Theology 101

God, Why Did You Give Me This (One, Lousy) Talent?

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God gave humans not only the physical world, but our own talents—gifts and abilities that we can use to serve him.

Prior to the Reformation, the medieval church interpreted the talents in Jesus’ parable as spiritual gifts God bestowed on Christians. But the Reformers upset the status quo of the church by teaching people that their work matters to God. Martin Luther said, “The work of the milkman is just as important to God as the work of the priest.” Later, John Calvin helped shape the modern meaning of the word “talents” by defining them as gifts from God in the form of a person’s calling and natural abilities, rather than just spiritual gifts.

Despite some historical disagreements over the precise interpretation of “talents,” they are basically the tools God gives us to carry out the cultural mandate, the first job description he gave us in the Garden, to fill and subdue the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). He gives us everything we need to do what he has called us to do. In calling us to plant a garden, God gives us shovels, trowels, land, seed, strength, and patience.

It is then our responsibility to use those gifts to the best of our ability. Even once we’ve used our gifts to till the soil and plant the seed, we look to him for rain and sun to secure the outcome of healthy plants. But without the contribution of our labor, the garden doesn’t grow.

Paul Marshall writes that Calvin challenged believers “to work, to perform, to develop, to progress, to change, to choose, to be active, and to overcome until the day of their death or the return of their Lord.” According to Abraham Kuyper, Calvin understood scripture to teach that “the whole of a man’s life is to be lived as in the Divine Presence.” As John Piper explains:

Calvin’s doctrine of “vocation” follows from the fact that every person, great and small, lives “in the Divine Presence.” God’s sovereign purposes govern the simplest occupation. He attends to everyone’s work. This yielded the Protestant work ethic. Huge benefits flow from a cultural shift in which all work is done earnestly and honestly with an eye to God.

While God calls each of us to work and gives each of us what we need to do that work, what and how much he gives is not the same for all. Matthew 25:15 is perhaps the most important, yet most overlooked, part of the parable of the talents. It says, “to each according to his own ability.”

Today, we’d hear an outcry of “unfair!” But it’s impossible to deny that diversity is woven into every aspect of God’s creation. Why else would we have 23,000 species of trees in the world, other than that God wants to show us his beauty in different ways?

God gives gifts and talents as he chooses because he is God.

Here’s the question we have to ask. Which takes more effort: to take two talents and turn them into four, or take five talents and turn them into ten? These two tasks take the same amount of work, even though the amounts are different.

And in the parable of the talents, the two servants who invested their talents were rewarded similarly. The master tells them: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much” (Matt. 25:23). The Master measures success by the degree of effort, as should we.

I used to feel sorry for the guy with one talent. I thought, “He was just trying to protect his master’s money. What can you do with one crummy little coin?”

But then, out of curiosity, I researched how much money a talent would represent in today’s economy. I realized the guy with one talent took as much as a million dollars of his master’s money and buried it in the back yard! No wonder the master was mad!

The stewardship the Master asks for is not mere passive preservation of his gifts. God invites us to use our talents toward productive ends that will bring us satisfaction and joy, delight our Master, and benefit those around us.

The Puritan William Perkins defined calling as “a certain kind of life, ordained and imposed on man by God, for the common good.” The servants who multiplied their talents had to go out in the marketplace, make deals, and compete to multiply what the master had given them. They must have felt a sense of accomplishment in their work. They served the common good of the community through their investment, and then they received praise from their master for their efforts. For their faithfulness, they receive an invitation to “enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23).

That invitation into the joy of our Master should be our prevailing motivation for work. We are servants of a generous, loving Master who brings us into relationship with himself. Therefore, we offer all we have and all we are back to him in response to the gracious work he has done for us.

Editor’s note: Content from Monday Morning Success: How Biblical Stewardship Transforms Your Work. Download a free copy here

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