The present parable, when compared with some of the others, is alike yet different. It is alike in simplicity yet fulness of meaning, and different in the new shades and aspects of man’s character which it presents; alike in depth and comprehensiveness, yet level, in its great outlines, to the understanding of a child.
First, the great Teacher is still instructing man about the things of the kingdom – still raising our thoughts from earth to heaven, from man to God. And in teaching us how God manages His vast empire, Jesus tells that the king in the parable, according to a custom which was common between a proprietor and his slaves, gave different talents to his different servants to be used for him. Five, two, one – these represent what the king entrusted to them, “according to their several ability”.
Now we need not take long to tell what this is means. We need only look around us and see the eternal King still doing the same. One man perhaps occupies a throne; another is unknown and obscure. One man has gifts which enable him to sway thousands, myriads, millions of his fellow men; another has scarcely power or skill enough to toil for his daily bread. One man has a heart or a head which renders him the benefactor of an age or of ages, and he is in a position which makes it possible for him to do so: he is a Guttenberg and invents printing, or a Watt and discovers steam power, or a Howard and almost empties the dungeon of its misery; or he has no scope and no sphere in which to move except one just a little larger than the grave which will receive his dust at last. This is the diversity of gifts, but the same spirit. Yet, however diverse these gifts or talents – these trusts and not property – may be, they have all this in common: they are, every one, God-given. Not one of them comes by chance, and not one of them is really man’s own. He is a steward, a responsible servant, and becomes a robber by using them as if they were his own.
Entrusted as they were, the servants began their duties. He of the five traded and gained other five; he also who had two doubled his capital; but he who had only one buried it in the earth. Here are some aspects of human nature well worth our study. Two of the three were earnest men for their lord. They were diligent and became rich. They were zealous and “stood before princes”, and when the day for rendering their account arrived, applause, reward and honour were the result. They both began by referring to their lord’s gift, for that was the root of their prosperity. Of his own they gave him.
And is it not so in the service of the King of kings? Do we use for Him what He has bestowed? Do we wisely consider how to advance His cause and glory in the sphere in which we move? Are all our gifts laid upon the altar of His love? Then, in no mercenary spirit, great is our reward. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” is the greeting we receive. We have not served our Lord to buy His favour. It is priceless and never yet was bought by mortal man; but our poor works He is graciously pleased to own, when done in faith and for the cause of our King. There is no activity like that of the friends of Jesus. They are “diligent in business, serving the Lord”. He is no hard taskmaster, and those who love Him are no driven slaves. Love on the one side is responded to by love on the other. Talents consecrated to God lead to glory with Him through Jesus Christ our Lord. “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord”, is the welcome which awaits us.
But, on the other hand, the man who had but one talent did not turn it to account. Perhaps he was envious because he had received so little. He wished to be great, conspicuous, lordly. It is made plain that he cherished hard thoughts of his king: “Thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed, and I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth”. Now, every sentence here indicates vexation of spirit. His language is offensive. The blame of failure is not his; it is his lord’s. And so the man becomes the very model of those who murmur at their lot, who grudge that God has not made them greater than they are, and who throw the blame of failure upon Him, not upon themselves. Had that man traded with his single talent, the last might have been first, as often happens in God’s world. As he buried it in the earth, he betrayed both his own stupidity and his master’s interests.
Next, mark the folly of the man’s reasons for not trading. Out of his own mouth he was condemned, and the excuses which he pled were just so many reasons for industry, activity and utmost zeal in the cause of his king. The money-changers, at least, would have wrought if he chose to be a sluggard. And, in like manner, how often does it happen that transgressors against the King of kings are self-convicted! The reasons which they plead to extenuate sin in reality make it worse. They are “wicked and slothful” and throw the blame upon God. They deem Him hard instead of deeming themselves unwise, and the result is that they sink into deeper woe. They are poor, and become poorer. They are guilty, and become worse. They are blind, and are given up to delusions till outer darkness becomes their lot at last.
Further, nothing is more remarkable than the stupidity which sin often occasions. The reason is weakened when conscience is violated, and the understanding is darkened while the heart grows hard. A man, for example, becomes a thief; in his confusion he leaves something behind him which detects him at once, as if the Holy God had said once more, “Thou art the man”. Or he is a murderer, and by some unguarded word – a mere word – betrays the secret which none but God knew; and so in the parable. The man was guilty of neglect, and for that he pled excuses which rather condemned him. Because he wished to occupy a pinnacle and was disappointed, he deemed his lord a churl.
On the other hand, the diligent servant grew richer and greater. He had proved himself zealous for his lord, and he received more and more. There was growth, increase and gladness crowning all, and it is the same in the things of the kingdom of God. Does a man pray? Then he learns to pray more and to love prayer better. But is a man a pretender to religion without prayer? Then he sinks lower and lower, he loses what he once seemed to have, he is a robber of himself; and so in a thousand cases. God will plentifully reward the proud doer, but his reward is woe, while the blessedness of the righteous is thus announced: “In keeping [God’s commandments] there is great reward”.
1. Another chapter, slightly edited, from Tweedie’s book, Parables of Our Lord. It is based on the parable in Matthew 25:14-30,