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.)

In this vein, James Martin writes, “The servant views his master as “hard” though he had been treated fairly.  Falsely imagining himself as a victim, the servant created a situation in which he became “with tragic irony” a real victim.  In a sense, the man created a “master” of his own making, rather than letting the master be himself.  Perhaps we are to take from this story not the idea that we are to “use our own talents,” but rather the idea that we are to let God be God.”

Gerhard Lohfink suggests that the parable means that the reign of God requires people who go for broke.  The fact that this parable is included in a larger composition of parables about the return of The Son of Man means to him:

The master who goes away is now the exalted Christ.  When he returns he will demand a reckoning from each according to his or her abilities.  The accounting given by the slaves is thus the judgment of the world.  Whoever withstands the judgment receives a share in the eternal banquet of joy (“enter into the joy of your master”).  But those, like the third slave, who do not withstand the judgment, will lose everything and will be thrown into the outermost darkness….

Jesus is talking about the plan God has for the world.  He speaks of the new thing God wants to create in the midst of the old society.  This, God’s cause, Jesus says, will not succeed with cowardice, with people who are immovable, who are constantly trying to make themselves secure, who would rather delay than act.  God’s new society only succeeds with people who are ready to risk, who put everything on the table, who go for broke and become “perpetrators” with ultimate decisiveness.

In a related vein that broadens the lesson somewhat, John Buchanan suggests that “The greatest risk of all is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything.  The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently.”

Another alternative reading, this one comes from Barbara Reid.  As described by James Martin, Reid

believes a key to this parable is remembering that Jesus was not operating in a capitalist system in which wealth could be increased by investment. At the time, she suggests, people would have believed in a “limited good,” where there was only so much wealth to go around and where increasing one person’s wealth meant taking it away from another.  “One who amassed large amounts for himself would be seen as greedy and wicked,” she writes.  The third servant, she believes, is the honorable one, because he refused to cooperate with a system in which the master continues to accrue large amounts of money while others are poor.

Reid sees the parable as a warning “about the ease with which people can be co-opted by an unjust system,” while also encouraging disciples to expose unfettered greed.  She believes the last verse whose what happens to those who “blow the whistle” on the rich and powerful.  The disciples therefore are not to take the man going on a journey as a stand-in for God and not to take the parable as an encouragement to use their God-given talents.  Although this is an important lesson, Jesus’ listeners may not have understood the parable in that way, since “talent” did not have the connotation that it does in English.

Finally, Bishop Robert Barron invites us to understand this parable as speaking not about monetary gifts or personal capacities, but rather as (in his words) “ a share in the mercy of God, a participation in the weightiness of the divine love.”  He then explains

But since mercy is always directed to the other, these “talents” are designed to be shared. In point of fact, they will increase precisely in the measure that they are given away.
The problem with the timid servant who buried his talent is not that he was an ineffective venture capitalist but that he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of what he had been given. The divine mercy—received as a pure gift—is meant to be given to others as a pure gift. Buried in the ground, that is to say, hugged tightly to oneself as one’s own possession, such a talent necessarily evanesces. And this is why the master’s seemingly harsh words should not be read as the punishment of an angry God but as an expression of spiritual physics: the divine mercy will grow in you only inasmuch as you give it to others.

So there is quite a lot to think about when we hear this parable.  You might take some time reflecting on it and see what resonates with you.

5 thoughts on “How Do We Understand the Message of Parable of the Talents?

  1. Must ponder these meanings carefully. But the Spirit is moving. I had just read today’s readings, and the parable was making me wonder and poof! here comes your post. I’ve always thought in terms of the rather traditional interpretations. But, I think I shall ponder the one where the master is not God, but perhaps god as a not so great system. Stretch my view a bit. That one is the most difficult to reconcile in my brain. The others seem more on target. But who knows.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Someone once wrote a midrash on this parable that makes an interesting point. (Unfortunately, I cannot recall the authors name.)

    “There was also fourth servant to whom the master entrusted four talents. With two of the talents the servant invested in a fleet of ships and filled them with trade goods; with two he financed a camel caravan to go to China on the silk road. But a storm at sea sank the entire fleet and bandits captured the camel caravan so that the servant was left with nothing.

    When the master returned the fourth servant fell at his feet and said, “O master, I sought to trade with your talents but a storm destroyed your boats and bandits captured your caravan. I have nothing to return to you, so I bow at your feet and am willing to be sold into slavery to repay my debt.”

    But the master raised the servant up on his feet and spoke to him. “O my servant, you sought to serve me and proved your faithfulness even of you have nothing to show for your efforts. You have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

    What the Lord requires of us is not success, but faithfulness and a willingness to take risks for the kingdom.

  3. Pingback: The Fourth Servant – Creo en Dios!

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