What is a talent? Generally speaking a talent refers to a special ability someone has. This meaning of talent developed from the ancient meaning of the word which had to do with weighing, scales and money. In biblical times, a tenant did not refer to someone’s ability, it referred to a certain weight of gold or silver (the exact weight varied over time and by culture, but it was a large amount, 50 -75 pounds). It is easy to see how, as a natural extension of the meaning of talent as a large quantity of gold or silver, talent came also to refer to the deposit of one’s natural abilities. Just as wealth is something people have in varying degrees and in varying commodities (cash, land, livestock, investments, minerals, etc.) all of which must be managed and wisely invested to be beneficial, so also each person has abilities, strengths and desirable qualities that need to be developed and used in order for those ‘talents’ to bring about the greatest benefit.
According to some etymological dictionaries, one of the reasons why the word ‘talent’ came to take on the meaning of personal ability has to do with the fact that the word ‘talent’ is used in the parable of the talents recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. The popular interpretation of the parable of the talents has largely focused on the natural “God-given” gifts and abilities that each person has and for which each person will give an account to God on the Day of Judgement. While I wouldn’t say that this is a wrong interpretation of this parable, I will say it is an interpretation that has, in my experience, created more guilt and excused more pride than it has actually helped people to enter into and experience the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. This parable is, after all, a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven, not a parable of capitalist economics. Christ is certainly not teaching us that we please God by getting the most out of life, the most out of our investments, and the most out of your natural abilities. And yet this is how many of us have come to understand this parable because this is how the parable is generally taught—if not explicitly, certainly implicitly.
And thus, natural abilities have more and more come to be associated with this word, ‘talent,’ to the extent that one cannot read this parable without thinking that the talents mentioned by Jesus refer to natural abilities, not units of money. And even if we have bothered to read the notes in our bible telling us that the word ‘talent’ refers to a unit of money, still we do not stop to consider that this large amount of money referred to in the parable might refer to anything other than one’s “God-given,” that is, natural abilities.
But how does the Church teach us to interpret this parable? One of the themes of the services of Holy Tuesday is this very parable. The following is a verse from the Presanctified Liturgy of that day:
Come, O Faithful,Let us work zealously for the Master,For He distributes wealth to His servants.Let each of us according to his ability Increase his talent of Grace:Let one be adorned in wisdom through good works;Let another celebrate a service in splendour;The one distributes his wealth to the poor;The other communicates the Word to those untaught.Thus we shall increase what has been entrusted to us,And, as faithful stewards of Grace,We shall be accounted worthy of the Master’s Joy.Make us worthy of this, O Christ our God,In Your love for mankind.
From the Holy Myrrh Bearers translation of the Lenten Triodion
Note that in these verses, and elsewhere not only in this particular service but in other hymns of the Church, the Church interprets the talents in this parable to be referring to Grace. The wealth of the Kingdom of Heaven is Grace. God distributes to His servants Grace according to their ability, or to quote 1Corinthians 12:11, the Holy Spirit “distributes to each one individually as He wills.” Grace is God’s, it is not our own. It is given to us. Grace is, indeed, God Himself, God the Holy Spirit, as He comes to us, as He gives Himself to us and abides in us: to quote the parable in Matthew, “to each according to his own ability.”
I like to use the image of three glasses of water to illustrate this idea of “to each according to his own ability.” Imagine a shot glass, an orange juice glass, and a one-pint beer glass. If all the glasses are full of water, we can say that each is full, even though the capacity of each is different. In the same way, we can say that each Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit, or even full of Grace, although the capacity of each person differs.
But unlike glasses of water, the human capacity to be filled with the Holy Spirit is not static. As in the parable, the ones who received two and five talents and “traded” with them (literally, in Greek, ergzomai: “worked” with them), they increased their talents; so we also, if we work with or cooperate with the Grace of God given to us, we too increase our capacity for Grace. God gives Himself to us freely. We cannot earn the Grace of God. We can, however, increase our capacity for the Grace of God. We can also, if we are not attentive, lose the Grace of God—perhaps not completely, but certainly practically.
Our spiritual life, our life with God, is given to us freely; but it is not static. This is why the word ‘gift’ is so troublesome when we are talking about God’s Grace. The problem with the word ‘gift’ used to translate the word charima in the New Testament (especially in 1 Corinthians 12) is that it just doesn’t mean in English what it means in Greek. There are two word groups in the Greek New Testament that are translated into English as ‘gift’ and these two Greek word groups have very different emphases.
When God gives us His Grace, God gives us Himself. This is the teaching of Orthodox Church. [If this is a new idea to you, I suggest you take a look at a transcript of Fr. Peter Alban Heers podcast, Post Cards From Greece, entitled “The uncreated Grace that is God.”] Grace is nothing less than God Himself coming to us by his divine energies or workings.
The sun makes an excellent metaphor of this reality. We actually experience the sun itself when we experience it’s warmth and light—for the heat and light of the sun is nothing else but the sun itself as it radiates outward. However, although we do truly experience the sun itself, we do not experience the sun in its essence, in its inner reality. All we know about the inner reality of the sun is based on scientific speculation, not actual experience. We both experience and don’t experience the sun. Similarly, we both know and do not know God.
We know God, in that intimate, biblical sense of the word ‘know,’ in as much as God comes to us, as God reveals Himself to us, as God the Holy Spirit fills us. We do (or at least can) certainly know God. However, God is also unknowable. God in His essence, in His “Godness,” in Himself, as God knows Himself—this is completely unknowable to us. We are creatures. God is Creator. That’s it.
And yet, God has created human beings “in His image and after His likeness.” God has created human beings to walk with God—as did Adam and Eve in the Garden before the fall. God has created human beings to participate in His divine Light, and even to some extent in His divine Nature, so St. Peter tells us (2 Peter 1:4). God has created us to know Him, love Him and have Him even abide (or dwell) in us (see John chapters 6 and 15 and 1 John 2:14). This is Grace, this is God coming to us, walking with us, transforming us, abiding in us and loving us and the world through us.
And so, to return to the parable of the talents, when we read this parable, we must realize that the Master is none other than God and the talents that he gives are nothing less than God’s wealth: God Himself, God’s Grace, God in His energies or workings, God as He comes to us. This parable is not really at all about external things, our natural abilities or what we normally call talents in English. And when we interpret this parable in this merely external way, I believe it causes more harm than good.
Now, I am not saying that there is anything better or worse about pursuing an athletic career (certainly nothing worse than pursing a career in politics, law, finance or, dare I say it, writing blog posts on spirituality). But what I am saying is that to refer to a proclivity and/or ability in any field of endeavour as the talent one has been given by God and for which God will judge them if they do not attend to it, this is just not true. It is not the message of Jesus. Yes, God will certainly judge us, but not concerning whether or not we continue to play piano or play football or stay in politics (or whatever other activity we may be good at). No, God will judge us according to His Grace: according to what have we done with the Grace God has given us.
Now certainly, Grace manifests itself in our life in concrete ways. There are manifestations of the Spirit and fruits of the Spirit. There are ministries and activities and experiences of all sorts that are the outworking of the Grace of God in us (which is the same thing as the Holy Spirit in us, which is God abiding in us). Like Mary (the sister of Lazarus), we need to attend to the One Thing Needful. Attending to the One Thing Needful, we may also wash dishes, play the piano, change a baby’s diaper, and yes, even play football; but the most important thing is the Grace in our hearts imbuing us, compelling us, and guiding us. This is what the Church means when it teaches us to keep our mind in our heart.
We attend to Christ in our hearts. Christ in our hearts: this is the gift of Grace. From there, from the heart full of Grace, all sorts of various ministries and works will be manifest. But the works, even the works that we are naturally good at, are not the ‘talent.’ The talent is the Grace. It is the Grace that we must increase as we “work with it,” as we attend to it, as we cooperate with it, as we co-labour with God. This is the talent that God has given us, to be filled with His Grace (each according to our own capacity) and to work with that Grace until, as it says in Ephesians, we reach “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”