The parable of the talents is one Bible story that never sat right with me. The punishment didn’t seem to fit the crime. I wasn’t even sure there was a crime: Matthew 25:14-30 tells of three servants who received talents from their master. The first two received 10 and five talents, respectively. Because the third servant was given only one talent, I assumed that his share was pretty worthless. Who wants one of something when others have been given many? Can you really blame him for hiding it in the ground?
The master, however, condemned the third servant and cast him out into utter darkness. I couldn’t understand why not using your talent led to such catastrophic results.
A talent is a measurement people once used to weigh money. A talent of gold would have much greater worth than a talent of bronze. But usually a talent was used to measure silver. Bible scholars differ over the value of a talent of silver in today’s economy, but many agree that it equaled about 20 years’ wages for an ordinary person. In today’s currency the third servant’s single talent of silver would be worth at least $500,000.
So does this mean that wasting life and substance is better than cowardly caution?
With this new perspective I lost my worry about crime and punishment and started thinking about my own life. In sum, God has given all of us unique talents and gifts that we are to use for His honor and glory. Some have been blessed with many gifts, and others, perhaps, have received only one. But I now know that whether I’ve received five or two or one, I have to open my gift and use it well if I want to savor the joy the Master Giver means for me to experience by gifting me as He has.
The third servant got something right. He opened his gift; he knew its value. He knew he couldn’t just leave it lying around. It was precious ($500,000!); someone might steal it.
Have you opened your gift? Do you know what it is? Do you know the value of your gift?
Esau had a gift that he didn’t open. He was the firstborn, and, as such, he had the birthright. This meant he was entitled to a double portion of his father’s wealth, a huge gift by comparison with whoever got the rest of the inheritance; and a huge gift by any standards, considering Isaac’s economic stature. Farming among the Philistines, “Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. And the Lord blessed him, and the man became rich, and continued to grow richer until he became very wealthy; for he had possessions of flocks and herds and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him” (Gen. 26:12-14, NASB).1
Two thirds of Isaac’s wealth would be Esau’s. Tragically enough, Esau didn’t recognize the value of his gift. Instead of opening it and reveling in his father’s legacy, he traded his treasure for a bowl of stew. He reasoned, What good is my inheritance if I die of starvation? It was a shallow reflection on issues that counted for far more than mealtime today. Esau’s mind was a hunter’s mind. He was good at that (Gen. 25:27). Hunters don’t get called skillful because they are absentminded and lacking in strategy. Esau could have given much deeper thought to his situation; he had the brain for it. Instead of convincing himself that he was about to die of hunger, he could have asked: What is the purpose of my life? What would be the consequences of not opening my gift?
Esau’s gift mattered in more than monetary terms. The gift of the birthright came with a spiritual dimension. It came with a blessing. And not just any blessing. Consider its dimensions as Isaac bequeaths it to someone who really craved and appreciated it: “God will bless you, my son, with dew from heaven and with fertile fields, rich with grain and grapes.Nations will be your servants and bow down to you. You will rule over your brothers, and they will kneel at your feet. Anyone who curses you will be cursed; anyone who blesses you will be blessed” (Gen. 27:28, 29, CEV).2 Esau did get rich, but he experienced terrible loss for not opening his gift.
We don’t know the name of the prodigal in Jesus’ Luke 15 story, but it couldn’t have been Esau. He didn’t inherit the birthright. But whatever was coming to him, he was so eager to open his gift that he couldn’t wait patiently for it. His father’s good health was keeping him from claiming his inheritance. And his impatience showed up in the most unfortunate way once he took possession of his gift. The word “prodigal,” now stuck to him, and is often associated with being lost. In part because of him it mostly stands for reckless spending and wasteful extravagance.
The cautious third servant, afraid to waste the talent entrusted to him, buried it for safekeeping. In astonishing contrast, the prodigal wastrel of Luke 15 gives us a story with a happy ending.
So does this mean that wasting life and substance is better than cowardly caution? If you got that from the story, you’re making up your own Bible. What the prodigal teaches us is that repentance means coming to our senses. The third servant’s explanation proves that he is still on his own, overflowing with accusation and self-justification: “I knew you to be a hard man” (Matt. 25:24, NASB).
Esau never found repentance, “though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:17, KJV). But the prodigal son came to his senses (Luke 15:17, NASB) and repented. He realized that he had wasted his gift, and he returned to his father a different man. No longer a cocky, self-absorbed child who was determined to do his own thing, nor possessed of any inclination to rationalize his perverse behavior, he returned with the maturity and wisdom and humility and obedience that come from receiving God’s gift of repentance (Acts 5:31). That gift enabled him to enter into his father’s joy.
Now I know how much the third servant’s story is my own. I thank God (who shared with me a portion of His wealth) for bringing me to repentance too. It took me awhile, but I have gone from fear and caution to repentance, acknowledgment, and joyful service. I’ve opened my gift, and it’s a delight to use.
The third servant buried his gift; the prodigal wasted his gift; Esau sold his gift cheap; Judas betrayed his gift.
And you? What will you do with your gift?
Leslie Nettleford is an intellectual property attorney in Maryland. As a child she composed and sang songs to entertain herself. Now she does it for God and the blessing of others.