Personal Responsibility and the Parable of the Talents

Yesterday’s Gospel was the Parable of the Talents, as described in the Book of Matthew. For those unfamiliar with the story, it begins with a master who entrusts his servants with his property before embarking on a long journey. To the first servant he gives five talents, roughly equivalent to twenty years’ wages. To the second he gives two, and to the third only one.

The first two laborers invested their talents, doubling their value. When the master returned, he was very pleased with them, declaring to each: “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.”

But the third servant buried his talent in the ground. When his turn came, he said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’

The master is unsparing in his reply:

‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 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.  So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Matthew 25: 26 – 30

First, a word about the context of this parable. The disciples have just asked Jesus for signs of the End Times. Jesus begins by warning them against false prophets and complacency. He explains that there will be signs of the Second Coming, just as a fig tree produces signs of its coming fruit. Yet He cautions them that no one but the Father knows the day or the hour, thus the need for vigilance.

The Parable of the Talents is followed by a reminder to love our neighbor, lest Christ on the last day declare: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me (Matthew 25: 41-43).”

This sermon seems to contain two contradictory messages. On the one hand, we are called to make use of the talents God has given us, a teaching which emphasizes personal responsibility. Yet we are also called to feed, clothe, and minister to the least among us, a teaching of social responsibility. We are reminded that failing to care for our neighbors is no less serious than failing to do so for Jesus.

The obvious answer to this dilemma is that we are both responsible for ourselves and for others. At times we need more reminding of the former, at others the latter. We should always strive to see Jesus in the face of every friend, every stranger, every person in need. But the Parable of the Talents serves as a timely reminder that we must also take responsibility for our own lives, for the gifts we have been given.

The first question a modern critic is likely to ask in reviewing the Parable of the Talents is: why were the servants given different amounts in the first place? Eight talents were distributed to three servants. Instead of a 5-2-1 breakdown, why not give each servant two and two-thirds?

The master in the parable gives his servants different amounts based on their different abilities. While this seems unfair at first glance, we can find plenty of similar examples in the modern day. Lebron James averaged over 34 minutes per game in the 2020 season, while Alex Caruso averaged 18.4. James was given more opportunities to contribute to the team’s success, and thus more was expected of him. However, Alex Caruso was still required to do his part. At the end of the season, head coach Frank Vogel could look at both players and say “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

In almost every workplace, those with greater skills and/or experience are given greater responsibilities. Writer Nassim Taleb references the Parable of the Talents repeatedly in his book The Black Swan. He notes that certain fields are dominated by a few high-achieving individuals at the top: book sales, record labels, and professional sports to name just a few. Others, like dentistry, are more evenly distributed.

Yet there are certain fields where results are not so easily measured in dollars and cents, wins and losses. In these settings, a lack of “skin in the game” can lead to a mismatch between one’s skills and one’s responsibilities, most notably government bureaucracies and academia. In these situations, it really is unfair that certain people are given more than their abilities would otherwise dictate.

Putting these exceptions aside, however, we can generalize the following: “People vary greatly in their abilities. To whom much is given, so too much is expected,” with the caveat that: “Everyone is given something, and thus something is expected of everyone.”

The third servant is particularly instructive on this last point. A Marxist would advise him to overthrow the other two, and the master; then redistribute all the talents throughout the land so that everyone could be equal. But one does not have to be a Marxist to get this parable wrong.

Millions of Americans today believe themselves to be the victims of an unfair system, for no other reason than their race, sex, or sexual orientation. They see that they have not been given as much as others have, others whom left-wing critics denounce as “privileged.”

Yet simply living in the United States of America entails a certain level of opportunity, the chance to make the most of the talents one has been given. How can someone demand more from society in good conscience when he won’t take advantage of the opportunities he already has?

In the parable, the third servant claims he was too afraid to lose what he had been given, too afraid to take the risk. But risk-taking is necessary in any profession, as it is necessary in all of our lives. He who would enjoy the rewards must take the risks.

Fear is no excuse for failing to utilize one’s talents, and neither is inequality, or perceived victimhood. One could imagine the third servant today whining that he had been given less than the other two. I expect the master’s fury would have been even greater in this instance.

Everyone has talent, though our talents differ in degree and in kind. If your talent is business, invest your money wisely and honestly so that others might be employed. If your talent is to sing, then sing loudly from the rooftops, and let your voice always glorify the Lord. Don’t bury your talents in the sand for fear of failure; this sort of behavior is not pleasing to God. Even those at the bottom have a responsibility to put their gifts to use, lest they be judged harshly.

Social and economic hierarchies have always existed, and will continue to exist to some degree as a result of naturally-occurring variation. We should strive to create a system not where everyone is equal in terms of “having the same,” but rather one in which everyone has the chance to more fully develop their talents and utilize them for the common good.

As the broader context of this reading suggests, we must put our talents to use not simply for our own advancement, but for the benefit of God, our heavenly Master, who cares for the poor and the sick. There are people in this world living in such dire circumstances that they must be fed, clothed, and sheltered before they can better develop their own gifts. But there are others who would benefit much more from a sharp kick to the rear than another handout or excuse.

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