On the Parable of the Talents
This Sunday is the 16th Sunday of Matthew and the reading is from the holy gospel according to St. Matthew (25:14-30).
The Parable of the Talents falls within the context of Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of heaven, and the importance of ‘watchfulness and readiness’ for the coming of the Lord. The holy fathers, especially the holy Neptic Fathers, who were the fathers who practised and taught about the importance of Nepsis, or ‘watchfulness’, that is about a spiritual alertness, constant attentiveness, and readiness for spiritual life and growth. They wrote many prolific treaties about the virtue of watchfulness; the act of keeping watch over one’s inward thoughts to maintain guard over the heart and intellect.
We read: “Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming,” (Matthew 24:42). “Therefore, you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect,” (Matthew 24:44). Christ spoke in chapter 24 of “signs of the second coming and the end of the age,” (Matthew 24:3). He assures us by saying: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only,” (Matthew 24:36).
Jesus gives us a number of parables about the importance of ‘watching and being prepared’. One such being the parable of the faithful and wise servant who was made ruler of the household by his master. The servant’s role was to give the household their food at the proper time in the absence of the master and would find himself blessed if his “master finds him doing so when he returns,” (Matthew 24: 45-51). The faithful servant, who does not sit idle, or waste his time indulging his passions, avoids the fate of being “cut up in two and appointed portion with the hypocrites because he was slothful in his work”.
There is also the parable of the five wise and the five foolish virgins (Matthew 25: 1-12), which precedes the parable of the Talents. This parable speaks of the imperative to be prepared, for “the bridegroom came and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding, and the door was shut” (25:10). The parable ends with the same verse from Matthew 24:42, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.”
The parable of the Talents we read today begins with: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his good to them.” Who is the ‘man’ who sets out for foreign parts but our redeemer and Saviour, Christ, who became man for our sake, travelling to a ‘far country’, which is referenced by either His ascent into the heavens, or to the length of time that He is long-suffering and does not summarily demand works from us, but waits.
The holy fathers agree that the talents, referred to in this parable, are the “spiritual gifts” that St. Paul enumerates in his first letter to the Corinthians; “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit, for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gift of healings by the same Spirit….But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills”. (1 Corinthians 12: 4-7: 11).
Saint Gregory the Dialogist in his commentary on this parable wrote: “The man setting out for foreign parts entrusted his goods to his servants, for he granted his spiritual gifts to those who believed in him. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.”
The holy fathers also see that the number of these talents is symbolic; the five talents refer to the five bodily senses, and the two talents are the soul, and the body of which man is made. As for the one talent, this signifies the human being as one person composed of these two characteristics, soul and body.
And similar to the parable, where the property was entrusted and distributed amongst the servants according to their individual abilities, God gives each one of us talents and spiritual gifts according to our own individual power and strength, as much as we can carry and use. “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them,” (Romans 12:6).
So, we see no equitable distribution of talents among the servants, as the master knew of each ability, strength, and talent. But the equitable distribution of good deeds is in the basic and essential matters of our lives, as Saint Peter of Damascus says: “I marvel at God’s wisdom, at how the most indispensable things – air, fire, water, earth – are readily available to all. And not simply this, but things conducive to the soul’s salvation are more accessible than other things, while soul-destroying things are harder to come by”. (Philokalia).
The master did not distribute the ‘spiritual gifts’ equitably and did not give everyone the same number of talents, but the lesson here is that, according to our power, ability and readiness, our responsibility is to work to multiply and increase these gifts and talents.
“He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more”. Trading the talents, in this instance, refers to increasing the gifts given by God through using them, building on them, and working with them in a state of humility. We are called to work with our talents to provide good deeds and help our neighbour, and in this way, we are able to increase and multiply the grace of God in the souls of others. This parable teaches that each of us should cooperate with the grace of God with all our might.
Each of the one who took the five talents, and the two talents went and doubled the number of talents (the talents given to him). As for the one who took one, he “went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money” meaning he buried it in earthly matters (affairs) and did not invest it properly in serving others.
“Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.” The Lord who dispensed the talents returns to demand an account. ‘A long time’ as St. Jerome states is “the time that is to intervene between our Saviour’s ascension and his last coming. For, as he is the Master, who went into a far country, i.e., to heaven, after he had inculcated the relative duties of each man in his respective state of life; so shall he come at the last day, and reckon with all men, commending those who have employed their talents well, and punishing such as have made a bad use of them”.
We read that during this reckoning, the servant with five talents and the servant with two, returned the talents to the master, doubled, receiving the response: “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.” They were able to share the talents with others, and in turn, were trustworthy, returning to their master with double the amount of spiritual gifts. Despite only having few talents, they saw past this and looked forward to the immeasurable heavenly glory and eternal joy in the bliss of the saints.
The third servant, who received one talent, buried it, and did not invest it with others. The master describes him as a “wicked and slothful servant!” He symbolises the one who is ungrateful and dishonest, who makes excuses out of fear of the master, claiming the master “reaps where He has not sowed and gathers where He has not winnowed”. The master replies to him saying: “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.” Instead of investing his ‘gift’ by seeking help, he preferred to ‘bury it in the ground’, in return, reaping nothing of it.
This servant of one talent was deprived of divine grace in this life, but in the other life he will be deprived of eternal reward. “And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” We take, for example, Judas Iscariot, who was numbered among the twelve disciples and had “obtained a part in the ministry,” (Acts 1:17). After his betrayal, he hanged himself and “another took his office”. Judas was deprived of his position among the twelve disciples and the ministry (or the talent) he had been trusted with by his Master, and it instead, was given to another, to Apostle to Matthias. (Acts 1: 15-26).
The parable ends with an addition: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Christ does not refer to our biological ears or the physical act of hearing, but rather refers to a deeper act of listening and putting this teaching into practice; listening with spiritual ears and taking in the divine words of Christ and live according to them.
+ His Eminence, Metropolitan Basilios