Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Parable of the Talents Revisited

I don't much care for the Parable of the Talents. It may be a helpful teaching story for those who are lazy, but it presents an image of God as a harsh task master that I find repellent. It also shows God as not only condoning, but encouraging usury (which was considered a sin by Jews as well as by Christians). I found this parable especially troubling after having a conversation with a super-bright friend of mine who had great expectations for her life, but felt she hadn't used her great talents as fully as she should have. She felt that her talents had been buried and never really used as they should have been. She reminded me of George Bailey, the banker in "It's a Wonderful Life." Everyone saw how wonderful George Bailey was, but he saw himself as a failure. In our success-obsessed society, this is a common affliction.

Another version of this Parable came to me that seemed more in keeping with my experience of God as a loving parent who appreciates us just as we are, and encourages us to do better.

A week ago I was having coffee wth Pastor Diane (the pastor of Walteria United Methodist Church, where my wife used to be the pastor) and I shared with her a revision of the Parable of the Talents that came to me while I was driving along the Coast Highway after Easter break. She in turn told me a true story about a pastor re-enacted the Parable of the Talents in a church where grandfather served as chair of the property committee. In this church the pastor passed around a collection plate full of 10-dollar bills and told everyone to take one and use it to earn more money for the church.

Delighted and amazed by this turn of events, everyone took the money and began thinking of creative ways to increase its value. Some used the money to buy incredients to bake cookies. Some bought wool to make hats and socks and mittens. Others bought arts and crafts supplies.

Pastor Diane's grandfather bought a shovel.

"Why did you buy a shovel?" she asked.

"I don't know," her grandfather replied. "I just felt that's what God wanted me to do."

"But grandpa, it doesn't make any sense," Diane told him. "You don't have time to use it for gardening, and no one will buy it from you for more than you paid for it."

She was wrong, however. When the day of reckoning came and everyone went to the social hall to peddle their wares, someone paid $250 for her grandfather's shovel. That's because her grandfather was one of the pillars of the church, and beloved of everyone. The purchaser of the shovel had it silver-plated and engraved with the names of those who had served as chair of the property committee--an office her grandfather had held for many years. The silver shovel became a symbol of service of the church and was given to every new chair of the property committee.

I was reminded of the words of Mother Theresa: "God doesn't call usto do great things, God calls us to do small things with great love."

The Parable of the Talents Revisited

“Those to whom much has been given, much will be forgiven.”

The CEO of the world’s largest corporation decided to go on an extended business trip and gave two of his top employees some capital to invest while he was away. He gave one employee one talent and another ten talents.

“There are no strings attached,” he told his employees. “Just use these talents the way you see fit to make some money for the firm.”

The first employee didn’t know what to do. He fretted for several days, and finally decided to go for a walk down by the beach to see if any inspiration would come to him. While he was walking, he watched the sunset and it came to him that what he had always wanted to do was to set up an art studio and work on his art.

“What the heck!” he thought. “It may be a crazy idea, and I may get fired, but I’ll never have another chance like this again.”

So he bought art supplies, set up a small studio, and spent all his free time painting. His work wasn’t very good at first, but after a year of diligent practice, he finally produced a painting that someone was willing to buy for two talents.

The employee was pleased that his art sold, but he was also worried that his boss might not think this was a big enough return on his investment.

When the boss returned from his year abroad, the first employee explained that he had used his talents to hone his skills as an artist.

“Did you sell any paintings?” the boss asked.
“Well, yes, one painting sold,” the employee explained nervously. “The buyer was very impressed and he paid me two talents.”

“That’s wonderful,” the boss replied. “You doubled my investment, and you created a lovely painting that someone was willing to buy. I will give you four talents so you can set up a proper studio and devote more of your time to your art. And I will put you in charge of our art department so you can work full time on your new career. ”

The first employee was so overwhelmed with gratitude he almost burst into tears.

Then the CEO called to his office the second employee, the one who had received 10 talents. This employee was even more nervous.

“What did you do with your ten talents?” the CEO asked.

“I, uh, made a lot of plans,” the employee replied. He explained that he felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of having so many talents to invest, so he devised different strategies for realizing a sizeable return on his investment.

“I know you have very high standards,” explained the employee. “So I came up with various projects that all have a great deal of promise.”

The employee spent nearly half an hour outlining the complicated plans he had made, and the preliminary steps he had taken to actualize these plans. Finally, the CEO asked the question that the employee had been dreading.

“So what did you accomplish, and how much of a return on the investment did you realize, in the year that I was away?”

“Nothing, Sir. I mean, I have lots of ideas and leads but I haven’t actually completed anything yet.”“Nothing has been completed, and nothing was earned?”

“I have a dozen very promising projects, Sir.”

“A dozen projects?”

“At least, a dozen….Maybe more.”

The CEO smiled, and then sighed.

“Did you take any time off to reflect on what you really wanted to do?”

“No, Sir, I was too busy making plans.”

“Did you ask your Inward Guide for help?”
“I am not sure what you mean, Sir. I did a lot of praying.”“But did you listen?”

“I tried to, but I was afraid.”


“Afraid you might be angry with me.”“Angry?”

“If I failed. I mean, you had so much confidence in me you gave me ten talents. I figured you wanted me to accomplish ten times as much as the first employee, and I knew I had to work ten times as hard to succeed.”

“You thought that? What did you expect me to do if you failed?”

“Something really terrible, like fire me or worse, put me in jail. I heard you were a hard boss.”“Where did you hear that?”“In the book they gave us when they hired us, it had this story about the Parable of the Talents.”“Oh, yes, that part was made up by some people in HR who thought it would motivate employees who were lazy. I never much liked that story, but it helped a few employees who needed a fire lit under them so I let the story be included. Never liked what it had to say about me, though. I don’t allow interest and I have never sent anyone to prison. Did you read the rest of the book? Did you read the part about the Prodigal Son?”

“Yes, but I don’t see how that applies.”“I guess you have forgotten who you are,” said the CEO.

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you remember that you’re my son?”

“Your son?”

“All my employees are my children,” said the CEO. “That’s what is says on page one of the employee manual.”

“I thought that was just a metaphor.”“Silly boy! That’s not a metaphor. That’s God’s truth. This is a family business. And I would never fire you. I love you.”

“You love me?”
“I totally love you, silly boy! No matter what you accomplish, or don’t accomplish, I’ll always love you.”
“You will? You mean you don’t care what I do?”

“Of course, I care what you do. I want you to do what will make you feel fulfilled and happy, what will make you feel useful. But even if you fail, I will still love you.”

“I don’t want to fail,” said the employee, on the verge of tears. “I want to succeed. I want to please you.”“Then don’t try too hard,” replied the CEO smiling. “Take some time off and find out what you really want to do. And then do it. Put all your heart into one thing, something you really care about. Then it won’t matter whether you make money or not.”

The employee had to fight back tears. This news was too good to be true. How could a boss be this kind?

“I know what you’re thinking,” the CEO said. “I’m a softie. No doubt about it. But I have found that a lot more work gets accomplished, and everyone is far happier, when you are motivated by love rather than by fear. So do the work you love with people you love, and you’ll be happy, and so will I. That’s my assignment. Make it so!”


  1. Anthony, wow!

    Neither one of these guys looks likely to inherit the family business--but then, that job's taken!

    I've generally (for whatever reason) read the original parable in terms of timidity, excessive ah-shucks modesty, etc. If you, for example, had thought of this parable, then decided "Well, no; all the Authorities say the orginal parable is the deepest truth; who am I to put my little notion forward..?" this would have been an example of hiding what you'd been given. Leaving aside rhetorical excesses about getting kicked out into great dark voids full of gnashing teeth, etc., such denial of your inspiration would have been destructive to your talent, and more to your point, would have worked in the direction of disconnecting you from God. "Why should I send this schmuck good ideas; he just hides them under his bed with all the feral dust-bunnies." Sharing what you're given is good for us (Yes!) and also helps keep you connected to the Big Guy.

    I've got to admit that as a talented, lazy, and shy person, I too find the original parable kind of scarey. But sometimes, being pushed out of concealment is more than just "being pushed around;" it's actually liberating!

    But what I like about your version... is that it reaffirms what Jesus also said, that we are beloved children. Not slaves, but every one of us "sons of the household."

  2. The parable presents an image of God as a harsh task master only if you assume Jesus meant to identify God and the master of the parable. The way I read it, the master is who the third servant says he is: a hard man. And verse 29, which reads, "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," is Jesus' way of saying the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.