‘Out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.
Here it is back.’
His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant!
So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant
and gather where I did not scatter?
Should you not then have put my money in the bank
so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?
Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten.
For to everyone who has,
more will be given and he will grow rich;
but from the one who has not,
even what he has will be taken away.
And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
Called the Parable of the Talents because talents were a unit of economic measure preferred by the Authorized or King James Version as well as the Douay-Rheims, the story is among the best-known in the New Testament. Its fundamental meaning is its blessing of the idea of life as adventure, specifically a moral adventure. For the talent stands for many things: for ability, which is distributed unequally, and particularly for grace, while remembering that grace is not a quantity. The parable can even be used to bless capitalism, which is the economic policy of adventure. One imagines talents however one wishes as long as one recognizes that they are gifts from God the giver who expects a good return, who gathers where He did not sow.
There is good news and bad. The good news is the reward given the successful, to those who successfully put their talents at interest is the approval of the Master of the fields. Also good news is the reward granted even the person who was given two talents. The master of the field recognized from the beginning that there were those who would try hard but come in second. The kingdom of the new heart is not only for spiritual heroes, the five talent investors, but for Christians who try hard but do not make the first cut.
All this seems reasonable, perhaps even to people who do not believe. It is when we come to the third man that our expectations are challenged. He was as far as we know harming no one when he received the gift of one talent. He was probably not an expert in investments. He quite reasonably thought that he would just sit on his talent until the Master returned to pick it up, undamaged, its value intact. But instead of a kind thank you from the Master, the third man is, upon his lord’s return, bound and cast into outer darkness, one of Jesus’ images of hell.
Whatever a talent is in the story—and it may be many things—it presupposes the greatest gift, the gift of life. Be it so, the gift of life, like all of God’s gifts, the covenants, even the Incarnation, unsent for, obtruding itself upon a quietly dying world, belief in which divides mankind: even if we are not recipients of five talents or two, we are recipients of that one most precious gift. It may be that on bad days we claim that we did not choose to be born. But the gift of life like all of God’s gifts, like the covenants, like the Incarnation, is given not at our request but at the time and in a way that expresses the perfect Providence of God and effects His will, not ours.
Given that we have received a gift we did not ask for, it is important to notice that a further apparent injustice done the third man will be the fact that the Master is expected to return, asking what each of the three recipients of His generosity has done with the gift conferred. For the gift is given on the divine hope and expectation that the Giver will receive in return a soul perfected in love for Him. At the great final examination there will be no opportunity to re-schedule, to delay, or to take an alternative course.
Perhaps it is true that at the beginning of the great opportunity called life—a gift we cannot decline–we take up one of two attitudes; either gratitude or something else. Gratitude may lead us through the Great Thanksgiving that is the Eucharist to the threshold of the throne of God. The something else; willful neglect of God, cynicism, unbelief, idolatry of some pleasure or temporal good will be the implicit rejection of the Master’s command that, putting aside other fears and aspirations, we grow day by day toward the light that He is. Only then can we be welcomed with the Master’s words, “well done.”
But there is one other chapter in this story. The reward for undertaking the adventure, beyond the approval of the Master and His words “Well done,” is more responsibility. “You have been faithful over a few things; I will make you master over many things.” So those who used the gift well will not rest on their laurels but will be given more: talents, grace, responsibility
The ‘world,’ in the sense in which New Testament writers condemn it, is always opposed to the moral adventure that is the Christian life. One of the most telling and important of the Lord’s sayings is a perfect analogy to the famous Parable of the Talents, Jesus said he who would save his life will lose it, while he who is willing to give up his life will save it into eternity (Luke 17:33). This is the advice the third man needed but did not hear and did not obey. And remember the figure of the seed, which planted in the ground only to die will be reborn in ever greater life. This, too, the third man ignored.
And the third man keeps ignoring it, believing that one can stand aside, behaving as though they have not received the gift or denying its supreme value, pretending that it does not exist and encouraging the illusion that the Giver requires no accounting for the gift given. The compelling lesson of the Parable of the Talents is the good news that those who take the risk and show the increase are welcomed into the pleasure of the Master, who will reward them by giving them more responsibilities. Secondarily, entering the race for human goodness is not an optional activity. Doing nothing does not guarantee a neutral status in the war between good and evil; it enlists the deceived in the march toward outer darkness.
The testimony is that the Church respects the most feeble efforts to live life well. In addition to making room for those who come in second, the two-talents persons, the Church recognizes the honest efforts of the mistaken who seek God and pursue righteousness under false idea of who He is, attempting to pay the debt incurred by accepting the gift of life as best they may.