The words we can trip over

“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

“’What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’

“He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“’You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’

“But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:25-29)

Maybe you have to be a lawyer—or the son and grandson of one, as I am—to appreciate the discomfiture of former president Bill Clinton, who once qualified an answer under oath with, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” which has entered American folklore.

That’s word legalism with so fine a point on it you could pop a child’s balloon, or maybe prick your finger to measure your blood sugar.

And then there are the one spelling/many meanings words with completely unrelated definitions. There is bull the animal, bull the optimistic investor, bull the papal pronouncement that divided the New World between Spain and Portugal in 1494 (so how’s that worked out?), and bull your reaction to the promise of a Christmas bonus. (I spared you the complete vulgarity. You’re welcome.)

The Bible creates another layer of distinctions simply because we read translations. There are lots of them, and if you type in a verse or short passage at a site like the one I use constantly (, you’ll soon see that the same Hebrew and Greek sources yield many variations.

So many talents we have to bury them

And to cloud things even more, an English word transliterated from the original Greek (e.g., Gk talanton becomes English talents in the parable of the talents, Mt 25:14-30) can cause confusion because its intended original meaning may not correspond to contemporary usages.

I wrote about this parable here. In this post, I’ll elaborate on a couple of things.

A talent in first-century Judea was a unit of weight and currency. Most English translations I checked use talents to denote what the master gave the three servants. It used to say talents, but at some point the NIV translation changed to bags of gold.

In value, a talent was approximately 15-20 years’ wages for a first-century laborer. So applied to the three servants, we’re clearly in hyperbole territory here, though not quite on the scale of the parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt 18:21-35; forgiven debt=10,000 talents, each talent 20 years’ wages vs. unforgiven debt=100 denarii, 100 days’ pay).

The three servants received five, two and one talent, “each according to his ability” (Mt 25:15). But this presents an immediate problem.

Our meaning of talent is “aptitude, special skill or ability.” Most popular interpretations don’t stray far from “the Lord has given us talents and we should use them for his glory and kingdom” tack. Your talent might be singing or teaching or organization. Just don’t waste them!

I checked the Greek word (dynamis, inherent power or ability as used here; root of dynamo or dynamite) just to be sure. But from my back-of-an-envelope translation that means he gave the servants abilities, each according to his ability.

That doesn’t make any sense unless dynamis has enough elastic sewn into the waist—ah, the metaphors 63-year-olds come up with—to mean something other than how it is usually translated here, ability. And if the meaning could be stretched, it would be an awkward, fuzzy construction for distinctions that are meant to be clear.

We have different abilities and therefore different gifts because, remember, these were outright gifts of the master’s wealth in the amounts of 100, 40 and 20 years’ worth of wages.

Stop and think about that, and try to imagine what the original audience heard. Given the average life span of the day, the five-talent servant received enough to fund two or three grandkids’ trust funds, because clearly he wasn’t going to live long enough to burn through five talents. (I’m using this to make my point. He was supposed to invest it, which he did, not “burn through” it.)

It’s likely forty years’ wages will outlive you, too. And twenty years’ pay is nothing to sneeze at. You can only go on so many Caribbean and Rhine River cruises if you never have to punch a clock again.

But the other aspect of this is the “day of reckoning” when the master returns. By what criteria did he judge? Remember, he already “prorated” the gifts each according to his ability. So the master’s anger at the last servant is not because he expected a five-talent return on a one-talent investment.

But look at that servant’s response, because that’s clearly how he viewed his master:

“Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew–he knew!–that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed” (25:24).

Now imagine how you would react if you had handed an associate the equivalent of a 20 years’ advance on his salary, asking only that he invest it wisely so as to give back to you a reasonable return, and that person turned around and called you greedy, demanding, unfair, totally unrealistic, wanting to squeeze blood from a turnip, riding the backs of your employees all the way to the bank, etc.

And this after giving him that incredible amount of your money, at no cost whatsoever to him?

Was this servant guilty of succumbing to stage fright for not using his singing talent, or peddling his jewelry boxes at flea markets when he should be taking his work to museums and galleries?  Was he being coy or shy about using his gift because he was embarrassed by the attention he received?

Did it ever seem discordant to you that the master in the parable should be so angry? “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30). That’s pretty harsh, isn’t it? Especially if talents is interpreted in contemporary terms.

This is about being face-to-face with a master who is handing you untold riches—mindful of your abilities, not demanding more than can reasonably be expected—only to have you “show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance” (Rom 2:4).

The talents—bags of gold, the riches of his grace and mercy—have always been free to you and always will be. But how much did they cost? And who paid that price?

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