A colleague who works with Christian entrepeneurs asked me recently whether Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25) offers any principles to guide Christians in business? This is a wonderfully provocative question.
1. I am strong believer in first seeking to interpret Jesus’ parables in the context of the presumed first century audience and his ministry goals. In terms of Matthew 25:14-30 the audience is Jesus’ disciples during the Last Supper. These are Jewish men who are embedded in first century, Jewish religious understanding. In terms of Jesus’ ministry goals, this is his final major discourse or cluster of teachings to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel. In my view he foretells God’s judgment against Israel for rejecting the Messiah (i.e. the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70), the way history will unfold and how this affects his new "messianic assembly", and the return of the Messiah at the end of the age. Jesus told this parable and the prior one about the Ten Virgins to explain the warnings to his disciples at the end of chapter 24, namely keep watch, be ready, serve well – because the Messiah will hold you accountable, but you do not know when he returns so be ready. Probably the last thing on Jesus’ mind at that moment was to provide principles for operating a business.
2. The situation in real life that the parable describes probably occurred fairly regularly given what we know about estate management in first century Roman Palestine. Wealthy owners often left the management of their estates in the hands of overseers. Because there were no banks as we know them today, the wealthy had to use other means to secure their property. In this parable we see one means, i.e. the division of wealth among trusted clients/servants who are expected to employ these resources to enhance the owner’s wealth and position. If the managers perform well, the master will ensure that they participate in the gains. If they do not do well, he will punish them for poor, lazy or illegal activity.
Jesus does not validate or criticize this means of doing business, he merely used it as the platform through which to express a principle of kingdom living. So I think we have to be careful not to extrapolate from the story of the parable any principles that would support a particular economic or business theory or construct.
3. The point Jesus makes is found in vv. 28-30 — the returning Messiah will hold his followers accountable for how they managed the resources (i.e. their time, abilities, wealth, knowledge, etc.) that he gave them to carry forward his mission. In some sense God will reward those who honour him and work carefully and profitably, taking risks in order to expand the influence of God’s rule. How and in what way God helps such people increase these "talents" is left unexplained. Further, how God in the heavenly sphere defines the rewards He gives is a matter for speculation. Such people will share their "master’s happiness" (v.23). Those who dishonour God by refusing to take risks to enlarge his rule are regarded as unworthy and have no share in God’s future. This is similar, in my view, to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:21-23. People in that context knew what God required but decided to ignore Him. So He ignores them and will not allow them to participate in his glorious future.
So, what does this parable have to say about business or entrepreneurial activity? For general business operations, I would say nothing specific. From the point of view of a Christian who discerns that the best way for him or her to fulfill God’s calling in Christ is through marketplace ministry (however, that is defined), then I think the key point would be – use the gifts and abilities God has given to extend God’s rule in every sphere your life touches, including the world of business, even if this requires considerable risk. But I think that this applies equally to the Christian who is a stay-at-home mom, the Christian university student, or the believer who is incapacitated and can’t participate in the marketplace.