The problem with well-known parables is that they become clichés, losing the original vigor that they once had.
The parable of the talents suffers from this tendency to cliché: God has given us talents, and we cannot keep them hidden. We should offer our talents to God and our neighbor, using the various gifts that God has given us. So, yes trumpet player, step forward and use your talents for the Church.
Yet a careful reading of this text from the Gospel of Matthew will offer a fresh angle on the parable of the talents — one linked to the generosity of God and the tendency we have to squander the merciful generosity of God.
Importantly, a “talent” is not a small sum of money. When you think about a single talent, you have to imagine a giant wheelbarrow of cash. To receive five talents, two talents or even a single talent is to receive an extraordinary sum of money. Even the servant who receives but one talent has benefited from an unsurpassed generosity.
The word “ability” (dunamin) in Greek is not related only to our understanding of talent. It does not mean that we have the talent for singing or dancing. Instead, it is linked to a work of power or a virtue. Think about ability as the one who is most disposed toward action, toward carrying out further works with the received money.
Since a talent is a large quantity of money, there is an absurdity to the parable. When the servant who received a single talent begins to bury it in the ground, one has to imagine a bizarre scene. Picture someone attempting to hide a million dollars (in coins) in the ground. Wouldn’t someone discover it? Is not this servant a fool?
The master returns after being away for quite some time, waiting to hear what has happened to his investment. The servants who received five and two talents doubled their master’s profit. Entering the master’s joy means to share in the graciousness, the eternal favor of the master.
But the burier of the talent of cash is not so lucky. His talent will be taken away from him and given to the one with 10. And even worse, the master proclaims, “throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Mt 25:30).
Darkness is not just the physical night. The burier of the talents is now removed from the favor of the master, existing outside his sight.
All that is left is the weeping and gnashing of teeth. This image appears throughout the Gospel of Matthew to refer to those who are in Gehenna.
Gehenna is historically the place where fallen Israel offered their children in sacrifice. It became a space for trash, criminals and dead animals. Eventually, Gehenna became an image of eternal torment, a space devoid of grace.
The parable of the talents is not about playing trumpet. It’s not a story to use for Stewardship Sunday or the ministry fair.
Rather, God has given gift beyond gift to the Church. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of the living God. Our whole existence is gift.
But have we buried this gift in our fear of living our faith in the world? Have we squandered the grace of the sacraments? Have we frittered away our vocations as Christians for the sake of power and prestige?
If the answer is yes, there’s still time.
The master is coming back.
Unbury the talent before its too late.
After all, our master has been very generous.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.