The Parable of the Talents - with a personal twist
Bishop Lott has asked me to speak today about developing our talents. I suggested he might want to find someone else better suited to the topic, namely someone with more talents, but he thought I was joking, so here I am.
I would like to focus on what talents are, specifically in reference to the New Testament parable of the talents found in Matthew 25:15.
The word “talent” has a double meaning, one being the literal definition of talent as an ancient sum of money and the other being the more figurative definition in use today of talent as an exceptional skill or ability. What I think is interesting is that it was through this New Testament parable that one meaning of talent has led to the other. In Christ’s day, a talent was a sum of money. Over time, because of the common way this parable is interpreted, the word talent has come to mean an ability, something we are under a moral obligation to develop and use. Certainly Christ knew that the parable would mean one thing to his contemporary listeners and another to us. It’s just another sign that the Lord’s parables have many layers and far reaching significance.
For the sake of my children, who have promised to listen carefully to my talk, I’d like to start with retelling the parable of the talents.
A man preparing to take a trip calls his servants together and asks them to take care of his belongings while he is gone. You know, the usual stuff: someone to water his plants for him, feed the goats, bring in the newspaper. Most importantly, he divvies up some of his wealth and entrusts it to 3 servants to take care of while he is away. To one he gives 5 talents. To another servant he gives 2 talents. To a third he gives one.
When the master returns from his trip, first he reads all his old papers and checks on the goats, then he goes to each servant to see how things went. The servant to whom he had given 5 talents had invested them wisely while he was gone and said, “Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold I have gained beside them five talents more.” Likewise, the servant with two had also doubled his original amount. To both of these servants, the master said, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant; thou has been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”
The third servant turns out to not have been so faithful. In fact, he gets a bit defensive when it comes his turn to report. He says, basically, “Lord, I knew that you were a strict master and I was afraid so I buried the talent. Here,” he says dusting it off, “you can have it back now, it’s a bit dirty, but at least I didn’t lose it.”
Remember, in the story, talent is money. It is currency, a word related to the current of a stream, and just like a current, it only has value if it is moving, in circulation. Talents are worthless if buried or hoarded. The master calls this servant wicked and slothful, telling him he should have invested the talent. Because of his fear and laziness, the third servant is forced to give up his one talent to the man with 10 and then punished.
In interpreting the parable, I’d like to focus first on the value of the talents themselves. I think that the modern use of the word talent as just something you’re good at, a skill that you’re born with or learn over time, is rather narrow. If I consider “developing my talents” as improving my piano technique or taking a watercolor class, I’m missing the deeper significance of the parable. In going back to the original meaning of the term, I think it’s important to note that a talent was a huge sum of money. It was worth 3,000 shekels, equivalent to 75 pounds of silver. One account I read said that this was worth more than 15 years worth of wages for a laborer.
These servants in the story were trusted with more than just a few coins to invest; they were given something extremely valuable. Two of them doubled the amount – this must have taken a great deal of effort – and then offered all of it (the original amount and the increase) back to their master on his return. The talents were not a gift. They were a stewardship; the servants were being asked to care for the talents and use them to gain increase for their lord.
And I wonder, as I apply this to my life, what have I been given as a stewardship?
I start with the question: What are the most valuable things in my life? What do I have that is worth more than piles of silver? Here’s what comes to mind: my family (both the one I was raised in, and now my own husband and children), my early exposure to the gospel, the opportunities I have had for education, my mind, my healthy body, and the light of Christ in my life.
The next question I have to ask is WHAT HAVE I DONE with these incredibly precious things? When I return to the Lord and he asks me this question, will I be ashamed and defensive: “I didn’t lead a really bad life, per se. I never shot anyone or embezzled funds or worked for the Mafia. Uh, here’s your coin back.”
Or will I be like the servants who had faith and had something valuable to show for their labors? and I don’t doubt that they worked hard; they were servants – servants by definition have to work.
If we see the parable as applying to our mortality, then talents include the rich opportunities we have been given: the natural endowments and the abilities we are fortunate enough to acquire as we go along; the guidance of the spirit; the truths of the gospel; the advantages we are given by nature of the time in which we are born and the very TIME we have on earth itself. These are all on loan to us. What will we do with them?
This broader definition of talents helps me prioritize and find balance – something I’ve been really struggling with lately. I’ve always said, when I grow up, I want to be a famous writer. I’ve been told by my family and friends that I have talent. Well, I’m sorry to say it has gone to my head and I’ve been having all these visions of publishing something amazing. Lately, I’ve been spending more and more time absorbed in writing projects but I’ve also been consumed by a sense that I’m neglecting my family and home responsibilities in the process. It’s like I have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, except they are both angels: both inherently good things. One voice says: You need to develop your talents! The other says: But your children need you and you have a sink full of dirty dishes waiting for you!!!
Last night as I studied this parable again, I suddenly realized that, in the wider sense of the word, my children are my talents. The lord has not given them to me as a gift. He has entrusted them to me as a stewardship. Every minute I spend with them is an investment in their growth and development.
Another interesting thing about the parable of the talents is that the lord of the house is gone a LONG TIME and it specifically mentions that he travels to a FAR country. Hopefully, I’ll have plenty of time to raise my kids and also develop my other, more creative talents along the way. There are different seasons in life.
There’s another thing about the parable that puzzles me. Why didn’t the servant all receive the same amount of talents to begin with?
The scripture doesn’t exactly clarify this issue. It says that the Lord “gave to every man according to his several ability.” Diversity is one of the harder truths of life. As my mother always told me: life isn’t fair. We all begin from different starting points and I don’t think the Lord has ever really explained to us why this is other than the fact that we will be held accountable for what we’ve been given. I am deeply troubled when I hear stories of children in abusive homes or people in horribly violent places like Darfur and I wonder How is it that I was blessed with so much when others seem to have been born with two strikes against them? This parable reminds me that where much is given, much is required.
I think it’s interesting that originally, the word talent comes from the process of lifting things up, as in weighing on a balance. During Old Testament times, a talent was not a unit of currency but a unit of weight used to determine the value of something else (like precious metals) by comparing them on a balance or scale. How ironic that we often are still stuck in this same definition of talents today. How many of us value our talents only as they measure up or compare to others? There are even certain very popular television shows (I’m sure I don’t have to name names) dedicated to singing and dancing competitions with panels of judges who rate and pass judgment on the talents of others.
I spend a lot of time for my job studying the lives and accomplishments of very talented people: artists, musicians, architects, writers. What if I also spent my life lamenting the fact that unlike Mozart I could not write a symphony when I was 8 years old and unlike Shakespeare, I will never write literature that will be read by millions of people and change the very shape of the English language? I think this is partly why the 3rd servant was afraid. He probably thought: I just can’t measure up to everyone else. Especially since he saw that he only had one talent. But remember, that one talent was worth a huge amount – even more than one man could carry in silver. What a waste it was for him to hide it away.
Gordon B. Hinckley shares this attitude: “My talents may not be great, but I can use them to bless the lives of others. I can be one who does his work with pride in that which comes from his hand and mind.”
Above all, we must never forget to acknowledge that all talents and opportunities and abilities come from God. The Lord has said, “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things” (D&C 59:21).
I think it’s meaningful that this parable falls between two other familiar parables about the Last Judgment: the parable of the 10 virgins and the separation of the sheep from the goats. The story of the talents ends with an accounting, a reporting to the Lord. This is one thing that makes the gospel of the New Testament, the new law, harder to live than the Old Law. It’s one thing to avoid breaking any commandments. It’s entirely another and more difficult thing to be accountable for all the things YOU COULD HAVE DONE and did not. James 4:17 says “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”
It’s a bit daunting, actually, to think of it that way. But that’s where faith comes in, and the two servants were described as FAITHFUL servants. They did not fear because they knew the very master who had given them their talents, would be pleased with whatever efforts they had made to enlarge them. I also believe that, in my version of the story at least, the Lord is not FAR away. He is always close by and there to guide me as I try to find balance, as I make mistakes and learn from them, as I slowly learn the value of the precious opportunities on loan to me.