Small Talents of Great Worth

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

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It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word talent, used to denote a certain measure of weight, is the same as our English word for a special skill. The English word comes from this parable, where the talent is used allegorically to represent our God-given aptitudes. As the Catechism reminds us, “according to ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual…” (CCC 115). Parables, especially, are intended to be understood allegorically.

But to understand the allegory, we have to first understand the literal meaning of the words. Three servants are entrusted with different sums. One is given five talents, another two, and another one. We are tempted to think of these talents as coins, but that would be a gross undervaluing of their worth. A talent was not a type of coin, but a unit of measurement, like the shekel. The common coinage in use at the time was the denar. The talent was the largest unit of measurement used by the Jewish people, the shekel being the smaller, more common unit used for trading. A talent was worth 3,000 shekels, or about 6,000 denarii. This is a significant sum. Even the servant who was given one talent was being entrusted with something of extreme value. We don’t know just how much a talent was worth, but some scholars have suggested a talent might be worth $1.25 million in today’s terms. So whether you are talking about one, two or five talents, it is a lot.

Two of the servants use their talents to good effect by trading and increasing the treasury of the master. They are rewarded by being entrusted with even more. One buries his talent in the ground and does nothing with it. He is punished. The talent he received was taken away.

This is not a lesson in economics. The allegorical meaning of the parable becomes clear if we think about talent not as a unit of measurement, but as we mean it today; a special aptitude, skill, or gift.

We all have different talents.

Every servant receives talents. No one receives nothing. And every talent is extremely valuable. God gives to the servants “each according to his ability” (Mt 25:15). In other words, everyone gets as much as they can handle, no more and no less.

Each of us have different talents, given to us by God according to our ability. No more, no less. Some talents are easily identified. One person may excel at athletics. Someone else may be musically gifted. Another one can make anything grow in a garden. Maybe you have talents like that, which are easy to see. Others have talents that are not so easy to see. Perhaps you are a good listener. Or you have the gift of hospitality, making others feel welcome. Maybe you are  a good teacher, or a patient friend.

Whatever talents you have, they are necessary and valid. Even the smallest talent is of inestimable value. Don’t make the mistake of undervaluing your talent because it is not the same as someone else’s. You possess the talents God intends for you to have, and that He knows you can use effectively.

Our talents don’t belong to us.

Our talents are entrusted to us by the Master, and the Master holds us accountable for what we do with them. He intends for us to put our talents to good use, increasing His divine treasury.

We may feel sometimes that we “own” our talents because of the hard work we put into developing them. Maybe you are a good athlete because of all the hours of training you do. Or you are a good musician because of the years you have spent practicing. We can be tempted to think we gave ourselves these gifts. But we didn’t. God gave them to us. He gave us the aptitude, which we developed through hard work. This is what the two servants did who traded with their talents to make more. They increased the gifts the Master gave them.

So we should foster our talents to increase the Kingdom of God. This does not mean we have to use our talents in a specifically religious context. If you have a beautiful singing voice, you might consider joining the church choir, but you could also use your talent to bring beauty to the world in other ways, and so inspire others to glorify the God who gave you such a voice. If you have a talent for teaching, you can glorify God not just by teaching religious ed in a parish school, but by teaching math in a public school in such a way that inspires children to seek that which is true and discover the order built into Creation. It is up to us to discern the best way to use our God-given talents in creative ways to increase the kingdom.

We can waste our talents

The third servant was punished not because he did not make as much money as the other two, but because he did not do anything with the talent he was given. Remember, the Master gave each servant talents according to his ability. The servant who received one had the ability to use what he was given. But he wasted his talent.

We each have the talents we do because God knows we are capable of using them. When we refuse to use our gifts, we are refusing to live up to our potential. And more to the point, we are saying to God that we know better than He does what we are or are not capable of. God is saying, “You can do this!” and we reply, “No, I can’t!” Ironically, that is a form of pride.

The value of small talents

It can be easy for us to think that we have no talents if we aren’t gifted at sports, the arts, or academics. We undervalue the fact that we are a good listener, or a compassionate friend. But we shouldn’t. As mentioned previously, even one talent is extremely valuable.

Perhaps this is why the Church pairs the parable of the talents with the reading from Proverbs 31. This is the passage that describes “a worthy wife.” What are her talents? She obtains flax and wool. She spins yarn. She works with her hands. These things are basic household tasks of the time. Today we might say sweeping the floors, washing the dishes, or folding the laundry. These may seem like little things, but they are little things that make life pleasant and peaceful.

She does these small things “with loving hands.” And she “extends her arms to the needy” (loving neighbor), and “fears the Lord” (loving God).  And for this the scriptures say she is valued “far beyond pearls” (Prv 31:10).

Mother Teresa said we are to “do small things with great love.” God calls each of us to do great things — to use our talents well — but that greatness is not judged through the world’s eyes, but through God’s.

Use your talents well

Do you know what your talents are? What do you enjoy doing? What comes easy for you? What have others told you that you are good at? What are you drawn to? These things can all be indicators.

And are you using those talents well? Or are you burying them in the ground? God has entrusted you with something of great worth. He expects great things to come from it, even if they are not called “great” by the world.

Pray for the grace to see your talents from God’s perspective, and do not judge their value through the world’s eyes.