Posted by: Ascentury | Monday, 26 May 2008

The parable of the entrusted talents

¶ For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. ∙And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.

Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. ∙And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. ∙But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.

After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. ∙And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, “Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.” ∙His lord said unto him, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”

He also that had received two talents came and said, “Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.” ∙His lord said unto him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”

Then he which had received the one talent came and said, “Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: ∙And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.”

His lord answered and said unto him, “Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: ∙Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. ∙Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

–Matthew 25:14-29

This is a difficult and obscure parable, more so than the traditional interpretation would indicate. What I refer to as the traditional interpretation is the popular interpretation of this parable, the one you’ll hear without fail in Sunday School, based around the (nonbiblical) phrase: “Don’t bury your talents.” This has struck me as an accidental coincidence in the past, due to an identification of a talent of money with a talent as a skill.

The Oxford English Dictionary claims that the etymology of talent in modern English is heavily influenced by this identification of the historical meaning of the word as an amount of money with this parable in Matthew. Examples of usage in early uses in English include:

They be the talentes that god hath lent to man in this lyfe, of the whiche he wyll aske moost strayte accounte (The Pilgrimage of Perfection, 1526).

Hide not this talent, but teach it others, and giue thy selfe an example vnto them of well doing (La Primaudaye’s French academie, 1586).

The common usage is thus not merely an interpretation of the parable based on an equivocation, but a recognition of a long tradition in English of establishing the meanings of certain colloquialisms based on their Biblical precedents.

Another common citation from the parable current in LDS usage is the commendation of the lord to his servant, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant…,” often utilized in discussions of our (hopefully) happy reception by Christ after this life is over.

However, my view that this parable is more difficult than this is founded on several phrases of the lord on his return: “I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed…” and “Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

The first phrase is a direct response to the servant’s justification of his nonproductive actions, that the lord was “a hard man.” The servant shied away from his responsibility, although he should have been equal to the task set him: “according to his several ability.” As if his unwillingness to improve on his lot was rooted in his lord’s decision to entrust him! Yet this is so similar to our common complaint that God requires too much of us, a religion that requires the sacrifice of all things to produce faith, after Joseph Smith. Our complaint that changing or becoming is too difficult, and the burden of doing so should be placed on others that they may be more amenable to our tastes. And oftentimes we don’t recognize this complaint consciously, though it is reflected in our dogged perseverance in our ways.

Anyway, so the lord reaps where he sowed not. This seems an odd statement to us, if we interpret the speaker in the parable as Jesus; if we interpret it as a merely human lord, however, it may make more sense as a reference to the dispensation of grace. Do we not all reap where we sowed not? Promised so many times that we will reap what we sow, throughout the Old Testament, the grace of the higher law is apparent as Jesus Christ promises us that on conditions of contrition and brokenheartedness we, too, may reap that which we did not sow, the mercy we did not merit and the grace we cannot repay.  (Alternatively, again not equating the lord to Christ, he may simply be commenting on commerce.)

The fact that the lord gave unto the least-faithful servant the least sum is a reminder of God’s mercy. He will always place us in the situation that is most conducive to our salvation, the set of circumstances most likely to soften the stony soil of our hearts and allow the seed of faith to sprout. It would have redounded to the servant’s condemnation so much more had he been entrusted two or five talents; thus it was an act of mercy to impart to him something whereof he could better care. He did not, however, and thus bore the onus of his failure. Thus “from him that hath not [the will to improve, to shoulder responsibility] shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

The parable of the entrusted talents is a solemn reminder on Christ’s part to his disciples. He thereafter entered into a discourse on the last days and the difficulties with which it is fraught, difficulties which will not and cannot justify less than faithfulness with the talents the Lord has given us.

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Responses

  1. […] The parable of the entrusted talents. The etymology of talent in modern English is heavily influenced by this identification of the historical meaning of the word as an amount of money with this parable in Matthew. […]


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