Though it is often unrecognized in these times, the Bible has deeply influenced our culture and language, including even what our words mean. This Sunday’s text from Matthew 25:14-30 is a prime example. The parable’s use of the Greek word “talent,” what was then a measure of weight and, as applied to precious metal, an amount of money, created a new meaning for the word in many other languages. As Christians read and interpreted this parable, they did it understanding the “talents” to represent something God has bestowed upon each individual. So the word “talent” came to mean a personal natural endowment, some sort of skill or ability possessed by an individual. The original meaning of the word as a unit of weight or currency has almost completely disappeared, except in studies of ancient society.
Thus sermons on this parable almost inevitably interpret it along the pathway carved out by linguistic development over the centuries. That is, we take Jesus to be talking about the stewarding of individual abilities, spiritual gifts, or the like. We understand that He means for us to take whatever natural blessings we enjoy and put them to work for His kingdom.
That kind of interpretation of the “talents” in terms of what the word has come to mean in English (and Spanish and modern Greek and I would guess in several other languages as well), that is as individual ability and resource, is fine as far as it goes. We do in fact want to use well the gifts God has given us and put them to use for Him.
However, we need to remember that the word “talents” in the parable did not mean “talents” in our sense when Jesus told the story. We must also recognize that the parable is plainly set in a context (between two other parables and after chapter 24) aimed at being ready for the return of Christ. The “talents” with which the slaves are entrusted may have more to do with the message and practical work of the kingdom than with exercise of personal abilities.
Sure, we can let this story urge us not to waste our talents in the modern sense. But it also needs to call us to be faithful and diligent with the Good News of the kingdom of God and its living demonstration in our lives. This parable may actually be akin to the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, a word about whether the message of Jesus produces any concrete results in the way in which we live once we’ve received it.
So thank God for your talents, but don’t get too wrapped up in whether you are using them to their fullest. This parable is more about whether you and I are doing as Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness [justice!], and all these things will be given to you as well.”