The Ambiguity of Talent

Close up of old English dictionary page with word superlative

the ambiguity of talent

The ambiguity of talent

We use the word talent to connote skill or expertise. Often, we mean an individual with intrinsic aptitudes toward a thing, whether it be athletics or mathematics, someone with unusual ability. Frequently, organizational recruiters look for specific aptitudes in people considered potential employees. In our “flattened secularized culture” (I love this phrase used by Bishop Robert Barron in his Word on Fire series) however, we perceive these capacities as our own, as our property to do with as we wish. Rarely do we see these capabilities as gifts, on loan.

But yesterday’s Gospel parable about talents confounds our twenty-first- century assumptions when we ponder a lengthy conversation between Jesus and the disciples about a man going on a journey who entrusts his possessions to his servants:

“A man going on a journey
called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.
To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one–
to each according to his ability.
Then he went away.

Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them,
and made another five.
Likewise, the one who received two made another two.
But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground
and buried his master’s money.
After a long time
the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them.
The one who had received five talents
came forward bringing the additional five.
He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents.
See, I have made five more.’
His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master’s joy.’
Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said,
‘Master, you gave me two talents.
See, I have made two more.’
His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master’s joy.’
Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said,
‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person,
harvesting where you did not plant
and gathering where you did not scatter;
so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.
Here it is back.’
His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant!
So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant
and gather where I did not scatter?
Should you not then have put my money in the bank
so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?
Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten.
For to everyone who has,
more will be given and he will grow rich;
but from the one who has not,
even what he has will be taken away.
And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’”

Looking through a 21st century lens, this is a strange parable, especially the two paradoxical sentences, “to everyone who has more will be given and from the one who has nothing, even the nothing will be taken away.” Not to mention the blatant and terrifying threat to the man who, out of fear, buried the master’s talent. But once we think about the words, we begin to understand, albeit slowly.

In this allegory, Christ is using ‘talent’ as currency, a measure of wealth during the Roman and Greek empires. Using the vocabulary of faith, we can easily translate the coins into the skills and abilities we are given through our God- given natures. Whether they be intelligence, wealth, beauty or health, people of faith understand these are gifts from the Creator. With some regularity, we see athletes, in basketball, football and even in the Olympics drop on a knee, point heavenward or verbally give credit for a win to God.

However, a brief meditation by Father Tadeusz Dajczer, a Polish priest and theologian in the Magnificat meditation for Saturday digs deeper into the meaning of Christ’s words.

First, the priest warns us not to be slothful in using all the things that God is continuously giving us. Slothful, a word that begs for attention.

If that is not enough to keep us a bit on edge, Fr. Dajczer then writes about our gifts and skills as opportunities given to us by God who is ‘not indifferent about what you do with them.’ Less threatening language perhaps but still uncomfortably clear.

Last, we are reminded that just as the existence of the aptitude carries with it a Godly expectation of use, so does its absence. If we have not been graced with good health but ill health, we are asked by Christ, “What are you doing with this talent?” Everything is gift, even when the package is wrapped in sickness or what looks like lack.

I am reminded of an article on suffering I wrote not long after I became a Catholic.

“In a world awash in pain, how tragic that all this pain is wasted, pain
that could be united with the suffering of Christ to achieve enormous good.”
These words of John Cardinal Cushing beautifully reveal the mystery of
suffering. At the time when Jesus appeared to be utterly powerless, the
Cardinal continues, ” He was radiating the greatest power ever unleashed in
the world. When He was crying out, ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken
me?’ He was filling billions of hearts yet to come with comfort, with
peace.” How can we refuse His generous invitation to share the very grace
that the world so desperately needs?

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