A couple weekends ago I got to thinking about the Parable of the Talents. Different versions are found in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27, but it’s the first one that interests me most. The two stories differ in the amount of money (talents, a Greek monetary unit figured to be worth about 20 years’ labor) the servants receive. In Matthew, the three servants get five, two, and one talent respectively. When the master returns, the first two have doubled their money, while the third has buried his; he gives the master back precisely what he got in the first place. The first two are commended. The slacker is punished. In Luke, each servant gets the same amount. I’ve always figured that was an earlier version of the story – any storyteller will refine his material over time. But more likely there’s a distinction in meaning I’ve just overlooked.
I’ve written about the Matthew parable here before, making the eccentric suggestion that Jesus was actually talking about time – the lengths of our lives – which tend to be unequal. But over that weekend I decided that was simplistic. The great complaint of humanity through all time (a whole economic system and political movement has been built on it) is that “life isn’t fair,” but ought to be. It seems to me that the basic terms of the Matthew version constitute an admission that the complaint is true. Time, abilities, and opportunities are distributed unevenly. It’s interesting that the servants are rewarded on a sliding scale. The one given less isn’t expected to produce the same sized dividend as the one given more. The only thing that’s punished is indifference.
It occurred to me that the number of talents has to do with more than just who’s more “talented” than someone else. Lots of things are unequal in our lives. One person might be born into a home where the talents are honored and encouraged. Another may be born into an indifferent, or even hostile, home. A person might be limited physically – what if a born painter goes blind? What if a born athlete suffers a spinal injury? Then there’s that time thing I’ve mentioned before. Some people die young, through disease or war or accident. It’s all part of the uneven distribution that’s fundamental to the story.
This helps to answer a question I used to ask, one born of my negative and pessimistic nature – “What if I invested my talents and it all got wiped out in a crash?” The answer is that the earnings aren’t the point. The master isn’t primarily concerned about returns. He’s interested in the kind of person the servant is – the quality of stewardship demonstrates character, maturity, and faithfulness.