Proverbs 31:10–13, 19–20, 30-31
The word “talent” in English has come to mean a kind of innate or natural skill or aptitude for some physical or mental activity. One has a talent for playing the piano or singing, for instance. Or one has a talent for a certain sport. We think of talent as an ability or skill that we possess somewhat naturally. Ironically, it may well be that this parable about talents, master and servants led to that understanding, even definition of the word.
I say ironically, because originally and in the parable, the talent was a large amount of money. Some say one talent was worth 15 years’ salary. Today we would say the master entrusted his servants with millions of dollars. While we may say that we have talents, given by God, and we should use them, develop them, and then give them back, and that is true enough, a close listening to this Jesus parable takes a slightly different approach. The parable says that the master entrusts talents, large sums of money. He does this because they already have the “talent” to handle it. The master gives his possessions precisely because he sees that his servants are skilled and competent to handle them. The parable takes for granted the “talent” of the servants to receive and work with the master’s precious entrustment. The master entrusts his possessions to his servants; in that word “entrusts,” there is implied a positive relationship between the master and his servants and there is a certain expectation on the part of the servants.
So the focus seems to be on what is the talent. On the surface, the talents are millions of dollars. But the parable is about the Kingdom of God. In kingdom language, the talent may well be certain aspects of being a disciple of Jesus. Jesus was with the disciple-servants for a certain length of time, and then he died, rose and left the disciples to go home to the Father. He is not here, he is away, but he promised to return. What he left us was a new way of life; he left us his word to listen to and then to put into action. The parable says the master entrusted, implying a special relationship, his possessions to his servants. Jesus has clearly entrusted to us his relationship with his Father. That is what he possesses, that is the gift he hands on to us. He opens our eyes to see how his Father wants his children to be. Jesus goes about breaking down any barriers that would get in the way of our being called his children. He gives us his word and in the same breath, he says we too can be his brother or sister when we hear the Father’s word Jesus speaks and we do it. Doing his word makes us a part of the family of Jesus.
Jesus shows us the way of living like children of God, children of the light, Paul says today: a concern for the weak and the stranger, a commitment to forgiveness no matter how many time one is hurt, turning one’s check, loving the enemy, a care for mercy and justice, and the willingness to take up the cross believing that in carrying it is the only way to true life. All this is the million dollar talent the master has entrusted to us.
Jesus possesses the love and life of the Father; he possesses a way to live out that life and love and he has handed it over to us. In our “yes” to him, no matter how fragile, we acknowledge that we want to live this new life and are able to carry it out. With baptism we were given the Spirit that enables us to do it. We hold a precious gift even in the earthenware vessels of our lives. But that is the trust that the master, Jesus, God the Father has in us. Earthenware vessels can hold a treasure and share it.
Let us be honest! Really, this parable is a tragedy. Usually when there are three characters in a parable, it is the last one who comes out the winner. Think of the Good Samaritan. The first two people who pass by are the losers, the stranger and the foreigner (Samaritan) is the winner. But today, it is the reverse. The last one loses. What happened? Well, he took his millions, his precious gift of having a forgiving and loving Father, and he buried it! It was safe! And in the way of thinking at the time, since he buried it, if someone else stole it, he was not responsible! He had the precious gift of being a disciple of Jesus but he did not take that gift and encounter the world with it. While the Master was gone, the world went on, times changed, people came and went, but he was afraid to have the Good News speak to the world. He thought he had to keep it safe, don’t let anything change it. Don’t let somebody else get it. What was the result of this way of thinking? In the end, he lost it because he did not grow and he did not take the talent with him and interact in the world that was changing. The Good News died because it had no chance to meet, challenge and grow in new circumstances, in a different world from what even the master knew. But just maybe, that is why he, the master, entrusted the talent of Good News, of the Word of God, to the servant in the first place: so that he or she could carry it through history.
The parable reflects a male world. But the reading from Proverbs gives us a wife, a woman. She shows us what doing the talent looks like. The key word is the same as in the gospel. The husband has “entrusted” something to his wife (“Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize” (Prov. 31:11)). And what has he entrusted to her— his heart. This is his most precious possession, his very self, so to speak. His heart is where he thinks, feels, makes decisions. The description of the wife’s life is a description of what can happen when someone entrusts their heart to you. You live from that heart and you make that heart everything, and your world becomes rich with generosity to those around you because you have been trusted. You hold nothing back. Your skill becomes service out of love. Once again, the woman is the model for the disciple. Last Sunday it was the same–five wise virgins!…. Has not Jesus entrusted his heart to us, his very desire, his love, his very self? He did what he did for us. There is an expectation, and rightly so, that what has become gift to us, we will in turn activate in the world around us. But why would we not do that? What we have, this precious relationship, we dare to risk, sharing it in unknown, even unthinkable places and with people of all kinds. Love is like that; it goes out of itself.
True love, God’s covenantal love, involves accountability. We have been given a talent or two of God’s love in Christ. When we have lit up the world around us with love, then the Master can say on the last day, when he comes to take us with him to the Father’s bosom, come faithful one, share in my joy. Joy is the final talent the master give us. It is the crown of risking love and sharing in our world with the same fidelity, mercy and trust that our Master did.
Joel Macul, OSB