Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

154. Pounds and Talents (Luke 19:11 -28; Matt. 25:14-30)*

Jesus fold his disciples two parables which are marvellously alike in many respects, but which are nevertheless quite certainly not the same. They definitely belong to different occasions in the last week of the Lord's ministry—the one was spoken in Jericho or on the last leg of the journey to Jerusalem, whilst the other belongs unmistakably to the Olivet Prophecy. It is because of the considerable similarity between them that they are now considered together. These parables provide an excellent demonstration of the fact that in the course of his ministry Jesus must often have repeated his teaching, with minor variations.

In Matthew the immediate context is the parable of the fen virgins. There, the emphasis goes on being alert for the Lord's coming, here on diligent service. One parable features women, the other men.

Great Expectations

The introduction to the Pounds provides a link which is not without its difficulty: "And as they heard these things he added and spake a parable . . ." But immediately before these words is the story of Zaccheus. The connection is not obvious. If, however, the incidents concerning Bartimaeus and Zaccheus, both at Jericho, be omitted, the reference of "these things" is to the plain warning which Jesus gave to the disciples concerning his rejection and suffering at Jerusalem.

But the minds of the twelve, encouraged by the increasing fervour of the Galilean pilgrims, were running on other things: "He was nigh to Jerusalem and they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear." New Testament usage of this verb dokeo (thought) has much more of confidence that the common version usually indicates (e.g. John 5 :39; 16 :2; Acts 15 :28; 26 :9; 1 Cor.8 : 2; 10:12).

There was a growing conviction that Jesus was soon to make public proclamation of himself as king. So in the parable of the pounds he sought to emphasize that first he must leave them for a far country, and that when he did return their promotion and glory in his kingdom would not be automatic.

Historical background

The main features of both parables are very clearly based on familiar and comparatively recent Jewish history. Herod the Great, and Archelaus and Herod Antipas, his sons and successors, all made special journeys to Rome to solicit confirmation of their authority over the Jews; the last-named was to make a second journey for the same purpose. The details fit the story of Archelaus especially, for he did specifically entrust his business affairs to certain of his servants; and the Jews, detesting the idea of having him as their king (for at his first Passover he had already had 3000 of their fellows massacred; Jos; BJ.2.1.3), sent a deputation of fifty citizens to Rome to protest to Caesar about him; but Archelaus was given jurisdiction over Judaea (as ethnarch, not as king), and on his return to Jerusalem he did honour his favourites by assigning them to be governors of certain cities.

But in both parables the man represents Jesus, There the contrast with Archelaus could hardly be greater.

In Matthew the kingdom is not specifically mentioned, but "ruler over many things" (v.21) very plainly implies it. Luke has explicit mention often servants, whereas Matthew says "his own servants," meaning his personal officers out of the entire household, and of these only three are specifically mentioned. Again, in Luke all alike receive a mina (pound), that is about £1500 sterling; but in Matthew the man hands overall his existing wealth to their stewardship, the servant with one talent having about £100,000 in his care and the others proportionately more.

The pound which all have in common represents "one Lord, one faith, one baptism'-the knowledge of the Truth in Christ which all Christ's servants enjoy. But the varying talent, "to each according to his several ability," probably indicates that whilst there are "many members in one body, all members have not the same office;" there are "gifts differing according to the grace given to us." (Rom. 12:4,6], Here, then, is emphasis on varying degrees of responsibility and opportunity, or on differing degrees of truth received (1 Cor.4 .7), And since natural ability has usually a good deal to do with this, it is understandable that the modern meaning of "talent" should be derived directly from the parable.

Neither parable includes any instruction to the servants as to how they were to operate. The mode of trading or investment was left entirely to their own judgement. It is a point of some importance when the practical lessons of these stories is under consideration.

"After a long time the Lord of those servants cometh and reckoneth with them." The inference is often made that here the parable requires long centuries of delay before the Lord's return (the problem presented by this "long time", which in the parable must obviously be within a man's lifetime, is dealt with in the appendix to "Revelation", by H.A.W.).

The phrase "a long time" clearly could not refer to the Lord's going away into the far country of the tomb for the short time of less than three days. His description of that was "a little while" (John 16 :17). Even so, in their excitement and enthusiasm the apostles did make precisely that mistake, saying to Jesus after his resurrection: "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1 :6).

Called to account

The journey successfully completed, the master of the servants "commanded to be called onto him those servants to whom he had given the money." Here, very appropriately, there is strong implication that others who had not been given responsibilities were not called. The judgment of Christ will be for those who are answerable to him. The fact that those called are all designated servants should not be interpreted as signifying that only confessed disciples of Christ will be called to the judgment. The rest of the story makes this very clear.

The servants come into the presence of their master, now designated king. He is one "who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God" (1 Cor.4 :5). The new king is seeking capable and trusty governors for his provinces.

Those with the pounds are found to vary considerably in the degree of success achieved: "thy pound hath gained ten pounds . . . thy pound hath made five pounds'—they speak as though all the virtue resided in what their master had left with them, and not in their own dutiful efforts (lCor.3:6; Acts 21 :19; 15 :4,12).

The man with five talents "brought" five more, he with two "brought" other two. Matthew's word (v.20) normally describes the offering of sacrifice.

These all gave their lord great pleasure. "Good and faithful servant (there is a double meaning in this word "faithful"), thou hast been faithful regarding a few things; will make thee ruler over many things. Enter thou into the joy of thy lord" (ls.53 :11; Heb.12 :2). Here "enter" contrasts strongly with the casting out of the unprofitable servant (Mt.25 :30).

Ten pounds, ten cities; five pounds, five cities; a city for a pound! Such is the absurd disproportion between present achievement for Christ and future reward. Even so, it should not be overlooked that essentially, the reward for good service is to be much greater opportunity for further service! (cp. Jer.17 :24,26).

There are also varying degrees of reward. In some important respects these are according to diligence and faithfulness: "One star differeth from another star in glory" (1 Cor.15 :41). "He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully" (2 Cor.9 :6). The Book of Revelation speaks of "the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and they that fear thy name, small and the great" (11 :18). Is there special meaning here in the mention of the "small" before the "great"?

The one-talent man

The servant with only one talent (though, indeed, £100,000 is no small responsibility!) had laboured only to dig a hole in which to bury his lord's money safely out of sight (contrast Ps.40 :8,10). And one of those with a pound decided that the best thing he could do was to lay it up, carefully wrapped in a napkin— literally, in a sweat rag. Thus he put both money and sweat rag out of action! In neither case was there anything of profit for master or servant in the attitude adopted.

What led him to follow such a timid policy? He had excellent examples to encourage him. Was his declared assessment of his lord's character an honest one, or an invented excuse?

One suspects that he was motivated by a spirit of cowardice, which of course is the very opposite of faith.

What a warning there is here! For, in modern times, how often has the brake been put on endeavour and progress by expressed fears that problems may be encountered. "Strengthen the things that remain" is a popular text, for it is so often made to mean. "Do little, or nothing." But the nobleman's instruction was: "Get busy till I come." Experience shows over and over again that it is the one-talent man who is most given to timidity and self-excuse. Yet, strangely enough, most disciples of the Lord seem eager to set themselves in this category. They tend to assume that others are so much better placed than they themselves to serve Christ!

"Lord, I feared thee because thou art an austere man (harsh, rough); thou takest up that thou layest not down, and reapest that thou didst not sow . . . there thou hast that is thine." Here in marvellously few words is accusation, trepidation, self-justification, and just a hint of defiance (contrast 1 Jn.5 :3), whilst "Lord, behold . . ." (Lk.19 :20) even seems to claim credit for keeping the pound safe.

Concerning both the Father and the Son the words stand true: "With the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure; and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself froward" (Ps.18 :26). And so here: 'You knew, did you, that I am that harsh kind of master? Then why at least didn't you put my money in the bank to gain a bit of interest?'

"If the mere keeping unused was so grievous a fault, what would it be to squander or destroy?" (Plummer).

"Wicked and slothful servant!" He was both of these. Most certainly slothful, for had he not spent "a long time" in complete idleness (or about his own affairs)? But how came he to deserve the epithet "wicked", inasmuch as he had not done anything?

His wickedness lay in the estimate he expressed of his master's character. "I knew thee" was about as far from the truth as it could be! Whenever any man finds himself speaking or thinking of God's way of holiness as too exacting a life, whenever one who has learned the way of the gospel shrugs it off with the self-excuse: "No, its not for me, I just couldn't live the life ," he identifies himself with this one-talent evasion which slanders the character of the Holy One of God. "If only he may roll off a charge from himself, he cares not for affixing one on his Lord."

It is the self-centred, self-righteous attitude of the elder brother of the prodigal as he accused his father and excused himself: "Lo, these many years do I serve thee . . . yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends" (Lk.15 :29). A frame of mind very much to beware of!

Then what is the spiritual counterpart to putting out the money at banker's interest, this least duty of al! that the Lord's servant should take on himself? One of the few sayings of Jesus preserved outside the pages of the New Testament is this: "Shew yourselves tried bankers" (cp. 1 Tirn.6 .20} , Here two ideas are involved—keeping safe that which is valuable, and also the slow steady accretion of added value. Probably the counterpart to this lies in the dutiful support of the ecclesia by the individual who deems that he has nothing of special worth to add to the Lord's service. Personal appreciation and regular attendance can do much to strengthen the hands of those who carry greater responsibility—these things at least can be a worthwhile contribution to the well-being of the Body of Christ (cp, Num.31 :27).


If even such a modicum of dutiful service is withheld, the parable holds out an ominous alternative: "Take from him the pound, and give it to him that hath ten pounds." Here is the mind of one whose Father took from Esau to give to Jacob, from Saul to give to David, from Judasto give to Matthias, and from Israel in order to lavish His blessing on Gentiles.

In the parable this decision provoked on immediate interruption: "Lord, he hath ten pounds" (cp. Mt.21 :41; 2 Sam.12 :5,6). The unnamed interjectors were probably members of the crowd, fascinated by the story, who alia) once found themselves disagreeing with this standard of fairness, so that Jesus had to explain very simply that in the world of spiritual values God's principles may not necessarily be the same as men's.

But if the interruption is part of the parable, there is a nice little problem of interpretation, Who makes the objection? Whom do "they" represent (in the symbolism)? And what spiritual idea is the interjection intended to convey?

The Lord's simple comment is: "Unto every one that hath shall be given." In the sphere of activity that he speaks of, nothing succeeds like success: "He giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding" (Dan. 2 :21). But also, alas, nothing fails like failure: "From him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him" (Lk.8 :18) — the words would verge on foolishness if they did not underscore a solemn truth and a weighty warning. And since there can be remarkably few, if any, whose personal endowment of ability and opportunity does not even qualify them for the one talent class, the Lord's reminder leaves hardly any exempt from its scope.

But the unworthy servant, who was so much more ready to blame his lord rather than himself, now finds that he loses not only his talent but his own soul: "Cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness . . . weeping and gnashing of teeth." It was Christ's much-repeated contrast with the radiant Glory of God and the song of the Lamb on mount Zion reserved for those who "enter into the joy of their Lord." "Cast out" and "Enter in" are words spoken by the same royal master.

The tale has another sombre chapter: "Those mine enemies (they are no longer "citizens"!), which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me. The primary reference—who can doubt?—is to the point-blank rejection of Jesus by a Jewish nation, crying: "We have no king but Caesar," instead of conceding that this Nazarene deserved their humble allegiance. But the principle behind this grim judgment spreads its louring shadow far beyond the hills of Judaea. How many others who have learned of the authority given to Jesus by Almighty God choose in their perversity to say; "We will not have this man to reign over us"! Will their fate be any different? (cp. Ps. 2:2-6).

The story told, Jesus separated himself from the throng. Resuming his loneliness he went on ahead of them, going up to the holy city which had already declared: "We will not have this man to reign over us." Another week, and it would repeat the words yet again, this time in tones of strident cruelty.

Notes: Mt.25: l4-30

Strawed. A reference to winnowing at the threshing floor.
Wicked and slothful servant. The attitude of the others, by contrast, implies a faith in their lord that if, making a venture, they came to grief, he would be understanding and not censorious.
Thou oughtest. Literally: it was necessary (for your own sake).

Interest. The Gk. is, literally, "offspring", a word not without significance in the interpretation with reference to support of the ecclesia.
Unprofitable.Gk. (root meaning): not needed.

Lk. 19:11-28

He added and spake = LXXof Dt. 18 :16 (without the negative); Is.7 :10; 8 :5. 20.
Another. Gk: one of a different sort.
He hath ten pounds. This is the voice of democracy which would fain put every man on the same level. Christ has no use for this philosophy.

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