Parable of the Talents, de Poorter 17th Century, Narodni Galerie, Prague, Czech Republic.
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His master said to him, ‘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.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
Today’s readings have one of the most famous of Jesus’ parables, that “of the talents”. Indeed it has become so bedded in Christian tradition that the meaning of the word talent has completely changed over the course of centuries. As you know, our Christian Scriptures were written originally in Greek to make them available throughout the Roman Empire; Greek was the universal language of the Empire at that time, not Latin. That would come in the next centuries. The word used for the master’s commission to his servants was indeed talent, τάλαντον, talanton, but that does not mean our modern English word talent, even if the meaning of that word comes directly from our understanding of the parable. A τάλαντον was a measure of weight, and a significant measure it was, perhaps up to 75 lbs. The weight varied over the years. And not just an ordinary weight, but a weight used for precious metals. A silver talent, for example, was valued at about 6000 denarii, with a gold talent worth 30 times as much (imagine 75 lbs of gold….In November 2020’s gold price, this would equal $1,421,925). So the master in the parable is entrusting his servants with an enormous amount of money, five talents to one, two to another and one to a third. So that has to be an important point that Jesus is making. Of course it’s what these fellows did with their entrusted talents that is the point of the parable. The master called the three in, entrusted his money to them, and set off on a journey for “a long time”. Two of them traded or invested their master’s talents, and each doubled the amount. The third one, with his one talent, buried it and made nothing. A long time later when the master returned, the first two, on returning the doubled money to their master, were invited by the delighted man to “Come, share your master’s joy”. I take that to mean an invitation to enter heaven. The third man on admitting his failure to do anything was condemned by his disgusted master to be “Thrown into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth”. Not heaven! So what is this extraordinary story all about? No-one in his or her right mind would entrust such enormous wealth to individual servants to do with what they will. Yet in Jesus’ story, this man does. So trust must be part of the story, and very clearly a full expectation that you do something wonderful with the talent entrusted to you. Talent is not to be buried; it is to be developed to its fullest potential. And if you take the idea of our talents, they are what each of us has been entrusted with; they are critically important to us, and so, yes, they are worth a very great deal indeed. To take a cue from today’s first reading, their value is “far beyond pearls”.
Ancient Talent Weight, Library of Congress
And each one of us came into this world with gifts from God – our raw talent. At the beginning of course, we have no idea what our talents could possibly be, yet one expert has said this: Look to your childhood years; what did the grown-ups at that time praise you for? They would be the first clues as to what you were good at, and a possible indicator of what was to come. The whole point of education of course is to develop those talents – God’s precious gifts to us – into the skills we will use to get through a successful life. Just as in the parable, we all note that there are others who are much brighter than we are, and some who are not as bright as we are. That is life! But that is no reason to be proud or be despondent. What it simply means is that we have the duty, command even, to do the most we possibly can with what we have been given. It is of no consequence what those around us have been given, unless they need help of course. For example, my best friend in high school was super bright. In one memorable semester he came first in every subject except one, Art, in which he came second! I scrambled around trying to simply pass them all, sometimes not succeeding even in that. But there was never any envy on my part, and no pride in his. We were simply doing our best to carve those talents into something useful for society. But, another example, when I was working in a high school in Washington DC, I had a student who was exceptionally bright. His family numbered scientists and doctors galore. Teachers always know who is the brightest, even without seeing exam results. How the student asks or answers questions, attitudes in class, and so on. Well this boy was bright, but bone idle, would not prepare for exams, would not work. He failed out of school and ended up pumping gas on North Capital Street. I believe that is the sort of person Jesus was aiming at in his parable. His precious gifts were being wasted – buried as in the parable. I left that school before knowing if he ever had a moment of insight, but I hope he did. This certainly points out just how precious talents are, and how imaginative Jesus was to use the idea of a huge talent weight to demonstrate their importance. They are meant to transport us through life!
Then there is the problem of multi-talented people who have to decide where to concentrate their talents. Early childhood might well be the place to look once more. This time I am reminded of a student’s essay on this subject. I asked them to interview their parents and parents’ friends concerning their jobs. Were they happy in them? If yes, why? If no, Why? The majority of the responses were positive, with “helping other people” is most usual explanation. One student who had interviewed her uncle, the wealthiest member of the family with heavy Wall Street connections, told her he hated his job, had difficulties getting up on Mondays to begin another horrendous week. She asked him if there was something he would have preferred to do. Yes. What? He had always wanted to be a chef! The Wall Street job came up, and all around him pressured him into it. But he had quickly regretted it, and now it was too late to change. A chef makes nothing like a Wall Street tycoon! Her last words said that she now understood why, at family cookouts, she would see him with his chef’s hat on, doing all the food preparation with the happiest smile on his face. He was certainly using all his talents, and I’m sure the Lord could hardly criticize him, but if we are multi-talented, we have a grave responsibility to ourselves to choose life decisions most carefully. Those talents can be treacherous! They can, as it were, crush us under their weight… Today’s first reading pictures a happy housewife, fortunate that she has chosen a lifestyle that fits her talents perfectly. If, however, she has talents which point in an opposite direction, what then? Fortunately today she would be in a much better position to follow that path than generations of her predecessors! My lovely mother, born in 1907 and required to leave school at 14, wanted to be an engineer like her father. Absolutely no chance back then, a criminal indictment on that society and its treatment of women. Imagine what talent has been crushed over the centuries because of it. The second reading certainly seems to support the ideal presented in the gospel, placing the same idea of the Lord coming at a time we know not; that ties this week’s gospel with last week’s, with the wise and foolish virgins. And so we are fully warned: Are we pursuing the Lord’s way, using his gifts successfully and appropriately to our own fulfillment as well as his…..or not?
The Talent Chart, Dawna Markova and Angie McArthur, Business Insider 2015.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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