Parable of the talents

Yesterday’s sermon was on the parable of the talents (Matthew 25). It’s a familiar story to many churchgoers, about a master who entrusted three of his servants with different amounts of money based on their abilities. Two of them doubled the money by the time their master returned to settle accounts. The third buried his in the ground.

The thrust of the sermon was much the same as most teaching I have heard on this passage: we are responsible to use the resources we have been given, not to just hold onto them. One thing the pastor said surprised me though – that the man who buried his talent acted not out of fear but laziness, and used fear only as an excuse when confronted by the master.

I suppose that’s possible. Lazy people tend to develop the ability to come up with all sorts of excuses, and while the excuse of fear clearly didn’t keep this man out of trouble, he may have thought it would result in a lesser punishment than if he admitted he just didn’t want to bother.

I’ve always thought his explanation of fear made a lot of sense, though. This was one of the Bible stories I didn’t like as a child, because I easily identified with the man who buried his talent out of fear. I had plenty of abilities: I was good at reading, math, spelling, art, music – just about everything except sports. But I disliked taking risks.

I doubt I would ever have been particularly good at sports even if I had tried harder; I’ve never had very good balance or been able to judge distances well. (When I took Drivers Ed in high school I found out that I have poor depth perception.) But my aversion to risk meant that I never wanted to be the one everyone depended on to get it right. I was quite happy (well, actually I was just less unhappy) to stand out in right field, hoping the ball would never come near me, and that if it did someone else would be nearby who could actually catch and throw successfully.

I didn’t avoid risks completely. (Who can?) I wrote for the school paper from sixth grade on, and that meant having to talk to people I didn’t know well, and write articles that a lot of people would read and might not think were very good. But the alternative – quitting – would lower my opinion of myself and probably that of my English teachers, who had encouraged me to do this.

Not wanting to do something out of fear of failure is pretty common. I have known students who chose not to write a paper rather than write a poor one. There are students who take easy classes, perhaps in part out of a desire to avoid hard work, but also to avoid the possibility of a bad grade that will bring down their overall GPA.

It’s hardly limited to students, either. There are a lot of people who will never give a speech, even in front of friends, because they’re afraid of doing it poorly. There are writers who would love to get published someday, but don’t want to deal with a stack of rejection letters. 

And there are still people today who hide their money under a mattress (figuratively or even literally in some cases) because they do not trust the banking system (not just the fear of a bank failure, but also, increasingly, of identity theft). I don’t know what the financial risks were for the servants in Matthew 25, but in general the size of the risk usually corresponds to the size of the potential reward. If there was a chance to make a 100% profit (as the first two servants did), there was probably a chance of losing it all.

Yet the master’s rebuke of the third servant suggests that he believed the servant was guilty of laziness rather than fear. If he knew his servants well enough to distribute different amounts of money based on their abilities, I suppose he may well have known them well enough to recognize signs of laziness also. In any case, since this is a parable and not history, I assume Jesus had a reason for associating the failure to use one’s abilities with laziness.

(Incidentally, if you’re wondering how it happens that “talent” refers to abilities and also an amount of money back in first century Israel, it’s not a coincidence at all. The interpretation of the parable, about using the abilities God has entrusted us with, is actually the origin of our English word talent.)

I have to admit that I liked the story better when I thought the servant’s failure was due to fear rather than laziness. Jesus often had to rebuke his disciples for their fear and lack of faith. But this passage is the only one I can find where Jesus made any reference to laziness.

I found one explanation for Jesus’ bringing up the issue of laziness in this context. Jesus had just told the parable of the ten virgins, which taught his disciples to wait, watch, and be ready. Lest people think that all they had to do to be ready for his return was to be waiting and watching, he taught them that they needed to be working hard, using their abilities to serve him until he returned.

These days, I think people are much more likely to need to be reminded to watch and be ready. There are some Christians who look everywhere for “signs of the times” and are certain Jesus will return soon. But I would guess there are a lot more who rarely if ever contemplate the possibility that Jesus could return today.

I know that as a young Christian, I did not want Jesus to return anytime soon. It wasn’t that I wanted plenty of time to enjoy life, since presumably I would enjoy life in heaven even more. But I was concerned that I hadn’t yet done much worthwhile service for God, and I was afraid of losing the opportunity to do so.

Figuring out what abilities I’m supposed to be using and how, though, can be a challenge. As I said, I was an excellent student in all academic subjects. I chose to study Bible and languages, and later business administration. Does that mean I have wasted the abilities I was given in math and science? I’ve sometimes felt bad that I didn’t keep practicing and playing the violin after college (though I was never all that great a violinist – and I’m afraid that in that case, laziness was the issue).

I know how to sew my own clothes, but I haven’t made any since I had my first child. (Amazing how much less time there seems to be in the day once a baby is born.) I speak Spanish reasonably well, but very rarely use it anymore, despite the presence of a sizable Spanish-speaking population in this area. I like writing but don’t do much besides on this blog.

Generally I think I’ve picked out areas to use my abilities that fit with my personality, passion, and present circumstances. I do use my writing ability for this blog, and I sing in a community choral group (and probably will sing in the choir where my husband is now pastor). I have taught Sunday School, and on several occasions I have given the children’s sermon in church (something I will be doing once a month now). I sometimes help my husband with sermon preparation (research, ideas, and/or reviewing what he has outlined or written).

In our culture, people are often praised for successfully taking on so many responsibilities that one wonders how they manage to do it all. I hope it’s not “sour grapes” to say that I wouldn’t really want to be like that because it promotes too much focus on accomplishments and too little on personal relationships. (Not that I can claim to be all that successful with relationships; one of my disappointments in the past several years is not having developed any close friends in this area.)

So where does that leave me? I don’t know – other than with a pile of dishes in the sink. So I will end these rambling thoughts here, and go exercise my ability to wash dishes.


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