At Work & Theology 101

Work, Success, and the Parable of the Talents

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Recently I saw a bumper sticker that read,

He who dies with the most toys wins, but he is still dead.  

This must be a post-modern version of the late 1990’s original, which simply read, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

If bumper stickers are a reflection of the soul of our culture (and I am not sure that is true) are we in the 21st century moving away from the idea that the acquisition of “things” and the pursuit of pleasure are the driving forces and measuring rods of a successful life?

If so, what does success look like today?  What is the measure of success? Does it look different for Christians? What is the Biblical definition of success?

I was asked to preach this weekend as part of the Labor Day Weekend Service at my church. I set out to try to answer these questions.  My sermon title was “The Biblical Meaning of Success,” and I used the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25:14-30 as my text.

I told the congregation they had been lied to. Two great lies have been told to them by everyone from their kindergarten teacher to the U.S. Government:

  1. You can be anything you want to be.
  2. You can be the best in the world.

These two lies distort the Biblical meaning of success, and set all of us up for disappointment and failure.

The antidote for these two great lies is the Parable of the Talents, which teaches us three important lessons:

1.  We are called to work while we wait for the return of the King.

The Parable of the Talents teaches us how to work while we wait for the second coming of Christ. Many Christians believe that our salvation is a bus ticket to heaven, and what we do while we wait for the bus makes little difference. The parable makes it clear this belief is false.

One of my favorite quotes is spoken by General Maximus in the opening scenes of the film, “Gladiator.” General Maximus tells his troops, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”  While this may not have been true about them, it is certainly true for Christians. Our work matters to God.

2.  We are given everything we need to do what God has called us to do.

Do you know what a talent is worth in today’s dollars? Somewhere between five hundred thousand and a million dollars.  Even the servant that was given only one talent was given more than enough to set up a business and produce the expected return for the master.

God has given each of us unique resources and talents to be used in everything we do, especially our vocational callings. The master gave out a different number of talents to each servant “according to the servant’s ability.”  The one talent servant was not expected to produce five talents.

Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:10,

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

We seldom associate this verse with our vocational work, but we should.

3.  We will be held accountable for what we do with what God has given us.

As Christians we work “as unto the Lord,” not for an earthy boss. The Parable of the Talents shows us we will be held accountable for what we do while we wait for the return of our King. Thankfully, we are not held to some arbitrary standard. What God expects from us is based on what he has given us.

However, it will take just as much effort for the two talent servant to produce two additional talents as it does the five talent servant to produce five additional talents. This is why the reward for both is the same. This is the great lesson of this story.

So what does this parable tell us about the Biblical meaning of success?

We are called to use all the resources God has given us and work diligently at our callings, maximizing the return for the Master while we expectantly await His return.

The late John Wooden, the most successful college basketball coach in history and a committed Christian, was asked how he would define success. He replied:

Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.

This is what the Parable of the Talents is all about.

We labor at the pleasure of the Lord God Almighty. Our work is driven by our love of the Master. Our only desire should be to hear his praise at the end of our days on this earth:

Well done my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the master.

What do you think? What does the Parable of the Talents say to you about your work? About success? 

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  • Issachar

    I agree 100% with your take on this scripture on the Parable of the Talents. True success is undoubtedly Godly success, and Christ simplifies exactly what that is to believers in the text. Taken in context, we should all feel not only obligated to return to the Master what is rightfully his (talents with interest) but also extremely blessed for the gift and experience of working them to produce more. This encourages me to put forth more effort in pleasing God with all that He’s invested in me. Thank you so very much and Praise God!

  • Deborah

    Thanks. I listened to a sermon in church this morning taken from this parable. I don’t like leaving church with confusion. So I looked for more on the subject. I like what is being said here. Our goal should always be to please God and do our best. There is compassion in the parable and not a difficult thing to understand. When it is brought in love, the spirit of love is expressed. Thanks again.

  • Mr. K

    In Ephesians 2.10, the word ‘works’ is the Greek ‘ergon’, a term referring to all kinds of labor, such as construction, craft work, carpentry, etc. it is a term far broader than ‘a good deed’.

  • Hugh Whelchel

    Yes, I completely agree. The point of the Parable of the Talents is not about how much money you can make. If that were the case, the five-talent guy would have received a greater reward from the Master that the two-talent guy. The point to the story is to be a good steward of everything God has given you and produce as much fruit for God’s Kingdom as you can. I think Jesus used money in the example because it is easy to count, driving home his point.

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