Stewardship of Talent
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | November 7, 2019Hi friends, as I mentioned last week, whenever we talk about stewardship, we usually talk about time, talent, and treasure. I wrote about time last week. This week’s post is about talent.
Last week, one of the things we saw about time is that, for whatever reason, we’ve come to talk about time as though it were money: we spend it, save it, waste it, etc. The opposite is true about talent: the word used to have a monetary meaning (a particular weight of money), but we’ve left that behind. Today, what we mean by talent is an innate or habituated quality or skill someone has, like a talent for baking or entertaining or understanding how engines work.
The monetary meaning is behind Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25 (v.14-30). You may remember it: a man goes on a journey, but before he leaves he entrusts his property to the care of his slaves. He gives five talents to one, two to another, and one talent to a third slave. The first two slaves, the one with five talents and the one with two, each trade with the resources entrusted to them, and they double their number of talents. “Well done,” the master says to them, “enter into the joy of your master.”
But the third slave buries his talent in the ground. We hear the slave’s reasoning in verse 24-25: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here,” he says, handing his master back the single talent, “have what is yours.” The master angrily takes the single talent away and gives it to another.
What’s always struck me about this passage is that there’s nothing in the parable that actually suggests the master is harsh other than the fearful words of the talent-burying slave. The master isn’t doing anything unusual. It was common in Jesus’ day for slaves to be entrusted with large amounts of resources and responsibility. It was perfectly normal for landholding masters to benefit from the work of their servants, i.e. to reap “where they did no sow.” Indeed, the first two slaves seem to know intuitively what their respective talents are for. The master himself is the bringer not of harshness, but of joy. The only bizarre thing in the parable is the fact that one of the slaves buries his in the ground. It’s perhaps no coincidence that this is also the slave who sees a harsh master in what appears to be a perfectly normal arrangement for the time.
There’s an odd sense in which the slave’s fear creates the very reality he imagines: the master responds with, “You knew, did you, that that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?” All the more reason, the master effectively says, to have used the talent I gave you rather than bury it! And we get the troubling ending: “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
There is an apocalyptic, ‘end of days’ feel to this parable: two slaves enter into the joy of their master, a sort of messianic banquet, while a third is thrown into the outer darkness. What seems to me to be key in this passage is that the slave who is thrown into the outer darkness has believed—falsely—from the beginning that the Master is harsh, cruel, vengeful. The evidence, however, suggests that this Master is openhanded, willing to trust his servants, and ready to celebrate with them for having taken the risk of using what they’ve been given. The outer darkness, then, is simply the coming-to-be-true of the lie that the third slave has been telling himself. He’s in the dark, like a bright and life-giving talent foolishly and fearfully buried in the ground. It is not the Master’s Word by which he lives and has lived, but his own. It is his own sentence he pronounces.
While the talents in this parable are amounts of money, it is precisely this parable that forms the basis for our modern understanding of the word talent as a skill, or the quality of being gifted in a particular way. It is not difficult to see why. A talent that is shared does some good; it’s generative, fruitful. A talent buried in the ground is no talent at all. If I think of myself as a talented dinner host, but I never actually have anyone over for dinner—well, I’m not actually a dinner host at all, am I? My talent is buried in the dark of unbeing.
Our talents, whether an innate ability or cultivated skill, are only truly ours to the extent that we use them. Talents exist in traveling beyond us; we must practice them into being in a community. The two slaves who traded, which is to say used their talents, for example: it’s not hard to imagine them walking into town together, swapping ideas along the way, meeting other folks in the marketplace, splitting some nachos on the way home with some of the extra cash. There’s an openness to the use of the talents, a necessarily people-oriented posture. When talents are allowed to travel beyond the home, the home is enriched.
For whatever reason, our third slave seems stricken with a kind of myopia, as though the only two figures in the story are himself and the master. He doesn’t seem to want what the Master has handed him. One can imagine him running out to the field behind the house and frantically digging a hole in which to cast his talent. “Here, have what is yours,” he says, handing the talent back to the master. It’s not clear what scares him more: being responsible for this talent while the master is gone, or seeing the master when he returns from his journey. Every contact this slave has with the master is fraught.
But as noted above, the harsh ‘master’ this third slaves imagines doesn’t seem to be real beyond the slave’s own self-talk. I can’t help but wonder if there’s an unseen force at work in this parable, what we might call a sense of shame in the third slave’s life. After all, one slave got five talents, another two, and he only got one. That’s a recipe for insecurity if ever there was one.
Perhaps that’s why the third slave buries his talent in the ground. What is a gift from his master feels to him like a reminder of his being less-than. He’d rather have no talents at all than use his one talent alongside those with more talent(s). This is the real tragedy of the parable: it never occurs to the third slave that it’s not the amount that matters, but his goodness and trustworthiness with what’s been entrusted to him. After all, the slave with five talents has over twice as much as the slave with only two, and yet to both of those slaves the Master says equally, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave…enter into the joy of your master” (v.21 and 24). The slave with two talents got no more and no less joy from the Master than did the slave with five: for each, the joy is complete.
How often do we avoid offering ourselves for this or that role because we’re anxious or ashamed that we might not measure up? How often do we keep to ourselves rather than stepping forward because we’re worried we might not seem to do as well as that five-talented person over there?
Or maybe it’s not about having only one talent, but that he’s being asked to use it while the master is away on a journey, which is to say without the master there telling him exactly how to use it. Maybe it’s not about shame in comparing himself to the others, but about not trusting himself to use any talents at all. Maybe he just doesn’t think he’s capable enough.
We know what this feels like, too, don’t we? It never even occurs to us to offer ourselves for this or that kind of role because—well, where would we even begin? How could we possibly trust ourselves to make a decision on our own, or learn enough along the way to feel confident we were getting the job done? If there’s not a master there telling us what to do, how could we do anything right?
But that’s the thing about talents, remember? They’re only ours to the extent that we use them; we have to practice them into being. After all, we don’t know exactly how the slave with five talents turned them into ten. Maybe he got swindled four times in a row, and his trading only paid off with the fifth try.
As Christians, our Master is neither harsh, nor absent. What talents are buried in your backyard that need unearthing?