I was having a conversation with a friend about motivation the other day. During it, we were discussing a personality type that seems to put forth a lot of effort towards some stated goal, but rarely seems to finish the job. I told him I was at a loss for how one could encourage such individuals, so he suggested that I take a closer look at the parable of the talents. He thought this tale would be a good way to illustrate some important points on productivity. This suggestion prompted me to reread the parable of the talents within the context of motivation and productivity and their importance to God. The more I read and thought about it, a good number of helpful lessons became apparent.
First, let’s get the context of this story. Matthew 25:15 states, “And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability.” The word ‘ability’ here signifies that the master knew how much each servant was capable of based on past performance. He obviously knew the servant to whom he gave five talents could handle a larger amount of responsibility and the servant given two talents with somewhat less.
The servant receiving only one talent was entrusted with the least. Perhaps the master knew this servant’s character displayed a clear lack of motivation judging by his past work as we will see later. It may have been a test for him, but that is speculation. We do know that he only gave him one talent, so his ability was deemed to be smaller than the others. Based on that understanding, we find out what the servant actually did with his money; he buried it in the ground (v18). It is possible that he had hoped God would tremendously bless him by growing a money tree, but that, too, is speculation.
Why did the last servant not do anything? Verses 24-25 give us his explanation: “Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.” “See? No harm done. You got your talent back, even!” It’s not exactly clear what the servant was really afraid of, but it is clear he wasn’t fearful enough to actually have done anything with the money. Verse 26 shows the master’s reply to this excuse: “You wicked and lazy servant,” – obviously, the master wasn’t pleased that his servant did nothing with his money – “you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed.”
The master explained that the servant’s clear understanding of his expectations should have motivated him to work rather than stop him from working. “So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest.” Here, the master implies that the servant should have known to at least use bankers. It appears likely that the servant was educated enough to know this, but he simply refused to take the first step. It is imperative to begin working in order to gain momentum; otherwise we are merely dreaming and hoping. That is the first lesson we can glean here: Take one step.
If the last servant would have taken this first step, he would have already met the stated criteria of his master – to grow his investment. In doing so, he theoretically would have talked with the bankers and perhaps found other ways to invest his master’s money. He could have learned on the job while gaining knowledge and experience each step of the way. He had the opportunity to become a more profitable servant, but chose to pass it up because of a lack of motivation, true fear and respect for his master’s expectations.
Although the parable doesn’t say so, the master likely gave the last servant many chances to prove his worth before this final opportunity became the last straw. He ordered his other servants to “cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (v29). The second lesson is: if we won’t work, it won’t be pretty.
If we aren’t willing to work with God, He can’t work with us. “Can two walk together unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3). When we enter our covenant relationship with God, He expects us to do His will and become more like Him (John 15:14, Heb. 8:10). The consequences of not holding up our end of the bargain is destruction, yet it is mercifully so. We could not be happy living in a giving, sharing, loving and everlasting Kingdom such that God is preparing for us if we’re not willing to put forth the kind of effort required for it to stay that way.
Ecclesiastes 9:10 simply states that “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with [all] your might.” If one isn’t putting their full effort into each task they undertake, they likely won’t get the best results. If our whole attention isn’t given to the task at hand, there might be lessons that go unlearned and knowledge that is missed. Certainly, we cannot expect God to bless us to the fullest if we are only partly devoted to Him. Nor can we truly say that something wasn’t meant to be, or “God’s will,” if we didn’t really try our best. This is the third lesson: If you’re going to work, work hard.
The other servants did just that. The second servant, judged to be slightly more capable than the last servant, was given two talents by his master. He took that first step – and likely many more – worked hard, and earned double his master’s investment. “Therefore by their fruits you shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). His reward? Verse 23 says, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things.” He was complimented for his hard work and given a portion of his master’s sizable inheritance. To summarize, there are two lessons here: we are judged by our fruits, not just our desire and effort, and hard work pays off.
While highly celebrated by his master, the second servant wasn’t quite as industrious as the first servant, who was given five talents and earned five more through trading (v20). This servant was judged by the master to be a go-getter and self-starter. It has been said that if you want something done, give it to the busiest person. The first servant was that kind of individual. This is demonstrated by verse 28: “So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents.” This describes the sixth lesson: accomplishment generates a greater desire to produce more.
This hardly seemed fair to the other servants in the parallel account, who stated: “Master, he [already] has ten minas” (Luke 19:25). But the master replies: “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away” (Matt. 25:29). This practice might not appear fair at first glance, but it can be explained as the only fair way.
To illustrate, one point must be made about the kind of person the first servant was. These personality types are many times the top men of organizations or governments, much like a CEO, president or leading evangelist. They hone their efforts to become as efficient as possible. Every task undertaken is organized and prioritized so it gets done with quality. And they always try to keep the big picture in mind in order to keep themselves focused and moving in the right direction. People with this mindset do not sit around waiting for someone else to schedule a meeting or worry about every last detail. Rather, they get to work knowing they have plenty more to do later.
In essence, this industrious servant was of the pedigree that God could trust with that high level of workload. He displayed the motivation required and used his God-given talents to perform the job at hand. The lazy servant, if given such responsibility, would have likely caved under the pressure! It could be said that the second servant wouldn’t have even liked having that much responsibility, but was productive enough to handle and enjoy the amount he was given (Luke 19:19) because it better suited his skills and personality. God doesn’t need everyone to be CEOs and presidents, but he will test our character to see what we can handle. Similarly, each one of us must be motivated and productive in order to prove to ourselves what abilities we have. Positions in the Kingdom of God will match our skill set. The final lesson we can take from these profitable servants is: God prepares us for our perfect job.
We learn much about where we’ll fit in God’s awesome plan through our efforts in this physical life. The parable of the talents teaches us that motivation breeds productivity, responsibility, skills and knowledge that are required by God to rule in His Kingdom. These attributes, once started upon, will continue to increase asymptotically until they match God’s eternally flawless character. Finally, we will receive our inheritance, as He declares in Matthew 25:21: “Well done, GOOD and FAITHFUL servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.”