This parable is confusing. Who punishes a person for returning property—unharmed—that he was pledged to protect? Where is the justice in taking from the least and giving to those with the most? What kind of person brags about harvesting where he did not plant? And what does this grasping and petulant man have to do with the God whose evenhanded generosity sends rain on the just and unjust alike?
‘Come, share your master’s joy.’ (Mt 25:21)
What Gospel talents has Christ given you?
How do you further those talents?
To break open this parable, it helps to remember that Matthew was a Jew speaking to Jews about Jews. Matthew believed that Judaism was a treasure of divine grace for all humanity and that this gift was clearest in Christ. Matthew also believed that the Hebrew Scriptures contained everything necessary to believe in Jesus Christ.
The talents thus represent the word of God. Those Jews who came to believe in Jesus Christ were doubly graced. They found the word through study of the Scriptures and through the Spirit. The man with five talents represents these believers, who, in Matthew’s community, led the propagation of the Gospel. The man with two talents, then, represents those Gentiles who, without the benefit of Scripture, somehow still recognized the truth about Jesus. Their lack of knowledge limited their efforts to spread the Gospel, but the example of their faith still inspired some to come to Christ. The man with one talent, meanwhile, represents those who, although they possessed the Scriptures, failed to understand them, resisted Christ and hindered the Gospel. It made sense to Matthew that the “talent” given them, the Hebrew Scriptures, be passed to their fellow Jews who would use it for Christ.
Jesus was only on this earth for a short time. He planted a few seeds but left it to his disciples to work toward an abundant harvest. This task continues today. Like the person with five talents, Christians have access to the same Scriptures and the same Spirit. Guided by the insights that these gifts provide, Christians can take the risks necessary to spread the Gospel, ensuring that, on his return, Christ will be able to gather where he did not plant.
This task requires clarity. In English, the word talent originally meant a “large sum of money,” as it does in Greek. Specifically under the influence of this parable, it came over time to mean a “natural capacity for success in some mental or physical activity.” This is not what Matthew used it to symbolize. Although our society calls “talents” those gifts that serve fields like art or sport, it is not a flair for painting or pole-vaulting that will provide admission to the master’s joy. The “talents” of this week’s Gospel passage are rooted in the word and often go overlooked. No one hands out Nobel prizes for generosity, medals of honor for forgiveness or an Olympic gold medal for loving an enemy, but this is more what Matthew had in mind. When we take risks like these, the word grows stronger in us and grows in appeal to others. When the Master returns, he will want to know what we did to further the compassion, humility, freedom and love he entrusted to us. Blessed are those who will place an abundance into his hands.