Word of the Week
May 20, 2023
Talanton: Money Matters – The Most
For this reason the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. And when he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.
Matthew 18:23-24 NASB20
Trivia question for the day: What is the largest denomination of currency produced by the U.S. government?
When I was growing up, it was possible to get a $500 or $1000 bill. The Treasury even printed $5000 and $10,000 bills. They quit doing that in 1969, so you’re not likely to find anything bigger than $100 today.
However, the all-time record for the biggest “dollar bill” goes to the 1934 $100,000 gold certificate. It was never made available for public use, and it was only printed for a few days (December 18, 1934 to January 9, 1935). It was used exclusively by major banks for internal transactions linked to gold. Just think – a few bank tellers got to hold a piece of paper worth $100,000!
In last week’s word study, we learned about the smallest coin used in the New Testament. Today we will switch to the largest measure of money: the talent.
Our English word talent springs from the Greek word talanton, which has nothing to do with musical or artistic talent. The biblical talent was originally a measure of weight. A “talent” of iron would mean about 75 pounds of the metal (though that figure differed from one culture to another). The book of Revelation describes a divine judgment where huge hailstones “of talent size” came plummeting from heaven (Revelation 16:21), crushing anyone they struck.
In the Old Testament, people carried out business transactions by weighing out a certain amount of gold, silver, or bronze. Coins were not invented until the 7th century BC and were probably not in common use in Israel until at least a century later. So when Exodus 25:39 says that the golden lampstand in the tabernacle was made “from a talent of pure gold,” it is giving the weight of the gold that was used.
Eventually a talanton became more than a measure of weight; it became a measure of money – the largest amount of money in the language. It wasn’t necessarily 75 pounds of gold or silver -how could you use a 75-pound coin?
Figuring the exact value of a talanton is a very tricky calculation.
Different countries used talents of various sizes and values.
A talent might be of gold, silver, or bronze.
Values fluctuate over time. Even today, the price of gold goes up and down constantly.
Perhaps the easiest way to guess the value of a talent is to look at its purchasing power. It appears that a talent was roughly equivalent to 6000 denarii. We will learn more about the denarius next week, but it was a typical one-day wage for a laboring man. It would take 6000 days to earn the equivalent of one talent! That’s over 16 years, with no time off for weekends!
It was a LOT of money!
Surprisingly, there are only two places in the New Testament that mention the talanton. Both times, the word appears in one of Christ’s parables.
- The Parable on Forgiveness (Matthew 18)
Peter had just asked Jesus, “How often do I have to forgive someone who offends me? Is seven times enough?”
“Seventy times seven” was the answer, followed by the story of a king who decided to clear up the debts owed to him. One unfortunate man owed 10,000 talents – an impossible amount. Using our earlier calculations, it would take 160,000 years to pay off that debt! The king took pity on him and forgave the debt, only to discover that the rascal went straight out and collared someone who owed him a modest amount, refusing to show any mercy. When the ruler learned about the man’s hard-hearted behavior, he tossed him into debtor’s prison. What an object lesson about the need for forgiveness!
The point? We are all debtors who owe an unimaginable amount to God because of our sinfulness. In His grace, He has forgiven us – so that we can follow His example by forgiving others.
- The Parable on Readiness (Matthew 25)
The disciples asked Jesus when He was going to come and set up His kingdom, so He sketched a broad outline of future events leading up to His return. His explanation fills two entire chapters of Matthew (24 & 25). Right in the middle of His discourse, Jesus told a series of parables, all with a single point: You don’t know when I will return, so you must be ready all the time.
One of these stories described a rich man who went on a trip and entrusted three of his servants with large sums of money to take care of. Jesus told a similar story on other occasions using more modest amounts of cash, but in this version, He used talents. One servant received five talents, another received two, and the third received one talent.
When the rich man returned, each servant had to give an account of how he had handled the funds. That turned out well for some of them, but not for all. It was a powerful reminder to be faithful in serving our Master so that we will not be ashamed when He returns.
Why did Jesus talk about talents rather than pennies in this parable?
Perhaps to make it clear that God entrusts us with big responsibilities. A servant with five talents was handling thousands of dollars! We may not deal with massive amounts of cash, but every believer deals with responsibilities that have eternal implications in the lives of people who have unimaginable value in the eyes of God. The tasks that face you may seem trivial, but our faithfulness today will be noticed – and rewarded – in heaven.
The talent appears more often in the Old Testament, often in very large quantities. King Omri bought the hill of Samaria for two talents of silver (1 Kings 16:24). Haman donated 10,000 talents of silver to fund his campaign to exterminate the Jews (Esther 3:9). David stockpiled 100,000 talents of gold and 1 million talents of silver for the construction of the temple (1 Chronicles 22:14). Scholars give a wide range of monetary values for the talent, and it is probably wise not to expect precise match-ups to modern prices. Any way you calculate a talent, it adds up to a LOT of money!
Q: When did the Jews start using coins?
A: As far as we know, the first coins came from the kingdom of Lydia (modern Turkey) in the 7th century BC, but it took a century or so before they became common in places like Israel. The first coins issued in Israel were probably the gold daric or drachma produced under the Persian king Darius I (mentioned in Ezra 2:69 and Nehemiah 7:70).
The Ten Commandments forbid the use of “graven images,” so Jews were often faced with ethical issues when they had to use coins with pictures of the emperor or pagan deities. Next week we will look more closely at the coins commonly used in New Testament Judea.
We have looked at the smallest coin and the largest currency. Next week we will get acquainted with the most common coin that you’ll find in the New Testament.
©Ezra Project 2023