Two great lies have been promoted in our culture during the past 20 years.
1. “If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be.”
2. “You can be the best in the world.”
These lies have been accepted and promoted by many Christians as well as non-Christians. Success, defined as being the master of one’s own destiny, has become an idol. Tim Keller in his book Counterfeit Gods describes the idol in these words:
More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are God. . . . To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you. You are supreme.
Thankfully, Scripture gives us a strong antidote to misguided ideas of success. Through Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) we learn that the kingdom of heaven is like a man going on a long journey. Before he leaves, he gives his three servants different amounts of money, denominated by talents. To the first servant, the man gives five talents; to the second, two talents; and to the last, one talent—each according to his ability.
Upon his return, the master asks what they did with the money. The first and second servants have doubled their investments and receive their master’s praise. The third servant, however, has safeguarded the money but done nothing to increase it. As a result, he is condemned by the master for his inactivity.
The Parable of the Talents teaches us five important things about the biblical meaning of success.
First, this parable teaches us that success is a product of our work.
In the opening chapter of Genesis, we find the cultural mandate in which God commands Adam to work by stewarding and growing the resources he has been given. This mandate was meant not only for Adam and Eve, but also for us.
As Christians, we have a mission that our Lord expects us to accomplish right now. We are called to steward all we have been given while we wait for our Savior’s return.
John Calvin defined the talents as gifts from God in the form of a person’s calling and natural ability. Alister McGrath, in an article on the topic of calling, suggests that for Calvin:
The idea of a calling or vocation is first and foremost about being called by God, to serve him within his world. Work was thus seen as an activity by which Christians could deepen their faith. . . . To do anything for God, and to do it well, was the fundamental hallmark of authentic Christian faith.
The Parable of the Talents teaches that biblical success is working diligently here and now. The servant with five talents was industrious, for he “went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more” (Matthew 25:16). He used all the talents that his master gave him—without hesitation—to produce the expected return.
Second, the Parable of the Talents teaches that God gives us everything we need to do what he has called us to do.
The New Testament talent is likely a large sum of money, maybe even as much as a million dollars in today’s currency. We are tempted to feel sorry for the servant who received only one talent, but in reality, he received as much as a million dollars from the master and buried it in his backyard. Is it any wonder the master was so upset?
The master in the Parable of the Talents expected his servants to do more than passively preserve what had been entrusted to them, for he told the lazy servant, “You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest” (Matthew 25:27). Similarly, God expects us to generate a return by using our talents toward productive ends. Like the servants in the parable, God has given us more than enough to accomplish this charge. It’s up to us to use the talents wisely.
Third, the Parable of the Talents teaches that we are not all created equal.
The most overlooked part of the story is the second half of verse 15: “each according to his ability.” The master understood that the one-talent servant was not capable of producing as much as the five-talent servant. We want to protest the unfairness. Yet we know this differing ability is true from experience. Diversity is woven into the fabric of creation.
But even though we’re not created equal in regard to talents, we still see equality in the Parable of the Talents and in God’s economy. It takes just as much work for the five-talent servant to produce five more talents as it does for the two-talent servant to produce two more talents. This is why the reward given to each by the master is the same. He tells each of his faithful servants the same thing: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much” (Matthew 25:23). The master measures success by degree of effort, as should we.
Fourth, the Parable of the Talents teaches that we work for the master, not our own selfish purposes.
The money given to the servants does not belong to them. They do not keep the money they earn with the master’s capital. The servants only steward the master’s investment, and the master measures the quality of their stewardship.
We should maximize the use of our talents not for our own selfish purposes, but to honor God. He cares about our attitude, the motivation in our hearts.
Finally, the Parable of the Talents shows that we will be held accountable.
The Parable of the Talents is not about salvation or works-righteousness, but about how we use our work to fulfill our earthly calling.
The unfaithful steward in this parable didn’t so much waste the master’s money; he wasted an opportunity. As a result, he was judged wicked and lazy. One day we will be held responsible for what we do for God with what he has given us.
So how should we define the biblical meaning of success?
The answer is almost counterintuitive; when we work for God in everything we do, including our vocational callings, we truly find the purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction that we all desperately seek.
We work at the pleasure of the Lord, driven by our love of God. Our only desire should be to hear him say, “Well done my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Master.”