Approval runs deep in the veins of human beings. It meets us at the crossroads of what we have become and what we can become. It is the fuel that helps us escape the gravity of our constant self-doubt and our steady wonder about self-worth. It propels us upward toward the sky. It shakes off the lead of our failures and eases our flight into new endeavors. It strengthens the muscles of our enthusiasm at the triumphs of others, and settles us into a deeper conviction that we are valuable. Always hungry for its renewing energy, we soak it in as the earth absorbs lightning bolts. Ever thirsty for its invigorating freshness, our hearts swell with joy as air expands when it rises higher and higher . . .
“Well done”—words we live for.
“Well done”—words to live for, words from Jesus’ lips, remembered from a story patterned on parallelisms: the master gives each servant talents to invest while he is away. At his return, he will receive back his possessions with interest. Disrupting the symmetry of the story is the twice-mentioned adversative conjunction “but.” Its awkward conspicuousness invites me to deal with it first.
“But” is the third servant’s problem. We hear it when he hides his talent (Matt. 25:18), and again when the master replies to him upon returning (verse 26).The third servant’s voice brings a discordant note into the music of the story. What goes wrong?
The conversation between this servant and his master makes up almost half of the story, and is critical to understanding the story’s deeper issue. The slave’s attitude toward the master suggests some tension between the two. When his turn comes to give an account, he, unlike the other two servants, makes no initial reference to the amount received.1 Openly, almost abrasively, he calls his master “a hard man.” Then he describes him in words of accusation over alleged unfairness, using two illustrations:2 (1)“reaping where you did not sow”; (2) “gathering where you scattered no seed” (verse 24).3
One example will not do for him. His charge to the master is: “You’re tough and unfair, and I shouldn’t have to do the work for you.Administering your goods is not my job.”
The servant also invokes an element of fear, damning the master in a way he probably expects will work in his favor: the master’s rough unfairness is so intimidating that he was paralyzed into inaction. He buried his entrusted talent to protect it. The implications of his accusations of harshness, unfairness, and intimidation are that (1) he should not be punished, because it wasn’t his fault he did not earn anything; and (2) the master could do with some character improvement. Perhaps he should repent of being harsh and unfair; he would become a better master for it.
This servant’s style bears Lucifer’s personal stamp. As his master is harsh, unfair, and fearsome, so Lucifer’s God is mean and unworthy of service and obedience. The spirit of the third servant is the spirit of original cosmic rebellion. And as with Lucifer, his master now stands accused. How will he respond to the charge?
Unexpectedly for the denouncing servant, his master makes no effort to defend himself. Instead, he lets the accuser’s words hit back like a boomerang: far from exonerating him, the servant’s own words condemn his inaction as wicked and lazy (verse 26). Though the servant has tried to point accusing fingers at his master, his motives are unmasked by the discrepancy between what he knew he should do and what he did.
His choice to bury the talent was conscious and deliberate. He never intended to invest it. His laziness was not a matter of naïveté, but expresses the rebellion of a spirit that is hostile to whatever may be the master’s interests. “The servant, as a self-seeker, separated his own interest from his lord’s, and therefore reckoned his lord to be a self-seeker also.”4 The wickedness and laziness with which he charged his master were projections of his own character. Where the other two servants saw opportunity, the lazy one saw domination.
Ironically, the servant demonstrates his flawed perception of the master even while he protests to know him (verse 24). The roots of his selfishness have spread from the core of his heart to the pupils of his eyes. His vision and entire being are corrupted by the spirit of selfishness of Satan, who blamed God for a character he himself wore.
After rebuking the slothful servant, the master entrusts the unused talent to the servant who has 10. This suggests that the master has returned the 10 talents to the first servant and points to a principle of stewardship highlighted in his commendation of the good servants: “You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things” (verses 21, 23). The talents earned are back into the hands of the servants for further investment, and “the reward of the use of opportunities was a greater charge.”5
Giving the sloth’s talent to the holder of 10 also enacts a general stewardship principle: “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away” (verse 29). The withdrawal of the talent is not a reactive, vengeful attitude. It is an application of a general principle that guides the relationship between the master and his servants. This relationship is based on trust and loyalty.
Those who prove themselves trustworthy, those who invest their talents for further gain, will be given more. Those who do not prove worthy of trust not only will not receive more, but even what they have been given is taken away. It also shows that the master does not keep the profit for himself. His goal is not personal appropriation of what his servants earn. Rather, he wills to endow those under his authority with gifts and opportunities for making themselves useful in the service of others.
In the end, the wicked servant is thrown into outer darkness, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew uses these metaphors to describe the final punishment of the wicked.6 The wicked servant loses his life as a result of his choice. His tragic fate provokes a question: How could eternity hang on the matter of investing a talent or not? Isn’t salvation by grace?
Our answer, from a review of the master’s and servants’ attitudes, is that the deeper theme of this story is not money but loyalty—loyalty to the master demonstrated in obedience through faithful stewardship. The talents present the servants with an opportunity to manifest their loyalty and obedience to the master. Two of them see and seize the opportunity. The third servant proves disloyal and disobedient. The difference between the two kinds of responses is each servant’s attitude toward the master.
At the beginning of the story we read that the kingdom of heaven is “like a man about to go on a journey, who called his own slaves and entrusted his possessions to them”(verse 14). The possessions, as well as the servants, belong to the master. The servants are therefore dependent, possessing nothing on their own. In their poverty and nothingness their master designs for them major opportunities for work, service, and development.
The talents given are a measure of the breadth of their master’s trust. The value of one talent was equal to a laborer’s wage for half of a lifetime!7 A common laborer would be paid one denarius (a penny) per day’s work. It would take 6,000 days’ wages for him to earn a talent.8 Thus every servant was entrusted with a considerable sum, from half a lifetime’s earnings to more than would be earned in two lifetimes. Amazingly, the master calls these apparently monumental sums “a few things” (verses 21, 23).
Clearly, though, belonging to this master and being stewards of his goods is not something all servants cherished. As with Lucifer’s fall, we don’t have enough details to help us understand the servants’ choices. And as with the first rebellion, more details would still not provide any clear or satisfactory explanation for why one servant manifested the spirit of Satan.
What we do know is that the loyalty of the two faithful servants effected proper stewardship of the talents entrusted. For stewardship is decidedly more than an abstract concept that hovers over us Sabbath after Sabbath, reminding us to return our tithe and give our offerings. Stewardship is a lifestyle. It is the lifestyle of one who accepts God as a loving Maker and Savior. It is the lifestyle of one who accepts God as owner by creation and redemption.
Our perception of God affects our living at every level. If we see Him as good, we will be intentional about caring for all He entrusts to us: our body, our affections, our relationships, our material possessions, our time, our money—everything. Alternatively, a careless or selfish attitude about our gifts is more consistent with rejection of the biblical account of God as Creator of all things good, including ourselves and our fellow men and women. As the parable suggests, such a rejection could stem from a misunderstanding of God’s character. As one writer succinctly puts it: “Grudge against Christ underlies all unfaithfulness in the use of spiritual gifts.”9
Practicing good stewardship is not about earning eternal life. It is about understanding what that eternal life is going to be like and choosing to live its joy and rewards from now on. It is the result of a profound understanding of who God truly is, longing to be like Him, and being transformed more and more into His likeness until He returns with the most beautiful reward on His lips: Well done, good and faithful servant.
This is approval that will be worth it then; and this is the joy of pleasing Him that should guide our every day between now and then.
Adelina Alexe, originally from Romania, is pursuing a Ph.D. in Religion at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.