21 November 2023, The Tablet

The Parable of the Talents – why sometime we must take scary risks

A33 |19 NOVEMBER 2023 | MATTHEW 25:14-30 

Jesus spoke this parable to his disciples: ‘The kingdom of Heaven is like a man on his way abroad who summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to a third one; each in proportion to his ability. Then he set out.

‘The man who had received the five talents promptly went and traded with them and made five more. The man who had received two made two more in the same way. But the man who had received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

‘Now a long time after, the master of those servants came back and went through his accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents came forward bringing five more. “Sir,” he said “you entrusted me with five talents; here are five more that I have made.”

‘His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness.”

‘Next the man with the two talents came forward. “Sir,” he said “you entrusted me with two talents; here are two more that I have made.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness.”

‘Last came forward the man who had the one talent. “Sir,” said he “I had heard you were a hard man, reaping where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered; so I was afraid, and I went off and hid your talent in the ground. Here it is; it was yours, you have it back.” But his master answered him, “You wicked and lazy servant! So you knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered? Well then, you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have recovered my capital with interest. So now, take the talent from him and give it to the man who has the five talents. For to everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away. As for this good-for-nothing servant, throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.”’

The word ‘talent’ came into the English language through this parable. The translators of the King James or Authorised Version of the Bible used it to render the Greek word talanton, which had come to mean a weight of gold and by extension a sum of money, amounting to what a labourer at the time might hope to earn over 20 years. 

In handing over to his household slaves such vast sums, the master in the parable showed remarkable trust and considerable daring and both were amply repaid. On his return, his wealth had been enlarged through the entrepreneurial skills of his slaves who, with one exception, had doubled what was entrusted to them. It’s the exception, the third slave, who is the focus of the parable. What was it that went so disastrously wrong, leading to such a tragic ending? 

Matthew goes to great pains to provide us with what we’d now call a ‘psychological profile’ of the third servant, the one who played safe, who, instead of putting the money to work, buried it in the ground - the ancient equivalent of opening a current account and, in terms of accrued interest, until very recently, at least, just as unrewarding. Unlike his fellow-slaves, but probably like many of us, change made him jittery: he preferred the safety and stability of the status-quo; he was satisfied with his life just as it was. 

But before taking too dim a view of this cautious individual, we should notice on the plus side that he’s neither lazy nor stupid. From one point of view, he is what many would consider the ideal character, where money, especially other people’s money, is concerned. He is commendably modest and un-showy, not overly ambitious and content with his lot.

He may be dull, but he’s a safe pair of hands: all that you’d hope for in, for instance, a local branch bank manager. But he’s also an astute judge of character: he’s certainly got the measure of his formidable master, who is a both a risk-taker and a hard taskmaster. Not unreasonably, he is afraid of his demanding master. 

And that’s precisely his problem: fear. Fear, however, not only of his master, but of – and for - himself. More specifically, he is paralysed by fear of failure. And yet it’s precisely fear that leads to failure. His failure consists in missing the opportunity his master's initiative generously affords him. His fear robs him of the very thing he hoped his caution would secure and, as a consequence, he loses everything. 

The third servant suffers from an insidious form of fear known as pusillanimity: his mind-set is pusillanimous. Pusillanimity or faintheartedness turns us in on ourselves, especially when faced with change or difficult decisions. Brutus has it in mind in Julius Caesar: 

There is a tide in the affairs of men, 

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. 

Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. Act 4, Scene 3 

But it’s also the kind of fear that induces pride and hypocrisy, making us afraid of, and therefore anxious to conceal, our weaknesses, while at the same time, loudly disapproving of the same weaknesses in others. What we dislike most about others is usually what we dislike most about ourselves, but either don’t admit it or don’t realise it. 

What makes it so difficult to shake off this enfeebling faintheartedness is that it so easily masquerades as virtue: on the surface, the pusillanimous person appears, to themselves or others, humble and modest. But pusillanimity is the very opposite of humility. Humility isn’t self-effacement: on the contrary, it’s knowing and being you true self, the self that God has created, the unique ‘you’ that’s all too often concealed by the false ‘you’, born of fear and faintheartedness or pride and hypocrisy. 

Like the third servant in this gospel, we often falter and fail for lack of trust or perhaps more commonly, through misplaced trust. But whether we place our trust in pensions, bonuses, bigger barns or better botox, we can neither secure our lives nor live them to the full, if we leave out of account God and his providence. God is never doing nothing. 

The point of this parable, then, as in last week’s gospel, is to remind us that the passage of time is inexorable: bold and brave decisions and sometimes scary risks are to be taken now, if we are to enter into the joy of our master and secure what our hearts long for most 

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User comments (1)

Comment by: Paul Heiland
Posted: 04/07/2014 09:29:03
In Germany we call our priests "Mr.", that's it. "Herr Schmidt, Herr Schulz". The exception is with religious, where the Mr. is replaced with "Pater", but only so long as a formal relationship is upheld: When "Du" is offered, we revert to Christian names. This obviously goes for secular clergy too.
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