The Parable of the Talents

I've been reflecting on the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30. Talents were coins, current when Jesus was teaching, and the parable tells how they were handed out to three slaves in proportion to the ability of each one. Their responsibility was to make the most of what they'd been entrusted while their Master was away.

The first two slaves did a great job, and gained more money. When their master returned he rewarded them richly. But then the story takes a sober turn. The third slave had hidden his single coin in a hole in the ground, and his master was furious with him and punished him severely. 

One could almost be tempted to ask whether it was really fair to judge the man so harshly, after all, he was less able than the others. However, to think that way is to miss the point of the parable. It's not about what each one had in the first place, it's about what they or didn't do with what they'd been given, and it’s about their different attitudes.

Some people interpret this parable exclusively in terms of how we use our money. I've been thinking about it in the context of the current meaning of the word ’talent’, about how we use our gifts or abilities. 

I’ve never forgotten a Pastor I heard many years ago. He said (in passing) that he had more problems from the 'talented' people in his Church than all the others put together. I don't actually remember if he was preaching from this parable but he could well have been. It hit home because in some respects I could be considered talented. Did that mean I was or could become a “problem” in my Church? If so, what could I do about it? 

I’ll come back to this question, because first of all, I want to think about those who feel they were left out when God handed out the goodies.

As we look around us, it clear that some people seem to have been blessed with abundant talents and others not. It’s possible to understand why the slave who was only given one 'talent' was fed up but, to be honest, his real problem was not the fact that he was was less able than the first two, rather it was his jealousy and resentment of them and of his master that led to his terrible punishment.

Each one of us can look at others and see in them things we haven't got, or can't do, and would like to have. It's all too easy to be jealous. We can spend so much time coveting what we haven't got that we fail to appreciate what we have. It's not fair, why should my brother be so good at football and I have two left feet; why should my sister be so pretty and I suffer with dreadful acne? Why did God make me like this? We can even secretly blame Him for our shortcomings. We underrate the importance of being a good listener, a faithful friend, a reliable employee, a kind father. These things are precious to God, we should value them. He does.

So, what about the obviously talented people? They can also be jealous and resentful. You may sing well, and then someone who sings much better than you joins the music group. Is your nose put out of joint? What do you do? Stop singing altogether? Try and make sure they don’t get on the rota of soloists? Always sing really loudly to try and drown them out? Doesn’t sound much like brotherly love, does it?

As Christians, our walk is not about winning a competition. God doesn't rate us according to who is the better singer, preacher, or prayer, though people often do. Sadly society teaches us to be competitive.

As a child, my twin sister and I were always compared. Which one of you is better at this, better at that? We both had piano lessons. I gave up as she was better than me, and sang instead. We both drew, but she gave up as I was better than her. She went on to become a maths teacher and I developed dyscalculia, a number dyslexia!

When I became a Christian, I really struggled with pride about my talents, so much so that I virtually gave up art for some 13 years. It was easier for me not to paint at all than to work out how to be be an artist and glorify God alone. Finally I felt God gave me the green light to paint again, and I had to begin to work it out, to practice a daily obedience in using my art for His glory, and not for mine. However, there was a sense in which painting has remained a sleeping giant, ready to wake and take over my life again, if I let it. 

In the last few years, this process has led me to radically refocus my artwork, in order to develop and publish the illustrated Bible stories I’ve produced over the years. As a result of this change of direction, I’m posting this article on the Parables in Pictures website. 

Sometimes I look at other sites providing Kid's Ministry material. There is some absolutely brilliant stuff out there. I confess to having felt discouraged, thinking that my drawings aren't nearly good enough. Is it worth carrying on? Then I remembered that it's not something I am doing for myself, it's for the Lord. I don't have to be better than everyone else to please Him, I only have to be MY BEST, FOR HIM.

Then we can be like a singer who acknowledges and appreciates the other person's song and is still able to joyfully her own to the Lord. After all, every singer has a different quality to his or her voice. We need to celebrate our differences. I believe God does, which is why he made every single human being so unique. He delights in each individual song as much as in the richness of the sound when all these different voices unite to sing His praise.

It's also easy to forget the 'flip' side” of talent, it is also about hard graft and persistence. Have you noticed that the guys who had five and three talents had to go out and put their talents to work. They took their responsibilities seriously. Perhaps the slave who buried his one talent was  lazy. Are we? You might say it's alright for them, she's a natural musician, he's a brilliant athlete. We're awed by their brilliant performances, but are we ready to sweat it out behind the scenes as they do, putting in a minimum of five solid hours of training, day in, day out ...

So, we should ask not only whether we are using the talents God has given us, but also, how are we using them, and more to the point: for whom.

Let me explain: I can sing, I can paint, I can write but, it's the “I” before each verb that poses a problem. The “I” all too frequently gets in the way. It's about ego. Talented people can end up doing their impressive things just to impress others, even God. But He is not taken in and, I guess, that particular pastor wasn't either!

It’s worth remembering that in seeking to gain the world's approval, we risk losing God’s. (Matt 8:36)

When we use the talents God has given us, let it not be for ourselves, not for our glory but, as Paul writes in Colossians 2:17, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

In verse 22 he goes on to say: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.  Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.”

In 1 Corinthians 14:113:1-3, Paul exhorts us all to seek spiritual gifts. Some do so with enthusiasm, others don’t feel bold enough to do so, and there are those who don’t believe that God intends these gifts for us any more. For whatever reason, in most Churches we see certain people with more gifts than others. Many of the latter struggle to find their particular gifting. We can fall into the trap of feeling that the “gifted" people must be better Christians than we are. That is not necessarily true. As Paul makes it clear in the previous chapter, none of these gifts mean anything without God's love in our hearts. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Jesus himself said that if we love Him, we'll keep his commandments. (John 14:15) He summed these up for us so beautifully and simply: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. (Mark 12:30-31)

How do we love? Well, we love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)                 

We can love others, and put them first, when we are secure in the knowledge that we are loved by God. His love changes our uselessness into usefulness. His love transforms both our being and our doing. It's is God's greatest gift to us, and it also enables us to be God's gift to those around us.