Parable of the Talents

Summary: We are very familiar with the parable of the talents, where one servant was given five talents, a second servant was given two talents, and a third servant was given just one talent. Yet for many people, they tend to see only the superficial meaning behind this story, but there is a profound message that Jesus was trying to teach by telling it  . This article takes an in-depth look at this famous parable to discover what that message is.  

In the 25th chapter of Matthew we read of a parable that Jesus told where he likened the kingdom of heaven to a man who was going to travel to a faraway country, but before he left he called his servants together “and delivered unto them his goods.” To one he gave five talents, to another he gave two talents and to another he gave one talent. Also in this parable we are told that each servant was given only that which they were able to manage. In other words, no one was given a responsibility that was beyond their ability to handle.

When the master returned, he required an accounting from each servant of how well they had cared for their owner’s property and he discovered that two of the three servants had been faithful to the charge given them. In fact, their master praised them saying, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

However, the third servant was not as diligent in caring for his master’s property and gave as his excuse, “I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed, and I was afraid.” And indeed, the master was very hard on this servant for his lack of faithfulness and had no mercy on him as he took away all that the servant had and cast him out.

We are very familiar with this parable and yet we tend to see only the superficial meaning behind its story, but there is a profound message that Jesus was trying to teach that is often over looked. To understand what that message is we need to take a closer look at what is going on in this story.

At the very beginning, Jesus tells us that the story he’s about to tell is to help us better understand what the kingdom of heaven is like, which means Jesus wants us to relate what he’s about to say to what heaven’s expectations are for us. Therefore, as we read this parable, that is the perspective we need to keep in mind.

In the story it’s clear that Jesus is the man who is going to travel to a faraway country and that we, as believers in him, are his servants, and in the story the man gathers his servants together just before he departs on his journey and gives each of them a task, assignment, or a work to do while he is gone. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints each member is likewise given a task, assignment or work to do, which we refer to as a calling, that comes from the Lord by revelation through his appointed leaders. The purpose of every calling in the church, in one way or another, is meant to help build up Christ’s kingdom here on the earth.

In the parable we notice that each servant was not only given charge over of a specific portion of their master’s property, but we learn that as they carried out their duties they increased the portion they had been given. In fact, as we read of the master’s reaction when he returned, we see that this is what he expected them to do and apparently they understood this to be the reason why they were put in charge of his property.

We also see that Jesus gave each servant only that which they had the ability to manage. For example, the servant who was given charge over two talents was only given that much responsibility because they didn’t have the skill, ability, or talent to handle any more than this. On the other hand, the servant who was given five talents was capable of handling a larger task.

We see this same situation in the callings members of the LDS Church receive. When a person first joins the church they are given simple assignments to fulfill that are suited to their level of spiritual abilities, but as they grow in the church and show their willingness to take on more responsibilities, they are given opportunities to serve in greater capacities.

But, whatever talents we have, what the Lord looks for isn’t how much we do but how much effort we are willing to put forth in serving him. In the parable, the master’s praise of the servant who doubled his two talents was exactly same as that of the servant who double his five talents, and it would have been the same towards the servant who had one talent if he had doubled it. But, instead of increasing his master’s wealth, this servant was “slothful” in the performance of his duties.

God’s purpose is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man and to make this possible he has established a church whose purpose is to allow each member to participate in helping God save his children. For this reason, we have been called upon to preach the gospel, redeem the dead, help perfect the saints, and care for the poor, needy, sick, and afflicted. Every calling in the church falls under one or more of these four categories.

It doesn’t matter whether we are called to serve as an usher, a ward librarian, a Primary secretary, a bishop, stake president, or an apostle, what God expects is that whatever duty or assignment he gives us, we will perform it in a way that helps people move closer towards Christ and become more like him, which will then assist them in gaining eternal life. And it is in this way that we help increase God’s kingdom.

But there is a crucial aspect in the parable of the talents that is often not recognized. That aspect has to do with the reason why each servant behaved as they did, but to better understand this principle, it might be helpful to look at a more modern situation.

In order to survive in the world, we need to earn money, and for most of us that means doing some kind of labor for someone. Whether it’s working for a large corporation or a small business, most people get paid for performing certain duties. However, whether we dread what we do or like it, for most people a job is just a job. It’s something we do to earn money so that we can afford to buy the things we need and want. In many cases it is also how we are able to obtain health insurance and other benefits that helps make life a little easier for us. For most employees, they look forward to their days off, vacation time, and holidays, and this is true even of people who are proud of the company they work for.

But then there is another group of people – a smaller group – who work for someone out of loyalty. In other words, the salary and benefits they receive are of secondary importance. What is most important to them is making sure that either the business itself or their boss succeeds. These kinds of people are dedicated and committed to doing whatever they can to help support those they work for, regardless of any personal sacrifice they may have to make.

One such example were the soldiers who fought under the leadership of Alexander the Great. He had a dream to unite the entire known world under his rule and to accomplish this dream he assembled a massive army where, for ten years, he led them into one battle after another. Back in those days soldiers fought for the wealth they could plunder from their vanquished enemies, and Alexander’s men certainly did that, but it is said that Alexander himself was so beloved and admired by his men that they would do anything he asked of them, and every one of them would have gladly given their life to save his. That kind of dedication and commitment comes from an unwavering loyalty to a leader or a cause.

Today we see men and women in the United States military who are willing to risk their lives in order to protect their country from those who seek to do us harm. Of course, they want to get paid for the work they do, and of course they want to come back safely from battle so they can be with their families, but they are willing to sacrifice all of that, if necessary, in order to defend our nation and its people.

In the parable of the talents, we get a sense of this kind of attitude with the first two servants. They were tasked with doing a job while their master was away, and the implication is that they did it, not just for the pay, or out of fear of being punished, but out of loyalty to their master.  When their master returned they were happy to show him what they had done, not because they were expecting a reward but from the satisfaction of hearing the joy it brought to their master. And we know how joyous the master was over what they had done because of the generous gift he bestowed upon each of them.

On the other hand, the third servant only did what he had to. Notice he said when asked why he didn’t increase his talents, “I was afraid.” Instead of trying to please his master, this servant was thinking only of his own situation. He was just doing a job for what was in it for him and felt no sense of loyalty to his employer. It didn’t bother him that his master’s wealth wasn’t increased. His fear was about being punished, not about disappointing his employer.

If Jesus is our master and we are his servants, then the message of this story is that Christ expects us to be loyal to him and commit ourselves to serving him out of a sense of love, adoration, and respect we have for him rather than because of the blessings we can get from him in payment for our labors. When we receive an assignment, calling, duty, or task from the Lord, what he expects is for us to increase his wealth (and it is the worth of souls that is most precious to him). The term the Lord uses that expresses this idea, and which is represented in the parable of the talents, is for us to magnify our calling, and it is those who do this who shall receive all that the Father has (D&C 84:33-38).

Furthermore, in the LDS Church when each person receives a calling, their name is presented before the congregation, who are then asked to “sustain” the person in their new calling. To sustain someone means to support and uphold them in fulfilling their duties and responsibilities. It is a pledge on our part that we will do whatever we can to help them be successful in the performance of their calling. But, Jesus also expects us to sustain him as he seeks to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. That means, whatever calling he gives us, he expects us to perform it in a way that shows our commitment and loyalty to him and his cause.

The scriptures are full of this message.  When asked what the greatest commandment was in the law, “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:37). To love the Lord with all of our heart means giving everything we have to serving God. It means being dedicated in committing ourselves to fully doing whatever he asks of us.

Jesus told his disciples, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The reason why Jesus wants us to keep his commandments is not out of fear of being punished or because of the blessings we get from being obedient, but simply because of our great love for him. At another time Jesus made a similar statement when he said, “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things I say” (Luke 6:46). No one forces us to believe in Christ. The only reason why we would want to acknowledge Jesus as our Lord, thereby making him our master, is because we desire to be his servants. We serve him, not because we have to but because we want to. Thus, we keep his commandments gladly – not grudgingly – for no other reason than simply because of our love for him.

In our day Jesus has said, that it doesn’t matter what we do as long as what we do is done with an eye single to his glory (see D&C 27:2). To have an eye single to the glory of God means that everything we do should have one single purpose and that is to glorify God. Jesus expressed this same idea when he said “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). But to glorify God requires us to have such awe and reverence for Christ and feel so proud of him that we want everyone to know how glorious and wonderful he is, and it is only in this way that everything we do then becomes an expression of our love for him.

In the sacrament prayer (as well as at the time of our baptism) we commit to taking upon ourselves the name of Christ. When a woman marries a man, she willing takes upon herself the family name of her husband, thereby signifying that she belongs to him, and from then on she proudly identifies herself with her husband. In the same way, when we take upon ourselves the name of Christ, we are signifying to the world that we belong to him. And just as a wife is to be in subjection to her husband, not out of fear or a sense of duty, but out of love and respect for him, so also we are to be obedient to Christ, not because we have to but because we want to out of the love, respect, and admiration we have for him (Ephesians 5:23,24).

Throughout all the scriptures we repeatedly see the injunction to sing praises unto God, and we learn that this is what the angles in heaven do. The only servants who sing praises to their master are those who have a deep sense of reverence for those whom they serve and who want to honor them by giving them their complete loyalty and whole-hearted devotion.

As we see, the idea of serving Christ out of a deep sense of love, admiration, and gratitude rather than out of a sense of duty, is found all throughout the scriptures. We are not merely indentured servants, paying back a debt we owe Christ, nor are we paid employees who are working for the blessings we can get from heaven, but rather Christ expects us to serve him with loyalty, commitment, and dedication out of a deep sense of adoration.

This is the true meaning of worship.  It’s where we feel it an absolute privilege for him to consider us to be one of his servants and we want to do everything we can to please him. And to hear him say to us, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” would be the greatest thrill of our life.

But, unfortunately, too often – far too often – we accept callings from the Lord with the attitude that it’s just a job for us to perform and we feel that the Lord will be pleased with whatever little effort we give him. Sometimes we behave as though we’re doing Christ a huge favor just by showing up to church every Sunday, and sometimes we feel that serving the Lord is an inconvenience, and so we grumble and complain about how much he asks of us. This was the attitude of the third servant in Christ’s parable, who only had to worry about taking care of one tiny small talent but who felt that was asking too much of him.

But there is still a further profound meaning in this parable. If it was meant to illustrate what the kingdom of heaven is like then it gives us a deeper insight into what kind of people will inherit God’s kingdom. In the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants we’re told that those who are not valiant in the testimony of Christ will not inherit the celestial kingdom.

To be valiant means more than just gritting our teeth and enduring to the end in keeping the commandments of God. As we have seen, being valiant means being faithful in our commitment and loyalty to Christ and in serving him with all of our heart, mind, and soul, with a single purpose of seeking to glorify him, and helping increase his glory and honor, not out of a sense of duty but out of the abundance of our love for him.

Yet our worship of Christ will not end once we enter into the celestial kingdom. Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). Clearly, in heaven God’s will is done instantly, fully, gladly, and without complaining. In heaven the angles are constantly singing praises to Christ. If we cannot learn how to do that now, we will not find living in the celestial kingdom to be very pleasant. Instead of seeing the face of a joyous master, who is well pleased with us, we may find that Jesus is a very hard master who will view slothfulness as being wickedness and reward us by taking from us what we have and casting us out.


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