When I read the parable of the talents, I focus on two levels in the story: which servant I relate to, and what do I think the talents are.
First, there are three servants. One’s given five talents. The next is given two. The final servant is given just one. Just one talent (worth 16 years’ wages at the time). The talents were doled out “each according to his ability.”
I think it’s very interesting that the servant who chose to bury his talent in the ground is the one who had the least. Shouldn’t the servant who received five talents be most fearful? Such responsibility! So much trust! What if I make a big mistake and lose it all? What if I lose even half of it? Half of it is half a lifetime’s wages for a single worker. That’s a big loss. Even the servant with two talents could have been tentative, occupying the middle ground that comes when we’ve amassed some savings, climbed a little way up the ladder, yet remain aware of how close ruin actually is. But both of those servants, with more to lose than the final worker, go out, invest, and bring back rewards. The servant with almost nothing to lose is the one who chooses to take no risk at all! It’s as if the less we have (or perceive we’ve been given) the more tightly we cling to it…because at least it’s something.
It’s human nature to look around and size ourselves up against our fellow travelers. But, comparisons make us tentative at best, and paralyze us at worst. She has more so she can risk more! She’s got enough to feel secure, so she can take chances. (Or, I have so much more to lose! I can’t risk as much as that person with almost nothing!) Either way you take the comparison, you’re stuck in the comparison, not actually using what you’ve been given, no matter how little it seems to be.
So far so good.
Now…what do you think the talents are? Do you think of them as abilities like athleticism, or artistic talent, or a way with numbers or words, or a skill with a scalpel or a blowtorch? I’d like to posit that they’re something even more basic, something that undergirds our natural aptitudes.
Things like courage. Vision. Humility. Resourcefulness. Resilience. Persistence. Just to name a few.
These are our talents, because from these foundational character traits comes our ability to wield a scalpel with confidence, or take a risk and write that book, or reshape the office in which we work to one with greater purpose and respect.
Courage, vision, and risk-tolerance may also seem like traits that people either have or don’t have. To a certain extent, that’s true. Some of us are hobbits, preferring the comforts of home and fire, while others have a greater tolerance for risk, or danger, or new situations. But every day presents us with opportunities to be more brave, more compassionate, to widen our vision while remaining humble. By developing these traits, we enable ourselves to hear God’s voice and intention for our lives, and follow that call. Bravery, compassion, courage, intention, attentiveness, the power of our convictions…these are our talents, and we can nurture them, help them grow. Or we can let them wither underground, remaining static and unchanging. But if that sounds reasonable, going along to get by, remember Matthew 25:29: 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
We come from God with a set of abilities and characteristics that are shaped by our education opportunities, our circumstances, and the people around us. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if we take what we’ve been given back to God, that’s good enough. God’s not losing anything in the process, and if God’s not gaining, well, we’re just one person. But according to this parable, that’s not what God intends. God doesn’t send us into this world fearless, with courage and compassion. We develop and grow those traits through conscious effort, bring back to God what we started with, with interest, at the very least.