Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Parable of the Talents Revisited

Last night we held our annual Young Women in Excellence program at church.  It's a yearly event meant to highlight the young women and the good things they are doing and accomplishing as part of the Personal Progress program.  The young women in our ward chose "The Girl's Got Talent!" as our theme and did such a great job presenting the talents they'd developed and skills they'd learned over the past year.  As part of the program, the young women asked me to speak about the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).  I was speaking from notes, but here's an approximation of what I said.

The parables of Jesus are some of his best known teachings, and sometimes we hear them so often that we start to gloss over them, we just assume we know what they mean, so I like to take a step back and try to see them through fresh eyes. I look at the historical and cultural context for additional clues and try to figure out what they’re saying to me personally, and listen for the Spirit to tell me how God wants me to apply them in my life. I'm going to mention three new insights I gained from studying the parable of the talents in preparation for speaking tonight; I hope they're as helpful to you as they were for me.

During what He knew was the last week of His life, Jesus returned to Jerusalem. He entered the city triumphantly while crowds waved palm leaves and honored Him as the King He is. He cleansed the temple and rebuked the corrupt temple leaders. He cursed the fig tree to show His disciples that He had power over life and death. He taught in the temple “daily”, as the religious leaders of the time questioned His authority and tried to catch Him in His words. He challenged and denounced these leaders for their hypocrisy. Finally, He withdrew from the temple, prophesying of its destruction and lamenting the wickedness and unbelief of the people.

Then He moved with His faithful disciples to the Mount of Olives where He continued His final public teachings. It’s in this setting that Matthew records Jesus told three parables. Jesus knew what was coming. He knew how confused, scared, and heartbroken and lost His disciples would be, in just a few days when He would be taken from them and brutally killed. While they knew who He was, they still didn't really understand what He was there to do.

So Christ told these three parables to let His disciples know, and to let us know thousands of years later, how to prepare to return to live with Him. Each parable provides an example of “what to do” and “what not to do”. In the parable of the ten bridesmaids, five virgins were prepared with extra oil for their lamps and were welcomed by the bridegroom to celebrate with the wedding party; five were not prepared and were left out in the cold. We need to be spiritually self-reliant. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the Lord divides those who have served others including “the least of these my brethren” from those who did not, welcoming the sheep and rejecting the goats. We need to serve others, especially “the least” among us.

And then we have the parable of the talents. A rich man is going on a long journey so he gives money to his servants. To one he gives five talents, another gets two talents, and a third gets one talent. When the rich man finally returns, the first servant reports that he has doubled what the master gave him. His lord said unto him “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” The second servant reports that he also doubled the money in his care. The master responds exactly the same to him as he did to the first servant. Finally, the third servant approaches and explains that he was afraid, so he buried the money he’d been given and returned it to the rich man, exactly the same as it was when he’d given it to the servant. The master was not pleased. He took the talent and gave it to the servant with ten talents and cast the third, unprofitable servant out.

As I studied this parable for the millionth time, I made a few new realizations.

The first realization is that a talent is not a coin, it's a huge sum of money – it's about the amount that an average laborer would earn in fifteen to twenty years of working. The estimates I found were anywhere from half a million to a million dollars in today’s money. Now I'd always felt kind of bad for the guy who only got one talent, but he still got a lot of money, as much as a million dollars! It would have taken him decades to earn that much on his own. So what does that mean for us? Well, it’s really easy to compare ourselves to others and feel cheated when we perceive others to have more than we do. But, even if we feel we are “one-talent servants”, even if we feel less talented or gifted compared to others, we need to realize that we are each blessed with an incredible amount of ability and literally innumerable gifts. We need to be grateful, recognize the bounty we are blessed with and acknowledge that all good gifts come from God. We also need to be humble, because no matter how hard we've worked to develop our talents, they are only ours because God has blessed us with them and with the ability to develop them.

My second realization came when I started thinking about the parable from my business background. Have you ever thought about how the first two servants doubled their money? In biblical times, usury – or simply charging interest on loans, sharing profit without sharing risk – was condemned by Mosaic law. In order to make such a huge amount of money, these servants had to truly invest in others’ businesses. They had to become joint venturers with others, to use their money, resources, gifts, to help others achieve their goals, in order to make a profit. Our talents are not for us alone; they are to be used to help and serve others. With that in mind, it seems to me that the Lord’s condemnation of the third servant comes in large part because of his selfishness. The third servant refused to use his considerable amount of money to help others, he was only concerned about the consequences for himself.

Finally, the last servant explained that he buried his talent because he was afraid. Burying money was not an unusual thing to do in biblical times. There weren't banks, so it was a simple way to keep your money safe and put it some place it would be hard to steal. But we’re not supposed to just do what everyone else does in our school, in our ward, in our community. We’re not supposed to “play it safe” and let our fear determine what we will or won’t do. Looking back at my life, some of my biggest regrets are choices that I made based on fear: adventures I didn't go on, challenges I didn't accept, things I didn't do because I was afraid. And some of the best experiences in my life have happened because I chose to take the leap, to try something new, to say “yes”, even though I was afraid. There are dozens of scriptures about fear, but I have two favorites. In 2 Timothy 1:7, we are counselled that "God hath not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." And in Doctrine & Covenants 50:41, the Lord offers these comforting words: "Fear not, little children, for you are mine."

So to boil the message of this parable down, at least the message I got this time through:
  • All of us, even the “one-talent servants”, are blessed abundantly. Be humble and grateful.
  • Our talents are best used to help and serve others. Look for those opportunities.
  • Fear is not a foundation for good decision-making. Fear not, for we are Christ’s.
“[E]ach of us will one day stand before God and give an accounting of our…service and stewardships. Did we make a difference?” (Stanley G. Ellis, “He Trusts Us!” October 2006 General Conference) As we humbly and gratefully recognize where our talents and gifts come from, as we look for opportunities to serve and help others, as we refuse to make decisions based on fear, we will be able to make a difference to ourselves and others and prepare to live again with our Savior and our Heavenly Parents.

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