THE CULTURE OF WESTERN EUROPE which we have inherited is based on the ideas and methods of Greek philosophy. We use abstractions, logic and the devices of classical thought to express ourselves. That sort of thinking was alien to the Semites of the ancient Middle East. Where a classic philosopher might speak of generosity, a Middle Easterner would tell a story about a generous person. The parables found in Scripture are examples of stories told to teach a truth.
The greatest number of parables in Scripture is found in the Gospels, but the Lord Jesus was hardly the first to teach in parables. One of the most striking parables in the Old Testament is found in 2 Samuel 12:1-9. In it the prophet Nathan confronts King David who has arranged the death of Uriah the Hittite so that he could marry Uriah’s wife. Nathan makes his point with a story: “Then the Lord sent Nathan to David. And he came to him, and said to him: ‘There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare a meal for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it.
“So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the LORD lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.’ Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’…” (vv. 1-7). Parables such as this use concrete narratives to express abstract arguments. Here Nathan was reproaching David for his own actions under the figure of the rich man in the parable. Very likely, the parable was much more effective that a discourse on the Commandments would have been.
Parable of the Talents
The Lord Jesus teaches His followers about what we would call “stewardship” in the parable of the talents. In the Mediterranean world a talent (talanton) was a measure of weight. In the Palestine of Christ’s day a talent would have equaled 130 pounds, as of a precious metal (silver or gold). Today a pound of gold might be worth $15,000.00, so three talents (390 pounds) was a considerable sum. The master expects his servants to be productive: to increase the value of what he was given.
The first two servants in the parable did exactly that; the third fellow buried the money in the ground. He did not squander what he had received, but he did not increase its value either. On his return the master commended the first two servants, but told the third: “You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest” (vv. 26-27). Even that would have been productive but the servant did not even make the effort to do that.
The Lord points us to the parable’s spiritual meaning in its first line: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” (v. 14) this. There will be productive servants who will be rewarded and foolish ones who will be humiliated… and worse. As we read earlier in Matthew, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). The basis for this judgment will be what the servants have done with the wealth entrusted to them.
When Will the Master Arrive?
There have been several answers to this question because the parable applies equally to all of them, human nature being what it is. The original reference may have been to Christ’s coming to Jerusalem which exposed some servants as productive and others as wasteful. In this interpretation the Messiah Himself is the pearl of great price. Some received Him to their profit; others wasted their chance of entering His joy.
Some have said that the Master entrusts Himself to us in any number of ways: in the Scriptures, the Eucharist, the Church, the poor. The way we respond to His presence shows whether we are bearing fruit or not. The most common interpretation is that at the Second Coming of Christ His servants will receive what their deeds deserve.
What Do the Talents Represent?
The Fathers offered varied answers to this question as well. St. John Chrysostom said that, “This parable is delivered against those who will not assist their neighbors with money, or words, or in any other way, but hide all that they have.”
St. Jerome interpreted it to mean that, “In the five, two, and one talent, we recognize the diversity of gifts wherewith we have been entrusted.” St. Gregory of Nyssa expands on this thought, pointing to all the gifts believers receive in and for the sake of the Church: “Let him then who has understanding look that he hold not his peace; let him who has affluence not be dead to mercy; let him who has the art of guiding life communicate its use with his neighbor; and him who has the faculty of eloquence intercede with the rich for the poor.”
Each of us in the Church has received talents of various kinds and degrees. As St Paul taught, they are meant to be used for the benefit of the community: “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:6-8). If we use our gifts to benefit the Church they will increase and bear fruit; if we bury them we will incur the judgment of the Master.
The theme of this parable echoes in the hymns of Holy Week, when it is most timely.
You have received equal grace from God, so increase the talent with the help of Christ who gave it to you and sing: Bless the Lord, O works of the Lord!
You have heard the judgment of the one who hid the talent, O my soul. Therefore, do not hide the Word of God. Proclaim His wonders, so that increasing His gift, you may enter into the joy of the Lord.
Come, O faithful, let us work eagerly for the Master, for He distributes wealth to His servants; and let us increase the talent of grace, each one according to his ability. Let one adorn his wisdom with good deeds. Let another beautify the celebration of the service. Let someone strong in faith communicate the word to the uninitiated, and another dispense his wealth to the poor. Thus, we shall increase what has been loaned to us and, like faithful stewards of grace, shall be worthy of the Master’s joy. O Christ God, make us worthy of that joy, for You are the Lover of Mankind.
Behold, O my soul, the Lord has entrusted you with a talent. Receive His gift with fear. Repay the Giver by giving to the poor and make the Lord your Friend, so that when He comes in glory, you may stand at His right hand and hear His blessed voice: Enter, O servant, into the joy of your Lord. Though I have gone astray, make me worthy of that joy, O Savior, through Your great mercy.