Misjudging the Master: Where the One-Talent Servant Went Wrong

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Misjudging the Master: Where the One-Talent Servant Went Wrong

In the beginning of Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), the master sets a pattern of parallelism: he gives each servant some talents to invest while he is away. At his return, the master should receive back his possessions with interest. The story should then come to a happy end with the master praising his faithful servants for a job well done.

Except things don’t turn out quite that way. One thing is out of order. One thing disrupts the symmetry of the story.

Twice in the parable we read the word “but.” The first time is when we learn what the third servant did with his talent: “But he who received the one talent went away, and dug a hole in the ground” (v. 18).[1] The other time, the word “but” introduces the master’s response: “But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave…’” (v. 26).The first discordant note causes the second dissonance. The wicked servant disrupts the harmony of the parable because, instead of investing his talent like his companions, he buries it in the ground. What went wrong?

Assassinating the Master’s Character

The conversation between the wicked servant and his master makes up almost half of the story. Their intricate relational dynamic is key for understanding the underlying issue. Let’s look at it more closely.

The way this slave addresses his master suggests a tense rapport 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.[2] Instead, he abrasively calls his master “a hard man” and accuses him of “reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed” (v. 24). He is not even satisfied with one example; he repeats the accusation with two illustrations.[3]

The description of the master is actually the explanation for the man’s hardness. He is hard because he reaps what he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter. The underlying issue is unfairness. Basically, the servant is saying: “You’re tough and unfair, and I shouldn’t have to do the work for you.” Clearly, he does not think it was fair of the master to entrust the servants with his possessions. In his eyes, administering those goods was not supposed to be their job. Where the other two servants saw an opportunity to be industrious, the lazy one saw domination.

The servant invokes an element of fear to paint further evil stains on the master’s portrait. The roughness of his unfair master, he says, generated fear, which made him hide the talent in the ground (v. 25). This is a subtle attempt on the slave’s part to change his master’s conduct. The implications of his accusations are that (1) he should not be punished, because it really wasn’t his fault that he did not earn anything, and (2) the master could use some bettering of character. Perhaps he should repent for being harsh and unfair, change his ways, and become a good master.

Like Lucifer, this servant calls into question his master’s character. He accuses him of being harsh, unfair, and fearsome—an evil tyrant unworthy of service and obedience.[4]

The servant’s choice to bury the talent was conscious and deliberate. His words betray the fact that he never had the slightest intention to invest the talent received. We know that the master was away for a long time. What did the servant do all that time? Most likely he tended to his own interests, which clearly were not the same as his master’s. His heart was not with that of his master. As one writer puts it, “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.”[5]

The servant projects his own character onto his master. He is wicked and lazy, yet instead of seeing himself as he is, he charges his master with the very faults that lie in him. The spirit of the wicked servant is the same rebellious spirit that Satan displayed. Interestingly, too, just as one third of the angels in heaven believed Lucifer’s accusation and followed him in disobedience, one third of those under this master’s ownership manifestly disobeyed him.

Ironically, the servant demonstrates a false perception of the master even while he claims to know him (v. 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.

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

The master now stands accused. How will he respond to the charge?

The servant’s attempted justification, couched in words of accusation toward his master, works like a boomerang. The master makes no effort to defend himself; instead he immediately throws the ball back into the servant’s ballpark: “You knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed. Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest” (v. 26).

Ignorance of the master’s expectations might have been a better excuse, but that is not the case here. The servant is all the more culpable precisely due to his knowledge,[6] which should have guided him toward obedience, not disobedience. The servant tries to take the attention off his inaction by pointing the finger at the master. But his motives are unmasked by the very discrepancy between what he knew he should do and what he did, which causes the master to call out his true character: “wicked” and “lazy” (v. 26). As we saw, his laziness is not just naïve and innocent idleness. His lack of action is the result of a rebellious spirit that refuses to join his interest with that of his master’s.

After thoroughly rebuking the slothful servant, the master commands that the unused talent be given to the slave who has ten. This detail is key because it suggests that the master had returned the ten talents to the first servant, who now receives one more. It also points to a principle of stewardship, which the master hinted at earlier in his commendation of the good servants: “You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things” (v. 21). The talents earned are put back into the hands of the servants for further investment. “The reward of the use of opportunities was a greater charge.”[7]

If this principle of rewarding good work with further and greater responsibilities was practiced between the master and his servants before, it would explain why the wicked servant knew that the master expected multiplied results. It also shows that the master does not keep the profit for himself. His goal is not personal appropriation of what has been earned through the work of his servants. Rather, his heart is open to endow those under his ownership with gifts and opportunities for making themselves useful in the service of others.

What about the philosophical speech? The master converts the command “Take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents” into a general principle of stewardship: “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” (v. 28).

The withdrawal of the talent is not a reactive, vengeful deed. 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 will lose what they have been given.

An Unfair Punishment?

Finally, the wicked servant is thrown into outer darkness—a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew uses both expressions several times in his Gospel[8] as metaphors to describe the final punishment of the wicked.[9] The wicked servant loses his life as a result of his choice.

I must confess that on more than one occasion this parable stirred mixed feelings in me about the master’s disposition. I rejoiced with the two servants affirmed and commended, yet I pitied the one who suffered a drastic and irrevocable punishment. The master seems at once generous yet merciless, and it all revolves around the servants’ choice to invest or not invest the talents received. Why is the servant in the parable punished so severely? How could investing his talent be so crucial that his eternal life hangs on it? After all, isn’t salvation by grace?

We have sensed by now that the deeper theme of the story is not money but loyalty, and loyalty to the master is demonstrated in obedience through faithful stewardship. The talents are the medium through which the servants manifest their loyalty and obedience to the master. Two of them prove loyal and obedient. The third servant proves disloyal and disobedient. What makes the difference between the two kinds of responses is the servants’ attitude toward the relationship between them and their master.

You Are Not Your Own

In the very 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” (v. 1, emphasis mine). The possessions as well as the servants belong to the master. Belonging to the master requires some form of dependence. The servants possess nothing on their own. Yet in their poverty and nothingness, they are entrusted with incredible opportunities for work, for service, for development, through the means of the master.

To give an idea of just how much these servants were entrusted, the value of one talent was equal to a laborer’s wage for half a lifetime![10] A day’s wage for a common laborer was a denarius, and one talent equaled 6,000 denarii[11], or 6,000 workdays. Even the servant who received “just” one talent was entrusted with an incredible amount of money. The servant who received two talents was given the amount of money a laborer could earn in a lifetime, and the first servant received beyond what was possible for him ever to earn. Amazingly, the master calls these talents “a few things” (v. 21).

Clearly, though, belonging to this master and being stewards of his bountiful goods were not privileges that all servants cherished. Two of the servants were happy with their lot; the other was unhappy. As in the story of Lucifer’s fall, we don’t have many details to help us understand the wicked servant. We don’t know why he was unhappy with this deal, why he chose to cast stones on his master’s character, or why he refused to obey his master. In the end there may be no satisfactory explanation for why the lazy servant chose to manifest the spirit of Satan, just as Satan’s spirit of rebellion toward a holy, perfect, and loving God has no explanation.

What we do know is that the loyalty of the two faithful servants effected proper stewardship of the talents entrusted. Because stewardship, you see, is not just an abstract concept that hovers over us Sabbath after Sabbath, reminding us to pay our tithe and 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.

When we are in this place spiritually, we become naturally passionate about what matters to Him. The Bible makes it clear that the main purpose and hope of God is that all will be saved and none will perish (John 3:16). We, then, will desire to join our interests to His. Being part of the plan of salvation will not be a burden we don’t want to carry but one we never wish to lay down. The stakes are too high. The value of our fellow men and women is too great. The cost to secure salvation was too incredible.

Our perception of God will affect the way we live our lives at every level. If we see Him as a good God, we will be intentional about caring for all He entrusted to us: our body, our affections, our relationships, our material possessions, our time, our money—everything. Alternatively, a careless attitude about our gifts and neglect to use them in the service of others is likely the result of a rejection 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, a “grudge against Christ underlies all unfaithfulness in the use of spiritual gifts.”[12] It’s logical: why would I choose to invest my gifts in serving others and seeking their salvation if I myself don’t understand the value of eternity and holiness and can’t grasp the beauty and goodness of God?

Choose Your Reward

When we read the parable, we may be tempted to think that the punishment of the wicked servant is the command of the master. While it is true that the master orders the punishment to be carried out, in reality the sentence is something the servant brings upon himself. Ellen White explains this clearly and eloquently:

Many who excuse themselves from Christian effort plead their inability for the work. But did God make them so incapable? No, never. This inability has been produced by their own inactivity and perpetuated by their deliberate choice. Already, in their own characters, they are realizing the result of the sentence, “Take the talent from him.” The continual misuse of their talents will effectually quench for them the Holy Spirit, which is the only light. The sentence, “Cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness,” sets Heaven’s seal to the choice which they themselves have made for eternity.[13]

The way we live our lives, which includes the stewardship of our gifts, will determine the trajectory we take—toward heaven or hell. Reward or punishment will not be a capricious divine decision based on a few instances when we used or did not use our talents. It will be the final and natural outcome of our everyday choices.

Starting Eternity Now

“The man traveling into a far country,” writes Ellen White, “represents Christ, who, when speaking this parable, was soon to depart from this earth to heaven. The bondservants represent the followers of Christ.”[14] That’s you and me. This parable is for you and me. It is about you and me. Like the three servants, we too have received gifts from God. And like the servants, we too are now living in the absence of the Master.

When He left to be reunited with His Father, Jesus told us what to expect before the end of time: signs to look for, prophecies to unlock, teachings to carry to the ends of the earth. Most importantly, He told us to be ready. And He showed us what it means to be ready.[15] It means seeing every moment of the future, beginning with the very next beat of your heart, as an opportunity to use your gifts in the service of others. Not only because in this sinful world we need each other, but because a heart of service is the heart of God.

We are not called to employ our gifts in the service of others just until Jesus returns. We are called to serve others with our talents because this is how we were meant to live always. This is how the redeemed will spend eternity.

Practicing good stewardship is not about earning eternal life. It is about understanding what eternal life is going to be like and choosing to live its joy and rewards now. It is the result of understanding 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” (v. 21).

______

Notes:

[1] Scripture quotations are from the NASB.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew, Word Bible Commentary (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1995), 735.

[3] John Peter Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915), 444.

[4] Thanks to my sister for pointing this out to me.

[5] Lange, 444.

[6] Hagner, 736.

[7] Philip A. Micklem, Saint Matthew (London: Methuen & Co., 1917), 240.

[8] “Outer darkness” is also used in 8:12; 22:13; “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is employed in 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51. See Hagner, 736.

[9] Hagner, 736.

[10] Leander E. Keck, gen. ed. The Gospel of Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 453.

[11] Hagner, 734.

[12] Lange, 441.

[13] Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, 365.

[14] Ibid., 325.

[15] Ibid.

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.