Priceless talents

When you hear talent, you might think of that You Tube image of Simon Cowell enchanted by Susan Boyle’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.”

You can draw a straight line from our conception of talent—a striking or extraordinary skill, gift or aptitude found in artists, athletes and others—to the biblical root (Gk. talanton) found in Matthew 25:14-30. A talent in 1st century Judea was a unit of weight and, since money was metal coins, of currency.

But the first problem we encounter with this parable is shedding the contemporary usage. It’s like trying to re-position hardware on a piece of furniture. You drill a new hole right next to the old one, but no matter how hard you try, the screws keep wandering back into the original.

So, with a few minor variations (and you can Google the parable to verify this), we typically end up with:  The Lord has given us talents. And we must use them.

This is the kind of simplistic exposition that makes me think, That’s it? I got up early on a Sunday morning and drove 25 minutes to learn this?

Of course, if you read this in most study Bibles, you’ll find a helpful footnote that explains that a talent was roughly equivalent to 20 years’ worth of a laborer’s wages. The NIV translation has changed talents to bags of gold. That helps, a little.

But it’s not just the shift from generic thing of value to specific unit of money that matters, especially since it’s so easy to revert to our modern sense of the word by reading bags of gold as a metaphor.

It’s the amounts that are staggering. Do a little math and you find that five talents are three lifetimes of a laborer’s wages. Even the servant with one talent received the equivalent of a 20-year advance on his pay.

Clearly, Jesus is using hyperbole as he has in other teachings: to emphasize the extraordinary dynamics of kingdom life (cf. the parable of the unforgiving servant, whose debt of 10,000 talents is forgiven but then cannot forgive the 100 denarii debt of another, Mt 18:21-35). This contrast is even more obvious when the one-talent servant complains, “Sir, I knew you were a hard man” (!) (v. 24).

You also can’t understand the master’s reactions if we’re talking about talented persons in our modern sense of the word. “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That’s a bit harsh if we’re looking at a singer or an athlete who doesn’t live up to her potential, isn’t it?

To lay hold of the extravagance of the master’s generosity (and understand the lazy servant’s sin) we have to look elsewhere. To borrow from Paul’s letter to the Romans, the servant showed “contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience” (Rom 2:4). Yes, riches.

As an exercise, sit down sometime and enumerate the benefits we enjoy as servants of our Master: the Spirit of God given to guide, console, teach and encourage us; teachers and pastors to lead us to maturity; the patience, mercy and abiding presence of God as we turn personal weakness to strength; “seventy times seven” instances of forgiveness when we continue to fall.

Peter wrote, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” “Through them [we] may participate in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:3-4).

Just as the master in the parable wanted the servants to put his talents to work, Peter wrote, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control.” You’ve been given much; therefore, add to it.

And what of the lazy servant’s condemnation? To begin to understand the depths of his failure, consider what it is like when your generosity goes unappreciated or even scorned.

Though it pales in comparison to the master’s extravagance, think of the parent who foots the bill for his son or daughter to go to college. Nowadays, that can cost as much as the median income of an American parent.

You pay the tuition, you pay room and board, you pay for books, clothes and a weekly allowance to forego starchy dining hall food for one evening. And because he’s lazy and unmotivated, your son flunks out after two semesters.

Think of the anger and resentment you feel. Out of your savings, you gave him everything he needed, just as the master gave each servant his talents. And he wasted it. The blood, sweat and tears that went into making those talents available to him—gone!

We know that “the riches of his kindness” are freely given. But they were not freely obtained. The shame, the humiliation, and the agony of the cross were the price of the talents we have received.

The lazy servant’s response was not the wavering second guessing of a man wondering if he really heard from God. Unbelief is doubt expressed with conviction.

“I knew that you are a hard man,” he said. Is there a more tragic display of unbelief in all of Scripture?

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