On the 6th December 1608, a boy was born in London into a wealthy family, who was to become one of the greatest poets in the English language. He was very well educated, received a Master's degree at Cambridge and was able to write poetry in Italian, Latin and English. He was conversant in other languages - French, Hebrew, Greek, Spanish, Old English and Dutch. At one stage he thought he should become a priest. He served in Oliver Cromwell's government as Latin Secretary - similar to our Foreign Secretary.
The man's name was John Milton. An outsider might suppose he had everything - intellect, fame and fortune. However, by 1651 at the age of 43, he went totally blind. But what troubled him was his understanding of Christ's parable of the talents as recorded in Matthew 25:14-30. He knew that he was highly talented, but his blindness prevented him from using it. Or so he thought at first.
Would Christ at the resurrection say to him, "You wicked servant!" and throw him into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth? Why would God send him to hell just because he could not see? Eventually, he was comforted by the answer he explained in his sonnet 'On His Blindness'.
"When I consider how my light is spent. Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide. Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present. My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?" I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need. Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state. Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and wait."
That poem was written about 350 years ago. In modern English it could be summed up as, "When I think about how I've lost my sight, I foolishly ask whether God expects a normal day's work from a blind man like me. But then I realise that they who put up with their problem as a challenge from God are the ones who serve God best."
He reasoned that God had enough people to carry out His will without Milton. And that God will reward a blind man for just being willing or ready to serve Him.
Milton's poem put into words a medieval teaching that 'God will not deny grace to those who do their best'. Accordingly, our best is acceptable to God. In the previous century, Martin Luther had said 'our best' was nothing more than 'self-love'.
Nevertheless over the years, many people have been comforted by Milton's interpretation of the parable. Many suppose that the parable is a universal principle that applies at all times and all places and for all people.
However, Milton, like many people before and since, misinterpreted the parable. But does it matter? Where is the harm if it comforts people? The danger is that the common interpretation gives a false understanding of what God is doing today and will do in the future.
If God is "the same yesterday, today and forever", how is it that He seems to be a harsh, cruel Judge according to the words of Jesus and the prophets, and a merciful, gracious loving God elsewhere?
This concept of God is not a new one. Marcion of Sinope in Pontus in the second century had a similar teaching. He could not discover the truth, because he did not believe the whole of the Bible was truth. He accepted only ten sections of the Book of Luke, and ten of Paul's letters, which did not include the Pastoral letters. So he missed what is written in 2 Timothy 3:16: "ALL Scripture is inspired by God and is beneficial for exposure, for correction, for discipline in righteousness." Once again the truth is revealed by using the Scriptural principle of 'Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth' (2 Timothy 2:15), another Scripture that Marcion missed. Without this principle, even the most intelligent and talented person will be confused.
To rightly divide the truth and to correct that erroneous interpretation, we need to understand the different stages in Christ's earthly ministry. The first began with Christ's statement in Matthew 4:17: "Repent, for near is the kingdom of the heavens." Matthew 4:21, "And Jesus led them [i.e. the disciples] about in the whole of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and heralding the evangel of the kingdom and curing every disease and every debility among the people."
The early ministry of the Kingdom included the evangel and healing. Healings were a physical sign which validated Christ's ministry. They prove that the Kingdom was not only being heralded but was imminent.
What is the kingdom of the heavens? The Jews of Christ's day believed it was a kingdom on earth where Israel ruled over all the nations of the world. But what they chose to ignore was that it could come only by Israel's repentance. Why was national repentance essential to ushering in the Kingdom? Simple! How could they be a model nation under God, teaching righteousness, if they were so unrighteous? No, Israel must repent and turn to God. Israel is God's glory and obedience is essential for that to become reality.
The miracles and healings should have proved to the people that Jesus was indeed the prophesied Messiah. Christ's mission was not to individuals but to the whole nation of Israel. And NOT to the Gentiles. Matthew 15:24 makes this clear: "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel." All that other nations could hope for was the crumbs at the table of Israel, as the Gentile Canaanite woman said to Christ. He had ignored her at first when she had addressed Him as the Son of David. But He was still the woman's Lord, and so He answered her request. Later, Christ specifically commanded His disciples not to go to the Samaritans or any other non-Israelite people.
The second stage of Christ's ministry began when it was obvious that Israel, as a nation, did not repent. Many would suppose that Christ's preaching was a failure - the nation didn't repent. But that is NOT what Christ believed. We know because Matthew 11:25-26 records Christ's words: "I am acclaiming Thee, Lord of heaven and earth, for Thou hidest these things from the wise and intelligent and Thou dost reveal them to minors. Yea, Father, seeing that thus it became a delight in front of Thee."
Christ was not discouraged by this apparent failure. But were the disciples? Was all their work, then and in the future, in proclaiming the evangel a total waste of time and energy?
Immediately after these words, Christ tells them these memorable words, recorded in Matthew 11:28-30: " Hither to Me, all who are toiling and laden. And I will be giving you rest. Lift my yoke upon you, and be learning from Me, for meek in heart I am and humble in heart: and you shall be finding rest in your souls. For My yoke is kindly, and My load is light."
They would be suffering at the hands of the world, as He did, but He was not despondent because He knew the sequel. The disciples needed to be warned beforehand and encouraged.
So Christ knew that the nation would not heed His message. The message, though, could not be diluted. In fact, in the so-called 'Sermon on the Mount', He strengthened the law. It was stricter than the law given by Moses. The nation had to repent not just of breaking the LETTER of God's law, but also the SPIRIT of the law. The people had to be more righteous than the Pharisees; the law had to be obeyed from the heart.
When the nation did NOT repent, the thrust of Christ's teaching changed. This change in His ministry is reflected in the parable of the Sower. It is clear that the Sower is Christ, but He is portrayed as a Sower, not a Reaper.
He warned that He must suffer and be rejected by the nation. But to many this proved that He could not possibly be the Messiah. The promised Saviour was supposed to be a great king to rule the world with a rod of iron.
The people needed to learn that Christ's kingdom was different to their concept. The method Christ
used to teach the truth was by parables. In Sunday School, many have been taught that the parables are intended to make the truth easier for EVERYONE to understand. But that is not what the Scriptures say. Christ Himself told His disciples, when they asked Him why He spoke in parables: "To YOU has it been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of the heavens, yet to those it has NOT been given."
God gets His message through to His people Israel in different ways and at different times. Hebrews 1:1-2 describes the order. First, Yahweh speaks directly to Adam, Noah and Abraham and others. Then, through the prophets from Moses to John the Baptist, then through His Son. What Christ taught, exactly what he taught, continued through the Twelve (those who confirmed what Christ said, as it says in Hebrews 2:3).
So, with this background, let us examine the parable in detail. But first, let us clarify what a talent is. It is not, as John Milton and many others thought, a natural ability. That is a meaning it has acquired over the years. It is a weight of silver, which is used as money. The value of the weight would vary from time to time. Some have speculated that it was the equivalent of 20 years wages for a common labourer. But whatever its modern value, it is agreed that it was a large amount of money.
The traditional interpretation that the talents represent natural gifts leads to the idea that believers today must use them to the full for Christ, lest we lose our reward. Our reward, supposedly, being 'eternal life'.
The first line of the parable reads "and entrusted to them his property." The talents are the property of the master. It is not something the man already has, but something that the master bestows. The talents were distributed on the basis of ability, not as BESTOWING ability. The talents are only distributed to those who have a relationship of a servant to a lord. This should be the relationship Israel has with Yahweh.
The lord expects a return on his investment and it must be used for the benefit of the absent lord. They are to produce gain for their master. It is not for the servant's own profit. There is an accounting for the work they have done or not done in the lord's service.
This parable in Matthew 25 must be understood within the context of the message in Matthew 24, where Christ teaches His coming and the end of the age. He told the parable when He was in Jerusalem, a few days after His triumphal entry. He made it clear that His return would not be immediate, but only after much trouble and the passing of a considerable period of time. While His followers would be able to discern the season of His return, the day and the hour would be unknown (Matthew 24:32-36, 42). It would come at a time when it was not expected (Matthew 24:44).
The statement, in Matthew 24:13, "But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved," is important. It refers to the believing remnant which will be alive prior to Christ's second coming. In Matthew 24:32-34, the Lord states: 'Now from the fig tree learn a parable: Whenever its bough may already be becoming tender, and the leaves sprouting out, you know that summer is near. Thus you, also, whenever you may be perceiving all these things, know that He is near, at the doors. Verily, I am saying to you that by no means may this generation be passing by till all these things should be occurring."
If Israel had repented, the kingdom would have begun then. (We now know that that was not God's intention.) It is ironic that it is the Gentiles who are preserving the Greek Scriptures so that the Jews in future generations may understand what God expects of them just prior to Christ's return.
These scriptures are for future Jewish believers of the Messiah Jesus who will be alive at that time. Those who believe Him will be rewarded in His kingdom. The basis of the reward will be their stewardship of His resources entrusted to them. Those who fear and do not believe will be rejected and judged. The element of time is clear in the parable. The master stayed away for a long time and the faithful servants went to work immediately to increase their master's money.
Those stewards, who use their master's money to produce a profit for him, are rewarded.
When the master returns, the faithful servants receive their master's commendation, "well done, good and faithful slave."
Because they have been faithful with the few things entrusted to them, they are given greater responsibilities. They then "enter into the joy of their master," because they were excited and motivated by the master's business goals. They wanted his goals to succeed and as a consequence they shared in his success.
What are the works of God? We don't need to guess. John 6:28-29 tells us. "'What may we be doing that we may be working the works of God?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you may be believing on that One Whom He commissions.'"
The lazy and wicked servant did not share his master's goals. As a result, he is scolded, rejected and punished as it says in Matthew 25:30: "Throw that useless servant outside into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
We can be assured that this parable does not apply to believers in this day of Grace. Our salvation is based solely on God's Grace, not on our works. How can we be sure?
We are sealed with God's holy spirit unto the day of redemption. Ephesians 1:13, says it plainly: "In Whom you also - on hearing the word of truth, the evangel of your salvation - on believing also, you are sealed with the holy spirit of promise (which is an earnest of the enjoyment of our allotment, to the deliverance of that which has been procured) for the laud of His glory!"
Didn't get it the first time? Paul repeats it in Ephesians 4:30: "And do not be causing sorrow to the holy spirit of God by which you are sealed for the day of deliverance." We may backslide or stumble but we will never perish, because HE holds on to us, not because WE hold on to Him. What if what we do is not very good? The answer is in 1 Corinthians 3:15, "If anyone's work will be remaining which he builds on it, he will get wages. If anyone's work shall be burned up, he will forfeit it, yet he shall be saved, yet thus through fire."
A problem for His followers prior to His return is highlighted in the parable of the wicked steward recorded in Matthew 24:48-51 which centres round the words, "My Lord delays His coming." Christ warned them that His return to Israel will be after a long time. They were not to give up and return to the ways of the world.
Christ warns them, NOT US, in Matthew 25:13: "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour." Today, the message for us is in Romans 8:23, 25: "For to expectation were we saved. Now, expectation being observed, for what anyone is observing, why is he expecting it also? Now if we are expecting what we are not observing, we are AWAITING it with endurance."
1 Thessalonians 1:10: "and to be WAITING for His Son out of the heavens, whom He rouses from among the dead, Jesus, our Rescuer out of the coming indignation." Titus 2:13: "Anticipating that happy expectation, even the advent of the glory of the great God and our Saviour, Jesus Christ."
We are to WAIT, not watch every supposed fulfilment of prophecy. There have been false prophets for hundreds of years who have predicted a date for His return. All have been proved wrong. These parables explain what the circumstances will be for Israel at Christ's second coming. But there will also be Gentiles alive at that time. What did Christ teach about them?
The parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins clarifies their position. It follows Matthew 24 and precedes the parable of the talents. The time is immediately after Christ's return to the earth. The Bridegroom is Christ; the bride is those saints of the House of Israel who are alive at that time. The virgins or maidens are Gentile peoples also alive then. Those who have prepared themselves with oil, picturing the holy spirit, and those who have not. This parable does not relate to Christ's body today who will have met Christ in the air, prior to His return to this earth for Israel.
The parable of the sheep and goats as recorded in Matthew 25:31-46, is also well known, but misunderstood. These are the key verses:
"Now, whenever the Son of Mankind may be coming in His glory, and all the holy messengers with Him, then shall He be seated on the throne of His glory, and in front of Him shall be gathered all the [Gentile] NATIONS. And He shall be severing them from one another even as a shepherd is severing the sheep from the kids. And He shall be standing the sheep, indeed, at His right, yet the kids at the left."
The sheep ask the Son of Mankind, "Lord, when did we perceive Thee hungering and nourish Thee, or thirsting and we give Thee drink? Now when did we perceive Thee a stranger and took Thee in, or naked and we clothed Thee? Now when did we perceive Thee infirm, or in jail, and we came to Thee?' And, answering, the King shall be declaring to them, 'Verily, I am saying to you: 'In as much as you do it to one of these, the least of MY BRETHREN, you do it to Me.'"
But the goats on the other hand are told: "'Verily, I am saying to you, in as much as you do it not to one of these, the least, neither do you it to Me.' And these shall be coming away into chastening eonian, yet the just into life eonian."
This explains what will happen to Gentile nations (NOT individuals) in their relationship with the Jews, referred to by Christ as his brothers.
The parable of the minas recorded in Luke 19:11-27 is often confused with the parable of the talents, but it serves a different purpose to that of the talents. Christ taught this parable on the same day as His triumphant entry into Jerusalem. People's hopes had been raised that the Messiah would overthrow the foreign power and begin His reign there and then.
The people would have related the parable to the time, a generation earlier, when the son of Herod went to Rome to receive the kingdom of Judea. The citizens hated him because he was a tyrant, and sent a delegation after him saying, "We will not have this man to reign over us." This petition was ignored and when the new Tetrach Archeleus returned he promptly destroyed his opponents.
Christ corrected that misconception. Later, Christ told Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36-37). "If it were", He said, "My servants would prevent My arrest by the Jews. But now My kingdom is from another place." A kingdom of this world is one that rules by force.
Christ upset those who believed He was going to overthrow the Roman occupation. Surely, that was what the Messiah was supposed to do? What Christ, in fact, did do was to overthrow the money changers in the Temple immediately afterwards. The fulfilment of Daniel's prophecy was not yet.
Christ told the Pharisees, as recorded in Luke 17:20-21, "The kingdom of God does not come with careful observation ... Because the kingdom of God is within you." Christ's kingdom then is IN this world, but not OF this world, and it started when Christ came from His enthronement in heaven.
Each one of the ten servants was given the same amount of money - one mina. The third servant did not use the money because he did not believe the Son or the prophecies concerning the Messiah in Holy Writ. His treasure was not in heaven.
We too, need to understand the Master's goals, also known as the purpose of life. Revelation 4:11: "Thou hast created all things and for Thy pleasure they are and were created." It was for this purpose and no other that we were created. We exist for the pleasure of God. God's intention was that we should be His delight and the object of His affection. Man's only concern must be to the Divine affection, too.
Some commentators of this parable insist that we cannot apply it to a future time. "God is not a harsh Judge; Christ would not approve of a man using usury or reward anyone with worldly power." They cannot conceive of a God of love who would punish 'innocent' people so harshly. This partly explains why Marcion taught that most of the Scriptures show God as a harsh tyrannical Judge. Which would be a fair assessment if it were the whole truth.
But once we place the parables correctly in their respective dispensations and understand the end purpose of the just judgements of God, we will rejoice in knowing the ineffable wisdom of God.
Again, I say, we are not saved by our works, it is by Grace alone, and that not of ourselves, it is a gift of God.
John Milton, and many people since, have received comfort from this and similar false interpretations. But the truth will set us free from the fear of 'eternal punishment' (or punishings) because we thought we were not good enough.
May God speed the day when He will be ALL in ALL!