Thursday, November 16, 2017

Talents


On Sunday, if the preacher tries to connect the talents of precious metal entrusted by the master to his servants in the parable in Matthew 25:14-30 with the talents you have been given by God, don't write it off as a stretch. Etymologically speaking, they are the same thing. But don't think that the application was retroactive. The English word "talent" comes from the ancient weight of silver or gold that we encounter in Jesus' words. Accordingly, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the "ancient weight" as the first definition and the "inclination" or "disposition" as the second. The talent of silver came first. Only later did it become a word that means an innate skill.

That tells us a great deal about the nature of the responsibility given by the master to his three servants in the parable of the talents. Jesus tells us that the master gave out the talents "to each according to his ability." So tremendous was the value of the talent that, throughout the years, the interpretation of the parable has led us to eliminate the distinction between the money and the ability. There is a pretty wide discrepancy in how much a talent actually was. It depends on the time and location and metal. Our best guess is that the master in the parable gave 300-500 pounds of silver to the first servant, 120-200 pounds of silver to the second, and 60-100 pounds of silver to the third. More importantly, a talent was understood to be about twenty years worth of labor. That means the first and second slave were entrusted with a lifetime or more of hard work. Given life expectancies in the first century, one could even argue that the third servant received a lifetime's wages. Doesn't that measurement have the power to shape the way we hear the parable? Jesus seems to be asking, "What will you do with your life's work?"

When hiring a new employee, managers consider a candidates knowledge, skills, and abilities. Knowledge has to do with an individuals education. Does he or she know what he or she needs to know to do the job? Skills are practiced. Can the person effectively use a paint brush? Is the person good at using a skill saw? Abilities are talents. They are not learned. They are not practiced. They just are. They are given by that great lottery of birth. Talents are gifts. How we use them, however, is up to us.

The parable Jesus tells to his disciples forces them (and us) to consider how they will use their lives. The amount entrusted to the servants is so great as to represent a life's work. How they use that gift is a reflection of their talents--also a gift. Two are willing to devote their talents to the master's invitation. They apply them for the sake of their master. The third is crippled by fear of the master, and, instead of using the talent, he hides it in the ground hoping not to lose anything. Hiding money in the ground may have been a reasonable way to safeguard one's money, but it is not a kingdom-focused way to manage our talents. Whether money or abilities, the talents we are given must be used for the coming of God's kingdom. That kingdom invites us to flourish for the sake of our master. Will we accept that invitation? Will we trust the master to accept our efforts regardless of the proceeds?

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