Today we hear the classic parable of the talents, and the way Matthew tells it, the setting for this parable is the Mount of Olives. Jesus is talking with his disciples, giving them final advice before he joins them in one last supper. He is giving them some advice that they will need to remember and rely on, namely, be strong, be ready, stay focused.
First, he tells them the story of the ten bridesmaids who wait to go into the wedding. The message seems to be, be prepared for delays and disappointments. And now we hear the story of the three servants who have been entrusted with talents. We use the word talent to mean a gift for playing music or sports, or the ability to speak or write or repair computers. Interestingly, this modern meaning of the word “talent” developed out of this very parable of Jesus. Originally, a talent was simply a measure of weight, the weight of silver or gold or some precious metal. Later it came to denote a fixed amount that metal, and more recently it has come to mean a fixed amount of skill or ability.
St. Paul writes about the different gifts each of us possesses:
“Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership….. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all posses gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?”
When we think of talents in the church, we sometimes think of Paul’s descriptions of gifts. Much of the time, we seem to focus not so much on gifts as on contributing what we can, as we are able. In today’s story, a man is going on a journey and he leaves talents with his servants: the first servant is given 5 talents, the second 2 and the third is given one talent. He does not tell them what to do, he just goes to Las Vegas and leaves them in charge of the money. The servant that was given five talents traded with them and made five more talents. The servant that had been given two talents did likewise, and made two more talents. But the servant that just given just one talent buried it for safekeeping, because he was afraid. When the man came back, his servants gave him the talents – the first that had been given five gave back ten, the second that had been given two gave back four, but the third that had buried his talents just gave back one. The man was furious and threw him out of the house.
The fact that he is evicted is curious because at that time, and for centuries afterward, it was common to bury money to keep it safe. He buried it, it was safe, and then he returned it. Jewish law forbade the charging of interest, so he did not invest it—but still, the man was furious.
So, how much money is a talent anyway? A talent was a measure of money equal to 6,000 silver coins in those days, which is approximately equal to what one person might earn in 20 years of hard work. By today’s standards, it’s roughly 3/4 of a million dollars, or $750,000. So, to update the story, the first servant is given 4 million dollars, the second 1.5 million and the third $750,000. Servants were not trusted with that kind of money, so the talents refer to something else.
One day, as Jesus returned to glory after His time on earth, the Archangel Gabriel approached him and said, “Lord, you must have suffered terribly down there.” Gabriel was looking at the wounds left by the nails. Jesus nodded. Gabriel continued: “And do people know and appreciate how much you loved them and what you came to show them?” Jesus replied, “Oh, no! Not yet, but a handful of people in Palestine know.” Gabriel was perplexed and asked, “Then what have you done to let everyone know about God’s love for them?” Jesus said, “I’ve asked Peter, James, John, and a few others to tell people about my work. Those who hear will tell others, who in turn, will tell more people. My story will someday reach around the globe and everyone will hear about the love of God.”
Gabriel frowned and looked rather skeptical. He knew a little something about human beings, after all. He said, “Yes, but what if Peter and James and John burn out or get too exhausted to continue? What if the people who come after them forget? What if centuries from now, people just stop telling others about your work? What is your Plan B?”
And Jesus answered, “I don’t have a Plan B, I have only Plan A. I’m relying on people.”
If we understand this parable as a way of spreading the Word of God, then the master’s anger makes more sense. If we replace the word ‘talents’ with the phrase ‘love of Christ’, we understand why it cannot be buried, or hidden away for safekeeping.
Jesus has no other plan to spread the news that the Kingdom of God is breaking into this world and has already won the victory over the kingdoms of this world. Twenty centuries later, He still has no Plan B. He’s counting on you and me as part of Plan A. His early disciples embraced his vision for humanity and devoted themselves to reaching out to a world desperately in need of love. Jesus counted on them, and they did their best.
As Catholics, we often hear the expression, “the deposit of faith”– a term which denotes the experience of being Catholic that we inherit from our forebears. As we approach the end of another liturgical year, perhaps we need to look within and ask ourselves, “Why am I still withholding some of the treasure given to me? What do I need to leave behind so I can step out in complete trust? How have I passed on the love of Christ? What have I done with my $750,000??