Good and Faithful Servant, artist unknown, austroca.org
Sunday 19 November 2017.
Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master’s joy. Matthew 25:23
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart” Job says in the first chapter of his book, verse 21. But we do not arrive entirely helpless, for each one of us brings certain gifts from God with us. All of us, without exception. Our task begins right away, to identify them and develop them into the skills which will get us through life. That is what education, both at our parents’ knees and at school, is all about. Each of us discovers pretty early on that some others are much better at certain things than we are, and we also note that sometimes we are a little better than others in certain other things. That’s the way of life. And woe betide those of us who yearn for gifts we do not have. The movie Florence Foster Jenkins, who was a real New York personality in the 1930s and 40s, is all about someone in that category. It’s pretty normal, however, for people to run with the gifts we have been given, and develop them ultimately into careers.
That is what is behind today’s gospel parable. Three different people, three different levels of talents entrusted to them and a master who leaves them to it, going off on his journey with no indication when he will return, simply entrusting his talents to them. But what are these “talents” which were entrusted to them? Today we understand a talent to be a special aptitude for doing something, a talent for tennis, or calligraphy, or singing, or anything that we are good at. That was not the understanding of the word when Jesus told this parable; it has taken on our meaning of the word because of this parable! So what was Jesus’ understanding of this word, and that of his original audience?
In the ancient world, that of the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians and just about everyone else back then, a talent was a unit of monetary weight or value, which varied according to time and place. At the time of Jesus, it may have been about 130lbs, though opinions vary greatly, but one thing most scholars are agreed on is that it was worth a great deal of money. It was a term normally used in reference to gold. 130lbs of gold today is worth a huge amount of money. As I write, today’s gold prices would put a talent of gold as worth about $2½ million. I wonder what Jesus’ listeners thought of his story knowing how much these three people had been entrusted with. It would be hard for anyone to get their minds around how much this was all worth. But of course, as ever, Jesus is really talking about something entirely different. He’s talking about the priceless gifts God has given to each one of us, without which our lives would be worthless. Gifts which, over the centuries, have come to be called talents.
So the scene is set, and off they all go. What does one do with such huge responsibility over something that is not yours? Well, in the parable, this is money, and so it would be prudent to invest it carefully to make it grow. That is exactly what two of the three did, and did it successfully. The third did not; he buried it carefully and left it there until the master’s return. When, at last, that happened, the master was delighted at the two who had used, and multiplied, his money, inviting both to “enter his joy”. It was an entirely different story with the third man who had done nothing with his master’s money. He returned to him exactly what had been entrusted to him. For that he was condemned and cast into the “darkness outside”, namely, hell.
So this is a wake-up call for those of us dragging our feet as we walk down life’s corridors, aware of that we are able to do, but not doing it; those of us who put things off to tomorrow rather than today. As a life-long teacher, I was painfully aware of students such as that. A teacher knows very quickly who among the young people in front of him are brighter than he is. It is the teacher’s job to ensure as best he can that those students are sufficiently challenged in class so that they remain engaged. But sometimes there will be one who just doesn’t want to become engaged, who prefers to tread water and do basically nothing. Such a person is Jesus’ third servant, gifted but, for whatever reason, not developing or using those gifts. I remember one young man who was extremely gifted, but actually failed to graduate and the last I saw of him was pumping gas on North Capitol Street in Washington DC. I do hope he came to his senses. Most of us, on the other hand, do try our best, do wrestle with the challenges our talents present to us so that we can become the best that we can be. After all, they are a guide to what God wants us to do with our lives. There are the few who are so talented that they can do basically anything. My best friend in high school, for example, one semester came first in every subject except art, and that included subjects such as ancient Greek, Latin, physics and trigonometry. And art? He came second. I unhappily struggled. But we must not give up – ever. Our talents will probably guide us into a life career where they are best suited, where we can become the servants of God that God wants us to be. Each of us serving the community into which our talents have led us is the recipe for happiness in this life. But we also do have a say in the matter.
I recall one of my students, following an exercise I gave, interviewed an uncle concerning his job, and whether he was happy in it or not. Over the years of giving this exercise, I found that most people are indeed happy in what they do. But I had to prepare my students for the possibility of finding someone who was not happy. Such a person would be suffering, and you have to bear that in mind, but also, gently, ask them why they were unhappy. The story which I remember very clearly was that this student’s uncle was indeed suffering. He told her that each Monday morning he did not want to get out of bed and go to work as he hated it so much. He was a Wall Street financier, the richest member of her family. She was completely overwhelmed at this confession, not suspecting this at all. On enquiring, she found that this job had presented itself to him years before. All his friends and family said he would be stupid not tot take it, so he did. Gradually he came to hate it, and, even worse, trapped in it. His grand house and all his obligations required a large income, and what he really had set his heart on would never support such a lifestyle. She asked him what that was. He said he had always wanted to be a chef, nothing more. I’ll never forget the last line in her paper, when she said that she now understood why, at family cookouts, he would be behind the grill, with the broadest smile, now doing what he had wanted to do all his life. He was obviously a multi-talented man who had simply opted for the wrong pathway, and now was so obligated to his family that he could do nothing about it. He would certainly not be condemned for that – he had indeed invested his talents hugely successfully, but not in the direction they had guided him.
So sometimes fulfilling Jesus’ parable is not as easy as it seems. My dear now deceased mother was an example. Her father was an engineer, and she was fascinated with what happened in his workshop. This being the early 20th century, and she being a woman, becoming an engineer, which is what she wanted to do, was impossible for her. Indeed, she had to leave school at the age of 14. But late in life, in her 60s, times had changed. She entered woodworking class and learned the basics, so much so that the welsh dresser in my sister’s kitchen was built by our mother’s hand, and a glorious sight it is to behold. For us non-multiple-talented people, however, the pathway is pretty clear in this more enlightened age, and it is our solemn and profound obligation to ensure our talents/skills are developed and used in the way God has always hoped they would be. These will ensure our happiness in this world, and our hope to be, at the very end when the master returns to see what we have done with them, “invited into his joy”.
Developing Our Talents, twitter.com/carolgg7