How Do We Understand the Message of Parable of the Talents?

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells the familiar parable of the man who, before going on a journey, calls in three of his servants and entrusts certain of his property (designated as “talents”) to them.  As you remember from the story, two of the servants used what they were given to bring additional property to their master; the third, in fear, hid what he had been given so as not to lose it.  The two who made more were given more; the third was castigated for his failure.

So there are three parts to this parable.  The trust committed to the servants.  The management and investment of the master’s talents by the servants.  The calling to account of the servants.

One interpretation – perhaps the most common one – is that the parable is a warning to those who do not use their gifts in life.  (Our understanding of the word “talent” in English contributes to that interpretation.)  And I think that is a good and useful interpretation – one I often speak about when talking about recognizing our giftedness and using our gifts on behalf of the building of God’s kingdom.

In that reading, we are each given a unique set of gifts by God.  And not using those gifts is an act of real ingratitude.  How many of us, when we receive a beautifully wrapped gift, thoughtfully prepared for us by someone filled with love for us, tosses it in the closet without looking at it, ignoring it and forgetting about it?

There is certainly value in recognizing that that is exactly what we do if we do not recognize and celebrate our own giftedness.  We take the beautiful gift our God has given for us, a gift chosen with such care, a gift uniquely suited to us, and toss it aside without a second glance.  We throw it in the closet and forget about the gift and the giver.  This reading of the parable invites us to recognize our gifts, to own them, and to use them for the greater glory of God.

But we know that Jesus’ parables generally have more than one way of being understood.  And the most common explanation is not necessarily the one you need to hear.  So let me share some other avenues you might consider.

The reading about use of gifts puts the focus on the two slaves who are good stewards.  Mark Douglas in his commentary on this parable suggests that “they double their master’s investments in the same way.  They give nearly identical speeches in their accounting before the master.  They hear identical commendations from their master.  They share a common reward.  They are not so much characters in the story as foils against which to compare the third servant, whose actions are unique, whose speech is unique and shoe condemnation by the master serves as the climax of the story.

Consistent with putting the focus on that third servant, John Donohue in The Gospel in Parable suggests a different problem with the third servant.  “It was timidity that spelled his downfall, which was not warranted by anything known directly about the master.”  The problem, Donahue suggests, is the way the third servant reflexively judges his master, assuming he is a “hard” man, when the master has done nothing to justify this charge.  (Indeed, the fact that he entrusted such a large sum to the three servants suggests a lot of generosity and trust.) Continue reading