God does not apportion talents equally to his servants. He gives more to some and less to others. Each apportionment has its unique temptations. But at one point, Jesus delivered a warning to less talented servants.
How Britain Got Talent
Our English word talent refers to a person’s innate ability or aptitude to accomplish something, typically an above average to extraordinary ability. But the only reason this word is in our lexicon is because of Jesus’s “Parable of the Talents” in Matthew 25:14–30.
In Biblical Greek, the word talanton, the etymological ancestor of talent, meant a measuring unit of weight, often of money, such as a talent of gold or silver. In the New Testament, a talent was the largest unit of monetary value and some estimate its contemporary value in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But in Jesus’s parable, he was clearly using this monetary word talent metaphorically to imply any God-given stewardship we are entrusted with, including our abilities. This became so commonly taught in Christianized Britain that by the 14th century talent had been adopted into English to mean our abilities and aptitudes.
A Tale of Talented Servants
In the parable, a wealthy man, preparing to leave on a journey, entrusts three of his servants with talents (i.e. a lot) of money with the expectation that they will steward those talents well and provide him a good return on investment (ROI) when he returns. To one he gives five talents, to one he gives two talents, and to one he gives one talent. All we are told is that the master apportioned the amounts “to each according to his ability” (Matthew 25:15).
While the master is gone, the five-talent and two-talent servants invest diligently and wisely and receive 100% ROI, but the one-talent servant does nothing but bury his. So when the master returns, he commends and rewards the five and two-talent servants, but the one-talent servant is rebuked and punished.
A Temptation for Less Talented Servants
In this parable, Jesus clearly wants us to ponder the less talented servant. He doesn’t give us many specifics, but let’s consider one possible reason why the one-talent servant was distrustful and resentful toward his master and so didn’t invest his talent.
When the master questioned this servant, he was given this excuse:
“Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” (Matthew 25:24–25)
The servant considered the master unjust, so he distrusted his master. Why did he think this way? Nothing else in the parable points to the master’s unfairness. It appears that something in the servant was fueling this perception of the master. What was it?
We’re not told, but I don’t have to look very far to see one very possible cause: Being given less talents when others have been given more talents can appear unfair to a proud heart.
The reason I don’t have to look far is because I see how my own pride responds to more talented servants. I am surrounded by people who have received from the Master more talents than he’s given to me. They read faster, write faster, write better, have brighter intellects, have better memories, get more done, are more efficient administrators, more creative, more effective preachers, and on and on. I am regularly tempted to covet the talents others have and wonder why my Master didn’t give me more talents.
I don’t always recognize this as coveting, though. The way it typically manifests in me is discouragement and self-pity. Emotionally, I feel like a loser. And, to be honest, there are times I fantasize about moving to a quiet cabin in northern Minnesota to escape the pressures that expose my lesser talents and just read books. You know what that is? It’s a sinful, talent-burying fantasy. I think it’s a common-to-man temptation for less talented servants (1 Corinthians 10:13).
And it’s all fueled by pride. All that feeling bad about myself, it’s all about me. It’s a form of self-worship. Gone is love for my Master. Gone is love for anyone else. Gone is the wonder over the grace that I received anything from the Master at all. Gone is the realization that even one talent is a huge amount and way more than I deserve to steward and only looks small compared to multiple talents that others have.
I think that’s at least one reason why the master in the parable called the less talented servant “wicked and slothful” (Matthew 25:26). The master gave the servant fewer talents and that meant fewer opportunities and less capacity for the servant to distinguish himself and therefore he saw the master as a hard, unjust man. So he buried his talent and indulged his own wicked, slothful interests and pursuits.
The Church Is Not a Talent Show
Pride infects all of us sinful servants, no matter how many talents we have. More talented servants have their own temptations and Jesus addresses those elsewhere. But in this parable he warns less talented servants to beware of the way pride can dangerously warp our perspective. And when we see this in ourselves, there are a few ways we can respond:
Repent of pride. This parable shows us less talented servants the spiritual danger of pride. When we see it, we must repent. And we are wise if we stay alert to the ways self-pity and discouragement can be Trojan horses for sinful pride. It might feel like we need comfort, when what we really need is to repent.
Trust the Master. Our Master is not unfair in his apportionment of talents. He has wise purposes, and if we know our Bibles well, we know that God’s purposes are often far different than our perceptions of them. Let us trust him (Proverbs 3:5–6) and cultivate contentment with what we are given (Hebrews 13:5).
Be faithful with your talent. We must remember that the five-talent and two-talent servants received the same commendation from the master. No matter how many talents we receive, our Master is looking for faithfulness. He will commend faithfulness with little and reward it with much in the kingdom (Matthew 25:21).
The church is not a talent show. It is Christ’s body, with each part functioning for the health of the whole. Our Master does not want us to focus on the amount of our talents compared to others. That’s his to apportion, as he deems best. He wants us to focus on being faithful with what he’s given us. If we do, we will hear from him, “Well done.”