Gospel reflection: The Parable of the Talents

By their nature it is difficult to know exactly what Jesus meant through His parables. He used their local scenery, culture, and every day acts to explain deep theological concepts in ways that uneducated people of His time could understand. This makes it somewhat difficult for us in the 21st century to understand, as we may not know some of their local customs and practices. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is one that appears easy, but the meaning may not be as obvious.

In this parable a master is going on a journey and gives three of his slaves large amounts of money "according to their ability." When he returns after a long time two of his slaves doubled their money, but one simply buried it and returned the one “talent” back. He said that he did that, presumably to not lose it, because he was afraid of his master, who he accused of being harsh and somewhat dishonest, “reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;” The master was not happy and accused him of being a wicked and lazy slave. “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

A talent is the English translation for the Greek word τάλαντον, which meant 6,000 denarii or about $1,000. One of the slaves got 10 talents, or $10,000, about 15 years worth of wages back then. Because the passage uses the same English word for aptitude or skills (talent), the typical interpretation is that we must make a faithful use of our God-given talents (singing, writing, teaching, healing, cooking, etc.).  The message may be that those that create a multiplying benefit by using their God given skills and even grace, are rewarded and “enter into the joy of your master”, those that squander it will be punished and not enjoy heaven. Doing nothing with our gifts is actually doing harm. The more gifts we receive (10 talents), the more is expected of us.

In Jesus: A Pilgrimage, father James Martin offers two other interpretations. People in countries that don't speak English will not see the connection between the two definitions for "talent." One interpretation is by Father John Donahue and another by Sister Barbara Reid. Father Donahue thinks that the downfall of the third servant was actually caused by his timidity and fear. Perhaps out of fear he imagined the story of the harsh master, which would not make sense given that he just showed generosity and trust by sharing such large amounts of money. So the message may be that we need to “let God be God” and not imagine Him in ways that he is not. To a degree, he created the situation he feared. 

Sister Reid, a professor of New Testament, reminds us that the economy in the time of Jesus was not capitalism, where one could invest money and make it grow. Instead, they believed in “limited good,” where there’s only so much money and one make money by taking it from others. She sees the third servant as the honorable one who refused to cooperate with an unjust system. The message was to encourage the disciples to expose “unfettered greed”, while been ready to suffer the consequences of blowing the whistle on the rich. Jesus could have been calling the disciples to work for justice.

What is the real meaning of Jesus? Is it for us to use our God-given grace and skills for the benefit of humanity? Is it to not create a falsely harsh image of God out of fear, and instead to live and love boldly? Or is it to reject greed and injustice? We will never know with 100% assurance, but I personally see spiritual value in all three interpretations. Why choose?