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bury not your talents!

Posted on November 19, 2017 at 5:30 AM

May my words be in the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Our gospel reading today concerns the parable of the talents (see below).* A talent, as I am sure you are aware, was a sum of money in the ancient world; it could also refer to a certain weight of metal, for example bronze, around 75 pounds or so. Scholars are uncertain about the origins of the word, but speculate that it might originally have meant a load, drawn from the idea that this was the weight that a man of that era could reasonably be expected to carry for any time. And, I am sure you can imagine, a collection of silver coins amounting to that weight was a very large sum of money indeed! At the time of our Lord a talent of silver would have been 6000 drachma – a fortune, the amount of money it would have taken the average man perhaps 30 years to earn.

 

The New Testament, of course, was written in Greek; and the word used in the original language was 'talanton'. This word, as it happens, has no direct equivalent in English; and so rather than translating we do what's called transliterating … essentially, replacing the original Greek letters with the ones we use ourselves. And so 'talanton' becomes talent.

 

Now, it is not a coincidence that we have a word in English, talent, that is exactly the same as we use in place of the word 'talanton'. As it happens, our word in English is descended, as it were, from the Greek original. Talanton become in Latin talenta, which in Old English talente, which became in modern English talent.

 

And the meaning of the English word that 'talanton' became is, as you might expect, rooted in this parable also. The talents in the parable represents the gifts we have from God. And, as we all know, any abilities or aptitudes we have are gifts from God. And so it was that with the passing of the ages the word talent came to mean in English a sum of money only when we are reading this parable or discussing the weights and measures and monetary system of Ancient Greece and Rome and more commonly our natural abilities.

 

Now, it is all very interesting to know this; and it is somewhat gratifying to think that we have this specific word in English because our Lord used it in the way he did when he was telling the parable to his disciples. But it is, I think, somewhat unfortunate that the word talent has such a narrow meaning in English when our Saviour was using it in a much broader sense on that day.

 

Indeed, if you search the works of the Church Fathers, you will see that they seldom interpret the talents in the parable as standing for the abilities that God grants us as individuals. This is not surprising; for they were writing long before modern English was a language – or indeed even middle-English or old-English. They for the most part see the talents, the great sums of money that the master entrusts to his servants, as standing for the great and myriad gifts that God bestows upon us. This, of course, includes our abilities; but it also includes far more. And so it should; for God has given us far more; God has given us everything.

 

Reading the parable though the lens of our modern English understanding of the word talent – and by modern I mean here the last 500 years or so – has inclined us to overlook the deeper, richer meaning of what the talents in the parable are supposed to stand for. Indeed, it has given rise to the unhappy tendency for people to regard it almost as some kind of a pep-talk for people as they go about their careers; a kind of 'now you must do your best to develop the abilities you have been given or God will be very disappointed in you.' And God does indeed expect us to do the best with the abilities he has gifted us with; but we must not become so focussed on that idea that we lose sight of why Jesus is telling the parable; and that has to do with the salvation of souls and not worldly success.

 

This intent is made clear by the ending of the passage, where the servant who has done nothing with his talent save bury it in the ground, the servant called wicked and lazy by his master, is cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Therefore we must see this parable as being about using the gifts that God gives us as a means of attaining eternal life – all the gifts he gives us. And, of course, some of the gifts he gives us are more important when it comes to achieving this aim than others, although we must be grateful for them all. A glass of wine is a great gift from God – wine cheers the heart of man, as Scripture tells us. But I cannot recall hearing any story of how a man found salvation at the bottom of a bottle – although perhaps many have lost it through an immoderate love of the fruit of the vine.

 

But there are other gifts – higher gifts let us call them – that will guide us on our pilgrim path. The gift of prayer, which God gives us so that he may speak with us and we with him; the gift of Sacred Scripture, where we find the Divine Truth of his revealed word; the Church his Son founded, where we may find the fellowship of others on the journey who will encourage us on the road even as we encourage them; and the sacraments he administers to us through that Church – the waters of baptism which washes away our sins, Confession and Absolution so that when we fall into sin we may be washed clean again, the Body and Blood of our Saviour in the Holy Eucharist to nourish our souls. And there are, of course, many more.

 

And if we fail to use these gifts, if we behave as the wicked servant, effectively burying them in the ground, then woe is us. His fate was dismal; and it is the fate of all who do likewise, neglecting the wondrous and abundant gifts that God grants us in order that we might be with him for all eternity. But the others, those who use those treasures well, then to them will be given in even greater abundance – the gift of everlasting life in heaven. Such as they will hear the words the master spoke to those who had put their talents to good use: Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into your master's joy; words that that I pray will be spoken to all here - in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

*Matthew 25: 14-31

"For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. 17 So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, 'Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.' 21 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.' 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, 'Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.' 23 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.' 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master answered him, 'You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.' 31 When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.”


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