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The Parable of the Pounds
As Christians, we are responsible to use wisely all that God has entrusted to us.
During these weeks I'm doing studies of four of the kingdom parables of Christ. We began that study with a parable that is fundamental—that parable at the close of the Sermon on the Mount: "Those who hear the words of mine and do them are like the wise person that built his house upon a rock. Those persons who hear my word and don't do them are like the foolish person that builds his house upon the sand. And when the storm came and beat against the houses, the house that was built upon the rocks stood. The house that was built upon the sand fell. And great was the fall of it."
In that parable there are constants, and there are variables. The constants are that everyone is in the business of building a worldview, a philosophy of life. And there's no hiding from storms. The variable is the foundation. Jesus in that parable is profoundly messianic because he makes himself that rock. His words, his character, he claims, are the rock you can build upon. And Jesus our Lord is saying that when we build and bolt our houses to the foundation, then we can stand the horizontal and vertical pressures that come in the storm or the earthquake.
I got a ticket for speeding a few months ago. I confessed that already to this congregation. I had to go to traffic school. And it was a good experience. I learned something that ties into this parable. It was in the part of the course about defensive driving. They created a scenario: "Imagine your car wedged into a stop sign, and you look through your mirror and see a careening car coming that you realize is going to you. What should you do?" It was very interesting—almost everybody in the class got the wrong answer. Most people said you should keep your feet off the brake, so that if a car hits you, then you would go forward. Perhaps that would absorb some of the shock. That was the wrong answer! Now you're going to get some free advice on a scenario I hope none of you has to cope with. We were told in traffic school to put your brake on as tight as you can and brace yourself for that collision. Because if your car is rigid and braced—if it's on its foundation in other words (our Lord's parable)—then when that horizontal pressure hits even a car, there will be less damage sustained to your car and less damage to the occupants inside that car. There is worse damage if your car is not braked—you get the whiplash effect.
I thought to myself, What our Lord has said is that when our lives are anchored into the rock—when we have found his faithfulness and his love, and we have made that the foundation of our life—then we're better able to handle the horizontal pressures and the vertical pressures of life. And they come. We're better able to handle the careening car of ideology and all the rest that slams into your life and causes so much ideological whiplash. So many people are stunned from that kind of whiplash—like Lewis says, "a thousand incompatible ideas dancing around inside of their brains" at the same time. But if you have your life settled into what you believe and what you believe in is itself faithful, then you can better handle the pressures of life. That's what our Lord taught us in that great parable.
That's the beginning of the series of studies we want to do on the kingdom parables because it's the fundamental parable to all the other kingdom parables. When we talk about the kingdom of God parables, we mean parables of our Lord that have to do with the implication of his kingly reign today. I have another parable for you, one found in Matthew 25 and Luke 19. This is a parable that probably our Lord taught on two different occasions and gave two different variations. The Luke 19 record of the parable tells of our Lord telling this parable some two weeks before Holy Week began. He's in Jericho on his way to Bethany before he on Palm Sunday entered the city of Jerusalem. Matthew records this parable being told on the Tuesday of Holy Week itself.
What Jesus said in this parable.
It’s a simple outline that builds slowly. Notice that Palmer does not put his big idea upfront. He patiently walks us through the details of the text first and then waits until the third section to unfold the big idea.
It's interesting that our Lord told this parable two or, who knows, maybe more times than that. In fact, Jesus probably told some of his parables several times. But in this case, he made some changes in these two tellings. Let's look at the second telling first: Matthew 25:14. It's a very famous parable. It's called the Parable of the Talents in Matthew. In Luke it's called the Parable of the Pounds. This is a series of kingdom parables starting with verse one of chapter 25: "The kingdom of heaven shall be compared..." There he tells the story of the maidens waiting for the bridegroom.
Now he tells them this one... like a man going on a journey who called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them and he made five talents more. So also, he who had two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid is master's money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. Now notice the constants and the variables in the parable as the story unfolds: And he who received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, "Master you delivered to me five talents. Here I have made five talents more." His master said to him—here comes a very famous sentence from Jesus; it's often been quoted—"Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master." And also the man with two talents came forward saying, "Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more." His master said to him, "Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master. Notice the same sentence exactly.
And now we come to the variable. The third servant is different. He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, "Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not winnow. That's odd, because he actually gave him one talent. He sowed something. But nevertheless the servant says, "So I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours." But the master answered him—and here comes the surprise—"You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed?" Now that is a strange sentence. I just want to make a footnote to it now, and we'll comment on it later. In that sentence is hidden the gospel in this parable. This parable is actually a parable of judgment. And yet there is hidden in it, in a cryptic sort of way, the gospel, in that the Lord said, "You should have known how immensely powerful the power is at work among you, that I even reap where I don't sow; that I bring forth life maybe where it isn't even there."
So then the master goes on and this is a very stern statement that is made to that servant: "You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even that which he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into outer darkness. I told you it was a judgment parable; it's a very stern final sentence—where men will weep and gnash their teeth." There it is in Matthew 25. Open now to Luke 19. This parable our Lord told, as I said, on two different occasions, and he made the parable different on each occasion, according to Luke at least.
Luke's account is different. Luke, unlike Matthew, dares to interpret the significance of the parable. Luke tells us—notice verse 11, chapter 19—as they heard these things, Jesus preceded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem. Luke says our Lord told his parable to his disciples before they got to Jerusalem because they were expecting his kingly reign to come immediately. And so he gave them this parable to help them understand about his coming. It's almost the same parable except it's pounds instead of talents. There's also a little strange note at the beginning of this parable where it says that some of the people hated this master. I cannot fully interpret that part of the parable, but let's listen to it as Luke tells it: A nobleman went to a far country to receive the kingdom and return. Calling ten of his servants—notice instead of three, it's ten now—he gave them ten pounds, and said to them,' 'Trade with these till I come." But his citizens hated him and sent an embassy after him, saying,' We do not want this man to reign over us."
A very interesting apocalyptic note. They said, "We don't want you to reign." And yet, of course, he does reign. That little negative insertion in the parable accentuates the reign of the king when he comes back. He comes back even though we maybe don't want him to reign. "When he returned, having received the kingdom, he commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by trading." And now the parable is almost the same. The first came saying, "Lord, your pound has made ten pounds more." And he said to him, "Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities." Then it goes on; the same point is made to the second man and then the third.
What Jesus meant—some observations on the parable
Let's make some observations first of all about the parable as a story and then try to interpret it for our own generation.
First, let's notice that both parables are clear about the fact that the king is coming back. It is a parable about the lordship of Jesus Christ—that he has a kingdom and that he comes back to reign. In fact in the Luke parable, it's even accentuated by the fact it says some of his servants sent an embassy hoping he would not come back, but he is coming back. He does reign. So that's the first point.
Second, he knows that the Lord entrusts different gifts to each worker. That's especially clear in the Matthew text. And then he demands to know what we have done with what he entrusted to us. That really becomes the story point in both parables. Much has been given to us or little has been given to us, but the Lord of the property demands to know what we have done with what he has entrusted to us.
And then third, notice the one who is judged. Now in fact all three are judged. The first two are judged also: "Well done, good and faithful servant! You've been faithful in a few things; I'll give you more responsibility. Enter now into the joy of your master." But notice that the one who's judged sternly is judged not because he'd done something wild or wasteful. In fact that point is accentuated in both sides. In the Luke parable it says that he took the one pound and hid it because he was afraid. Remember in the Matthew text, because he was afraid, he dug a hole and buried the talent. And that person is judged—this is the surprise of the parable—not because he'd done something wild or profligate or wasteful but because he did nothing responsible with the resources that were entrusted to him.
By the way, a footnote. A hundred years later in about 160 A.D., a gospel was written called The Gospel of the Nazarene. It's not in our New Testament. It's not authentic. Many were written in the second century: The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Barnabas, The Gospel of Pontius Pilate, and The Gospel of the Nazarene. This parable, the Matthew version, is told identically in that gospel, except the third servant. Let me read for you from The Gospel of the Nazarene the way that third servant was changed. When the third servant is confronted by the master, they added a line that that servant was one who "squandered the money on harlots and flute players." (A little hard on flute players and musicians there, but you can see the logic.) The writer of The Gospel of the Nazarene said, "You know, our Lord's parable is too bland the way it is. Let's strengthen it and make that third worker really guilty so we can justify him being thrown to the place where they gnash their teeth."
Notice in the Lord's parable, he said this person was thrown into outer darkness where they gnash their teeth. That seemed a little strong just for hiding a talent. After all, he didn't give it away. He handed it back to the Lord. So they said, "We've got to make him more guilty." So they added that he had squandered the money with harlots and flute players. But that's not the point. By trying to improve it, our Lord's parable is totally destroyed. That's not the point. The point is, he's judged not because he was wild or profligate but because he did nothing creative and responsible with the talent given to him.
One last observation. Notice the reward each of the other two get is more responsibility, and of course the joy of the master. The reward given to the workers is more work. (It may not be exactly what you had in mind as your reward.) It's not "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful in these few things, and now you get a trip to Hawaii." No. You have to go to a Tupperware party to earn that. It's "Well done, good and faithful servant! You've been faithful in a few things. I'm going to make you responsible over many things." It gives you a clue as to what heaven will be like. Heaven's going to be more work than you did here. This idea of sitting around with harps in heaven never appealed to me in the first place. Well, you're not going to sit around with harps. And you're not going to just sit around and admire the Lord.
Some people say, "Oh, won't it be wonderful to go to heaven, and we can just admire Christ!" We're going to be placed in a city with responsibility for the healing of the nations. It's a tremendous vision in Revelation, and even in this parable our Lord gives us clues: "Well done, good and faithful servant. You've been faithful over a few things. I'm going to make you ruler over ten cities. I'm going to give you responsibility beyond what you have. Enter into the fulfillment of your master."
What it means for us today
All right, what does this parable mean for us today? This parable is pretty clear on making one major point and then a second point. The major point is so clear. This is an expectation parable—a parable that tells us that the King is coming, that it is his kingdom, that everything we have does not belong to ourselves but to the King. It belongs to the owner of the property. And the owner is coming back. Notice in the Luke text even though we sent an embassy telling him not to come back, he is still going to come back. He owns the land. He owns every talent. He's given it to us. It is a freedom parable, too, but the parable is teaching that he is coming back and he holds us accountable for everything he gave us. Isn't it interesting that that's the note on which the Old Testament closes? It's the text you heard this morning from Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament where God holds you accountable for everything you've got, accountable for what you've done with your life.
Think of the talents you've been relationships, your abilities. Notice that Jesus does not say, "I mean your spiritual gifts." This isn't a spiritual gifts parable. He does not fasten down what the talent is. He leaves it open. Up for grabs. It may be your B.A. degree, your abilities, your skills, your money, your relationships, your marriage, your children, your parents. All the people in your life. All the chances that you're given. The moments of the day. Think of the talents, the pounds, the possibilities for this parable! The parable makes one very basic point: the Lord of the property is coming back and he holds us accountable.
This is the parable taught to our Lord's disciples. He holds us accountable. It's a basic truth about life. It's true for all the world whether they know it or not. It is a parable of God's expectations.
In a moment I want to reflect on that major point of the parable. But I do want to make one other reflection. I'm excited by the source of motivation Jesus portrays in the parable. We've already looked at the parable itself. Now let's look at it in terms of our own lives. Notice in this parable we are motivated to work at our talent because we know the high expectations of God. He's paid us a great compliment by the expectations he has of us. That's accentuated for us in the story by the hyperbole of the third servant who says, "You're a hard man. You expect to reap where you didn't even sow." Our Lord puts that in the story to show how much he expects from us. Have you ever thought that the best motivation of all in life is when a great expectation has been put on you? You'll work harder for that. And notice how the reward further accentuates that. When the workers do well, what are they given? More work. More expectation.
It's like the young men who turn out for spring practice in Cal football. They work their heads off up there at Memorial Stadium, hoping coaches will notice them struggling through scrimmages, struggling through the callisthenic programs. They're working to see that they get their dashes as fast as they can. Now why do they do that? Hold your breath. Think about this. It seems so incongruous, but that's the way this parable works too. They work so hard in spring practice so they'll hopefully be able to work harder this fall. In other words, everybody in spring practice is working very hard hoping that every Saturday this fall they won't be standing on the sidelines; they'll be out on the field working even harder—where scores and NCAA records are being kept.
That's the sort of motivational logic of a person who turns out for something tough like athletics or somebody who gets involved in music. It's like becoming an electrical engineer or a chemical engineer or going into medicine or trying to get some major under your belt so you can do something in the world. You work hard in the field so you can work harder out there. That's the logic of this parable too. It's because of the expectation of the king. His expectation of us is so great! Now some of you might say, "Hey Lord, not so much expectation. I'm just an ordinary human being." Notice how the third servant does complain. "Look, you're a hard man. You're reaping where you didn't even sow." And yet it is that very expectation of the Lord that's so exciting in this parable.
By the way, the gospel is hidden in that expectation. This is not a parable of the gospel. We're going to have a parable of the gospel next week—a parable of grace. This is really a parable of expectation of the king, of his will for our lives and how he judges us. And yet hidden in it is a promise of hope in that he expects so much, he will have to give the power for us to enable such overwhelming expectations. He will have to enable us to reap where we didn't even sow.
Now let's make the major observation. This parable is telling us that we're held responsible for all of the resources God has entrusted to us. I don't know about you, but I get an uneasy feeling when I think of this parable and I think of the wealth and power and possibility and talents that have been given to us in the Western world. I wonder about the resources we're investing, how we can justify before the judgment seat of God all that we have been given and how we have used the resources that God has given us. I wonder how we can justify the incredible investment we're making in nuclear weaponry in an age like this. I believe that great powers have to be balanced—don't get me wrong. Because of the sinfulness of this world there has to be a balance of power between nations. But I wonder about the kind of runaway, spiraling investment.
Notice in the parable it says, "Because he was afraid he buried his talent." And I think of the burying of the talent and the skills that are being buried out of fear, not invested for the good of the earth but invested in fear in the building of terrible weaponry even beyond anything that's legitimately necessary. I believe that God is calling us into question. That's the macrocosm; what of the microcosm in your own life? How are you investing your life? How am I investing my life right now? What are you doing with your time? What are you doing with your skills? What are you doing with your relationships?
This is a parable that tells us we are held accountable. Now the good news is the One who tells us. It is Jesus Christ the storyteller who gives us the Good News. He holds us accountable. And that's good news. This is a parable that's not blunted. This is a parable in which that good Lord—who went to the cross, who conquered death and made it possible for us to reap where we never sowed—now in this parable clearly holds every one of us accountable.
Earl Palmer is a writer and speaker for Earl Palmer Ministries, and author of Mastering the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation (W Publishing Group).