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.

Jesus, Socrates, and the Problem of Human Blindness

Our whole business in this Life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen. – St. Augustine

SOCRATES: Imagine this: People live under the earth in a cavelike dwelling. Stretching a long way up toward the daylight is its entrance, toward which the entire cave is gathered. The people have been in this dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck… because they are shackled, they are unable to turn their heads around. A fire is behind them, and there is a wall between the fire and the prisoners. Some light, of course, is allowed them, namely from a fire that casts its glow toward them from behind them, being above and at some distance. Imagine that a low wall has been built the length of the walkway, like the low curtain that puppeteers put up, over which they show their puppets.
GLAUCON: This is an unusual picture that you are presenting here, and these are unusual prisoners.
SOCRATES: They are very much like us humans, I [Socrates] responded.
– From Book VII of Plato’s Republic

If it is possible for one story to perfectly describe the human condition and the central problem of our existence, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave does just this. The journey from darkness to the light is an obvious metaphor for man’s passage from ignorance to wisdom. But this process is not so straightforward as we might expect. If any one of us were to fall into a deep, black pit, we would surely struggle with all our might to make it back to the light of day. But what if we were born in the pit? What if we have grown up in a cave, and, knowing nothing else, lack the ability to recognize our own blindness? What if we have grown so comfortable in our dimly-lit surroundings that we resist all efforts to be freed from our chains?

If we are honest with ourselves, we all have blind spots. We all lack wisdom. But some of us are so ignorant as to fancy ourselves wise. What made Socrates the wisest man in Athens? This simple insight: “I know that I know nothing.”

In the book Sophie’s World, the philosopher describes three types of people: the rare Socrates aware of his own ignorance, the people who think they already know enough, and the people who simply don’t care to think about anything too deeply. If my newsfeed is any indication, most of us fall into the latter two groups. I certainly have spent a great deal of my life in the know-it-all camp, a genuine cave-dweller.

What do you do when confronted with evidence that contradicts a previously-held belief? Quite simply, you can either modify your belief, or ignore the offending evidence. And so I have attempted to adopt the latter course. I have witnessed enough hypocrisy and lived through enough disappointment to distrust the idea of quick fixes or black-and-white dichotomies.

I believe now more than ever in the need to apply the same strict standards of truthfulness to all claims, regardless of from which “side” they originate. When it comes to matters like taxes and gun control, we should avoid the knee-jerk reaction to defend our existing beliefs and actually consider what others have to say. We don’t have to accept or reject 100% of their position. Perhaps 20% of what they are saying is valid. So let’s agree with that 20%. And while we’re at it, maybe we can admit that we are only 80% sure that our own current position (whether it be stricter gun laws or lower corporate taxes) would yield the desired result. The truth is, no one knows the exact outcome of any proposed policy until it is implemented. We are all trying to do the same thing that weathermen do — predict future outcomes — but with much less scientific rigor and much more personal bias.

When it comes to politics and economics, a healthy dose of humility is warranted. But when it comes to the things that really matter — to how we are to live our lives — what do we do when we cannot trust our own sight? Consider this passage from Matthew’s Gospel:

Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the great log in your own? And how dare you say to your brother, “Let me take that splinter out of your eye,” when, look, there is a great log in your own? Hypocrite! Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:3-5

Jesus instructs us to examine our own vision before criticizing that of others. We cannot expect those still living in ignorance to understand, as this is like “casting pearls before swine.” We are to beware false prophets, the “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Not by their appearances, but by their fruits are we to judge them.

Why does Jesus speak in parables? He answers:

The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. So in their case what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah is being fulfilled: Listen and listen, but never understand! Look and look, but never perceive! This people’s heart has grown coarse, their ears dulled, they have shut their eyes tight to avoid using their eyes to see, their ears to hear, their heart to understand, changing their ways and being healed by me.
But blessed are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear! Matthew 13: 13-16

And what about the rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus? When he was told to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, “he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.”

He was like the cave-dwellers who could not part with something of lesser value (material wealth) to gain something greater, though initially more difficult (the chance to be Jesus’ disciple and live with him forever in Heaven). Is this not the very definition of ignorance and blindness?

Jesus healed the blind and restored their sight. But as for the Pharisees, the “blind guides,” he declares:

You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of corruption. In just the same way, from the outside you look upright, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Matthew 23: 27-28

The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is much like the Socrates of Plato’s writings; so much so that the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche famously dismissed Christianity as “Plato for the masses.” But one man was wise enough to reconcile the two traditions in a brilliant synthesis that has served as the foundation of Christianity ever since – St. Augustine.

In his Confessions, Augustine describes his own blindness as it persisted through young adulthood:

What profit was it to me that I, rascally slave of selfish ambitions that I was, read and understood by myself as many books as I could get concerning the so-called liberal arts?…I had turned my back to the light and my face to the things it illuminated, and so no light played upon my own face, or on the eyes that perceived them.

Augustine’s journey out of the cave was long and difficult, and only possible thanks to the constant prayer of his mother, St. Monica. But Augustine never dropped his admiration of Plato. Observe Plato’s influence in Augustine’s description of sin:

Sin is to a nature what blindness is to an eye. The blindness of an evil or defect which is a witness to the fact that the eye was created to see the light and, hence, the very lack of sight is the proof that the eye was meant… to be the one particularly capable of seeing the light. Were it not for this capacity, there would be no reason to think of blindness as a misforture.

Now consider these other famous quotes from St. Augustine:

It is no advantage to be near the light if the eyes are closed.

And I entered and beheld with the eye of my soul… the Light Unchangeable… He that knows the Truth, knows what that Light is; and he that knows It, knows Eternity.

I knew that most people never see this reality because they attach to the material aspect of the world. Illusions of self and other fill their vision. I also realized there are those with little dust limiting their vision.

Jesus and Plato and Augustine seem to be telling us the same thing — that our primary task is to stop viewing the world through the materialist lens and see things as God sees them, down to their true essence.

What happens when one has emerged from the cave long enough to see things as they actually are and discard his past misconceptions? Returning to Plato’s tale, he feels the obligation to return to the cave and free the poor souls still trapped there. But how is he received by those who have not yet gained their vision? Plato knows just what danger awaits this returned exile:

SOCRATES: Now if once again, along with those who had remained shackled there, the freed person had to engage in the business of asserting and maintaining opinions about the shadows… would he not then be exposed to ridicule down there? And would they not let him know that he had gone up but only in order to come back down into the cave with his eyes ruined — and thus it certainly does not pay to go up. And if they can get hold of this person who takes it in hand to free them from their chains and to lead them up, and if they could kill him, will they not actually kill him?
GLAUCON: They certainly will.

Of course, this is exactly what happened to Socrates himself, Plato’s beloved teacher, who was forced to drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of Athens. It is the same fate suffered by Jesus: condemned by the angry crowd, abandoned even by his closest followers; although His death was followed by the glory of the Resurrection.

What does all this say about us? We are so desperate to cling to our illusions that we are willing to condemn an innocent man to death. We like to think of ourselves as loyal Christians, but we are just like the Pharisees, just like the murderous cave-dwellers, just like the crowd that chanted “Crucify him!”

So how about we work on removing that log from our own eye, so that we might help our neighbor with his splinter?

God, grant us the humility to recognize our own blindness and the courage to venture out of this cave of ignorance into the light of your truth.