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.

Declutter Your Soul with Christian Minimalism

Less is the new more. Marie Kondo is just the latest incarnation of a bigger trend toward living more with less. Yet minimalism is not without its critics. Some have accused it of being a luxury of the upper middle class, a subtle form of virtue-signaling akin to veganism. Others guard their beloved possessions from minimalist scrutiny with a fervor bordering on obsession. Marie Kondo, for all her joyful, pixie-like charm, recently found one group of Americans who weren’t having it  – book lovers. Her crime? Suggesting that you really only need about thirty books.

As an avid reader, I assume she means per subject.

Confession time: I consider myself a minimalist-enthusiast — in theory at least, if not always in practice. I love throwing things away, or better yet not purchasing them to begin with. I’m not particularly fastidious in my cleaning habits, but clutter certainly stresses me out. Part of me dreads each Christmas and kid’s birthday party, anticipating the inevitable tsunami of plastic crap that I will have to accommodate until I can safely donate it to Goodwill.

But for me, minimalism is about more than decluttering, more than tidying up; it’s about taking the time to reflect on what’s truly important, and then making time for it. It’s about rejecting the reflexive materialist consumerism that engulfs our culture. It’s about spending time in nature and investing in human relationships. It’s about eating healthy food made from a few natural ingredients versus fast food and processed snacks. (It’s about failing at all of these occasionally, but trying to keep myself on track.)

I have always felt that my minimalism was highly compatible with my Christian faith, but recently I decided to investigate this further. My motive: I was trying to adapt a lesson I had used with my high school history students for a Sunday school class.

First, let me explain the lesson.

While my reading list is mainly fiction, history, and philosophy, I do listen to a few self-helpy podcasts, including The Minimalists and The Art of Manliness. After both podcasts interviewed James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, I decided to do a goal-setting/ prioritizing lesson with my students on their first day back from winter break.

I started by asking my students why most New Years’ Resolutions fail. They came up with a great list, including lack of willpower, lack of support, bad environment, unrealistic goals, and waning enthusiasm. Then I helped them set monthly goals using a template that allowed them to break their monthly goal into four weekly milestones. We discussed James Clear’s contention that success is more about building good habits than having great willpower. They were with me so far.

Then I decided to make it more concrete, based on a story I remember hearing from another teacher. I brought in a big pitcher, a smaller canister, a bag of lentils, and six bouncy balls of varying size. At the beginning of the demonstration, I placed the lentils and bouncy balls in the pitcher, as shown below.

I asked a pair of student volunteers to attempt to transfer the contents of the pitcher into the smaller canister. Many students chuckled at this, clearly thinking it was impossible. In most of my classes, the first group tried to add a little lentils, then a bouncy ball, then more lentils, then another ball, and so on. They were able to fit four or five of the bouncy balls, but not the sixth. They certainly couldn’t close the lid.

I congratulated the first group on their effort and called up another pair of volunteers. This time I instructed them to fill the canister with lentils first and then see how many bouncy balls fit. The result: only three of the six.

Then I asked my students to predict what would happen if I put the balls in first before pouring in the beans. Many doubted it would work. To the amazement of some, I poured the lentils into the container of bouncy balls, shaking it ever so slightly to allow the beans to slip through the open spaces. It’s not often that high school students are impressed, but this was one of those times.

We then discussed what it all meant. The bouncy balls, I explained, were their priorities: school, family, career. The lentils were the little things – the Netflix shows that turned into all-day binges, the five minutes here or there scrolling through social media accounts that inevitably add up. They had to put the big things – their priorities – first in order to achieve their goals. To paraphrase this Laura Vanderkam TedTalk, “I don’t have time for X” is basically code for “X is not a priority for me right now.”

They got it. They liked it. I patted myself on the back for a good day-one lesson. But then I had to figure out some way to adapt it for my Sunday school students.

My biggest help came in the form of this excellent article by Haley Stewart in Public Discourse. In The Soul-Saving Grace of Christian Detachment, she writes:

If our pursuit of simplicity is not informed by the concept of Christian charity, focusing on mere minimalism will come up short… I can spend weeks decluttering my house, and it will certainly be more pleasant to inhabit our space with fewer items inside. But it will be an empty exercise if it is separated from the spiritual life and our obligations to God and our community. We all can and should take a look at how we view our possessions, but not simply so that our homes can be minimalist dreamlands. We should pursue detachment to “stuff” for a greater purpose: ordering our desires so that we can love God and other people.

To which I say, “Amen, sister!”

In a recent Minimalists podcast, a caller complained that he had followed the rules of minimalism but was still depressed and unhappy. The podcast hosts, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, tried to explain to the caller that minimalism was not in itself the answer to everything. Of course it’s not. Because secular minimalism looks like this:

It’s an empty canister. Or maybe there’s one ball inside – the one devoted to “me.” That’s like a starving person having one bite of food; it’s not enough to satisfy you. It’s not enough to fill you up.

A Christian minimalist understands that the goal is more than just my individual fulfillment because “I” am more than just an isolated individual. I am a child of God and a member of a larger community, with real obligations to both.

We all need things to survive (food, shelter, clothing), but we can easily fall into the trap of greed and excess. We forget that things are only means to more important ends. We fall in love with our possessions. This can be bad, very bad. As the Minimalists say frequently on their podcast: “Love people and use things, because the opposite never works.”

This insight is not unique to religion in general, nor to Christianity in particular. Buddhism also discourages worldly attachments. Marie Kondo draws upon centuries of Shinto wisdom. But I would say that Christianity offers the best and most complete framework for implementing minimalist practices (though you would never know it by the way most American Christians live).

As a Christian, nothing should come before my faith – not my nationality, not my political ideology, not even my minimalism. But if minimalism is really about putting things in their proper order, then nothing could be more Christian. Consider these verses:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 1 Timothy 6:6–8

Then He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness. For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke 12:15

We enter the world with nothing. We will all leave the world with nothing. In the meantime, we are to be grateful for what we have and eager to share it with others. Our priorities should be the eternal things – God, our souls, and the souls of others.

Some of the happiest people I know have big families with lots of children. Their houses are cluttered. Their lives are messy. But their treasure is in each other and in heaven, not in their possessions. They may not be living the minimalist dream, but they certainly seem to have their priorities straight.

Personally, I need a little help in ordering my life. This includes staying as clutter-free and tidy as possible. But I don’t judge the mother of eight whose kitchen table is a bit messy. I try not to judge in this sense at all, though I do pity those who let material possessions and the acquisition of status dictate their lives.

Failing to prioritize God and relationships is like eating a diet of only fast food. Your life might seem full, but it is ultimately empty of the things that matter — the nutrients you need to survive.

When I taught my Sunday school lesson, I reminded my students that faith and relationships should be the first bouncy balls in their containers, then their personal goals and ambitions. And really, who needs the lentils? The canister sure looks better without them (although it wouldn’t spell disaster to allow a few beans to trickle in). It is human nature to fear for one’s future security, and to seek refuge in the things we think we need. We should thank God for all He has provided, and trust that He will continue to do so in the future. We should remember to ask only for our daily bread, not a stockpile.