My Dear People,
The parable of the talents is yet another parable about the kingdom of heaven. This is not explicitly stated in the opening line, but the initial words in Greek point to a continuation of what was preceding. The theme is basically the same: readiness for the coming of the Lord requires both foresight and investment of effort on the part of disciples. Again, a clear distinction is made between faithful and foolish responses to Jesus during his absence.
The scenario is that of a rich man (the Son of Man) who entrusts his wealth to servants (disciples) while he goes off on a journey (his death, resurrection, and ascension). These servants are given a monetary trust, which each receiving a different amount corresponding to his individual ability. The first receives five talents, the second, two, and the third, one. The master’s expectation is that his servants should engage in some business venture that will yield a profit for him (see Luke 19:13).
It is impossible to calculate what each talent has worth in modern currency. The talent was a measurement of weight, and value of any given talent depends on whether it was, gold, silver or copper. Nevertheless, all agree that a single talent was a significant amount of wealth to be used in commercial trading. It is remarkable that the servants entrusted with five and two talents doubled the master’s money before his return. However, the servant with one talent declined to invest altogether and buried his talent in a hole in the ground for safekeeping.
Most commentators identify the talents of the parable with personal endowments of some sorts. One might think of natural abilities and aptitudes that are meant to be used for the services of others. Similarly, the financial resources entrusted to us are to be invested for the good of others, especially the poor (see 6:3-4; 19-21). One could also apply the talent to spiritual gifts that are meant to be used for the edification of the Church. Each of these interpretations represents a legitimate way to read the parable and apply its lessons today.
Beyond this, a good case can be made that each talent represents “knowledge” of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (see 13:11). Mathew’s readers are cued to make this connection in verse 29, where the principle of receiving “more” or having it “taken away” is precisely what Jesus said earlier about his disciples’ knowledge of the kingdom (see 13:12). Remember that the disciples unlike the crowds, were blessed to receive the interpretation of the parables in private (13:16). Their instruction in the kingdom is the sacred trust to be invested through a ministry of reaching and teaching the nations (see28:19-20).
When the master returns to settle accounts with his servants, the first two are praised and promoted. Since both made a 100 percent return on their investment, both are told: Well done, my good and faithful servant and Come, share your master’s joy. Having been trustworthy in small matters, they are promised great responsibilities. This is the same principle enunciated in 24:47, namely, that fulfilling spiritual duties well earns even more of the Lord’s trust.
Then the servant in charge of one talent renders his account with an excuse for giving back the same amount. Because he knew his master to be a demanding person, raking in profits whenever could, he was paralyzed with fear at the thought of losing his master’s money. This is why he buried the talent rather than invested it.
The reply of the master is a stern and stinging rebuke. In his view, the very reason cited for burying the talent should have been motivation to trade with it. Even the small amount of interest he could have earned from a bank would have been better than no return at all. But having failed to make even a minimal effort, he is branded as a wicked and lazy servant.
Confining ourselves to the storyline of the parable, the master’s rebuke seems excessively harsh. But if the talents represent each servant’s knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (13:11), then the severity of the charge is understandable. Being entrusted with the message of salvation entails great responsibility. To sit on that message or to bury it for ourselves is a serious breach of responsibility to the Lord, who calls us to share his good news with the world. He does not want us to give it back to him unshared and unfruitful. The concluding verses are a sentencing of the wicked servant to the darkness that lies outside the kingdom. Even the one talent he had been given in trust by his master is taken away and given to some other.
These are sobering words that every disciple of Jesus needs to hear. Whatever we have been given—natural abilities, financial resources, spiritual gifts, or stewardship of the mysteries of the kingdom—we will have to render an account for the way we have used what has been entrusted to us. Only by investing our gifts and turning a profit for the Lord will we enter into the joy of his kingdom.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Vincent Clemente