was entrusted to the bankers. Lazy as he was, he ought not to have grudged the trouble involved in taking the talent and flinging it down at the banker’s, so that the capital might at least have accumulated interest. He is accordingly deprived of his talent, and it is given to him who has ten. And, of course, he cannot enter into the joy of his lord, but from the brilliantly lit banqueting-hall where the feast is held is thrust into the homeless darkness outside the mansion. He has proved himself a useless servant, and the penalty of uselessness is that his master has no further use for him.
(b) The parable of the Pounds (see art. Pound) has many significant points of contrast with that of the Talents, and the contrasts harmonize with the difference of the situation presupposed. It is in this case not a merchant, but a nobleman, and his object in going to a far country is to receive a kingdom. It is, in fact, held by many that in the parable of the Pounds we have two parables blended together, one of which described how a nobleman was opposed in his efforts to obtain a kingdom by his fellow-citizens, and how, having received the kingdom, he executed vengeance upon them. The other parable went on similar lines to the parable of the Talents, the differences being due either to a difference in the lesson Jesus intended to teach, or to variations of the story that grew up as it was told and retold in the Christian Church. It is, however, important in this connexion to observe that the whole parable is dominated by the idea that it is of a prince that the story speaks. In other words, the situation from which the story of the nobleman starts out is reflected in the details of the story of the servants, some of which, indeed, become intelligible only in the light of it. It is probable that the parable rests on a historical incident, and the view of most interpreters is that it is the journey of Archelaus to Rome to secure his kingdom and the embassy of the Jews to thwart him to which Jesus here alludes. The internal harmony of the story speaks strongly for its unity. In this case the nobleman calls, his ten servants and gives each of them a pound. It would, of course, be possible to suppose that, while nobly born, he is in indigent circumstances, and has little money to spare; but this is probably not the real reason why the sum entrusted is so small. In the parable of the Talents we have apparently to do with a merchant whose object is to make money. He therefore entrusts his servants with a large capital in order that they may have ample opportunity for gaining large sums of money. Moreover, he has already tested their capacity in precisely this kind of work. That accounts for the difference in distribution, and for the absence of any command that they should trade with the money. They know their master and his objects too well to doubt what he means them to do. But naturally a nobleman is not a merchant, hence his servants are quite unpractised in commercial enterprise. If, however, he is to receive a kingdom, it will be necessary for him to have men who are skilled in financial administration. He therefore employs the interval of his absence in testing the business capacity of his slaves, in order that he may know whom to appoint to the various offices of State when he comes into his kingdom. Accordingly he assigns to each an equal sum of money, that all may have equal advantages and be differentiated according to their zeal and capacity. And inasmuch as his object is not to make money, for he will have ample opportunities of doing that when he receives his kingdom, he does not entrust them with a large but with a slender capital. Fidelity and ability can be tested by the use of slender as well as of large resources. When the servants come back, three of them are specially singled out for mention. There is no need to suppose that this is an incongruity in the parable. Ten slaves are, it is true, selected, because there are several offices in the State to be filled, whereas in the case of the merchant only three are chosen, because the capital is more profitably distributed into few than into many hands if the purpose is to make money. It would have been tedious, however, to mention each slave individually in the parable of the Pounds, hence three only are introduced as specimens of the rest. Besides, the parable is subordinated to the aim of teaching its lesson, and attention would have been distracted by the multiplicity of detail, even if ten different lessons could have been drawn from the different conduct of the ten slaves. The vital thing was to bring out the main lessons, and not confuse the broad issues by minute differentiations. The first slave tells the prince that his pound had won ten pounds. His zeal and enterprise win the prince’s warm approval, and, since he has been faithful in a very little, he receives authority over ten cities. The second has been less successful, his pound has made only five. He receives a reward proportionate to that of the other; that is, he is set over five cities; but apparently the prince suspects that his relative failure is due not simply to his slighter capacity, but to his feebler devotion to his master’s interests. Accordingly he meets with a chill reception, and there is no word of approval, but simply the curt indication of the office he is to fill in the government. When we compare the treatment of the two servants in the parable of the Talents, the difference becomes significant. In that parable the two slaves have unequal capacity, but they have exhibited the same zeal for their master, and achieved a similar result; that is, each has doubled his capital: accordingly they receive the same reward with the same warmth of praise. In the parable of the Pounds the slaves start from an equal position, but achieve an unequal result. They therefore receive an unequal reward, and the commendation given in the one case is withheld in the other. The case of the third servant is substantially the same in both, though with verbal and other differences. It is, of course, obvious that the slave who has received a pound will treat it otherwise than the slave who has received a talent: the large sum is naturally buried in the earth, the smaller one is carefully put by in a napkin. He, too, is deprived of his pound, and it is given, in spite of the protests of the bystanders, to the one who has ten. The parable concludes with the genuinely Oriental trait of the execution of the malcontents who sought to keep the prince out of his kingdom.
It will be clear, then, from this comparison, that the two parables presuppose different situations, each of which is harmoniously worked out in detail, and that each has different lessons to teach. There is, therefore, no substantial reason for assuming that the same original parable has developed into these two very different stories. It is difficult to believe that, had this been the case, the internal consistency of each should have been what it is.
The above conclusion is due to no harmonistic prejudices, for it may be freely granted that different versions of the same sayings were current in the Church, and have been incorporated in our Gospels. But it is a mere prejudice, on the other side, to imagine that similarities are always to be accounted for as variants of the same original, and we may well hold that Jesus deliberately developed a similar story along these two different lines, just because He thus brought out significantly different lessons. It is by the comparison of the two that the full meaning of each becomes clear. At most, it might be admitted that the two stories exercised a mutual influence on each other. Possibly the words, ‘I will set thee over many things,’ are an intrusion in the story of the Talents. Apparently the main portion of the master’s capital has already been entrusted to his slaves (Matthew 25:14), so that there is an incongruity when the five talents are called ‘few things,’ and that over which the slave is to be set is called ‘many things.’ And the incongruity is even greater when the same promise is repeated to the second slave. The total amount is in each case merely a doubling of the original capital, and the contrast between half and the whole is exaggerated if it is described as a contrast between few and many. Acordingly, it is not impossible that here the parable of the Pounds has influenced the report. There the contrast between the one pound and the ten cities might well be described in the terms employed in the parable of the Talents. It is, however, possible that here the application determined the form of the story, and that Jesus, or possibly His reporter, is thinking of the contrast between earthly opportunities and the heavenly reward. In that case the contrast between the many and the few is quite appropriate. The passage, however, reminds us strongly of Matthew 24:45-47 = Luke 12:42-44 on the faithful servant whom his lord set over his household in his absence, and whom on his return he will set over all that he has. In the parable of the Pounds the description of the sum entrusted as very little is entirely appropriate.
The significance attached to the parts relating to the first two servants has already been pointed out in the course of the comparison. In the parable of the Talents the lesson is, that difference in endowment or opportunity involves no difference in the reward. It is assumed that such differences exist; all that is demanded is that the opportunities afforded should be faithfully employed. Where like faithfulness has been shown, like reward will be given, in spite of the disparity of opportunity and of result. The significance in the parable of the Pounds is different: each starts from the same level, but they reach a very different result. To what the difference is due is not stated, but to a certain extent, at any rate, it seems to be to the comparative slackness of the second servant. The lesson again is that devotion to the master’s interests is what counts in the final reward. Another lesson, common to both parables, Is that reward for work is more work, but work on a larger scale with ampler opportunities. In the case of the third servant, some of the lessons are quite clear. Slothfulness in the service of the king is the unpardonable sin. The failure to use opportunity is punished by the withdrawal of opportunity and dismissal from the master’s service. What further lessons can be drawn out depends on the view we take of the servant’s excuse. If it really represented his belief, it suggests that unjust thoughts of God may paralyze a man’s action. The servant had constructed a caricature of his master, and feared that his grasping avarice might be disappointed if he lost part of the capital in trade; and therefore he felt that his duty was done if he returned it to his master as he received it. But the words of the master, ‘Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee,’ suggest rather that the fault did not lie with the wrong estimate that he had formed of his master’s character, but with the laziness of his disposition. If he was unwilling to trade with it himself, he might at least have taken it to those who would have traded with it and returned it with interest. And, in any case, the slave had his orders, tacitly, it is true, in the parable of the Talents, but explicitly in the parable of the Pounds. The responsibility for misfortune was therefore removed from his shoulders; his duty was to obey orders.
2. The question remains as to the relation between these two parables and the Second Coming. Lk. introduces the parable of the Pounds with the statement that it was occasioned by the approach of Jesus to Jerusalem, and the expectation entertained by His followers that the Messianic Kingdom was immediately to be established. The parable of the Pounds fits that situation in so far as it indicates that the master is going on a distant journey and will be away for a long time, and that the kingdom is to be established only upon his return. The opposition of the Jews to the Messianic claims of Jesus, and the vengeance that is to come upon them at the Parousia, are also suggested. The eschatological colour is not so deep in the parable of the Talents, still it is present. It is, however, noteworthy that the main point of both parables is not the explanation of the delay in the Second Coming. This comes out more clearly in Matthew 24:48-51. There the unfaithful servant abuses his trust precisely because his lord delays his coming, and there are other closely related sayings and parables which bear on the need for watchfulness and on the suddenness of the Second Coming. There is no need to suppose that the parables of the Pounds and the Talents are a development of Mark 13:34-37, or to think that the experience of delay in the early Church created the parables. Even if it be true that Jesus expected to return within a generation, the evidence that He warned His disciples that His absence might be protracted is very strong. Lk. may have accurately stated the occasion of the parable of the Pounds, though there are other parables that would suit better the particular situation.
Literature.—Commentaries on Matthew and Luke. Discussions in works on New Testament Theology, Teaching of Jesus, and Lives of Christ, and especially the works on the Parables by Trench, Bruce, Dods, Jülicher, and Bugge.
Arthur S. Peake.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Talents'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/t/talents.html. 1906-1918.