The parable of the talents (Matthew 25: 14-30) troubled me for many years. I struggle with anxiety and on my dark days I am plagued with doubt about my worth, my abilities and my productivity. On these days I experience time as a cruel mistress, relentlessly ticking away while I fail to achieve what I feel I should and struggle to step out and say 'yes' to new challenges.
Missed opportunities weigh heavily on my heart. The idea that God will judge me based on how much I have achieved with what he has given me only increases my anxiety. I fear that I am like the third servant, that I am not returning God's investment and that, one day, what little I have will be stripped away.
On these days I much prefer the picture of judgement presented in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46), in which Jesus says we will be rewarded for the small acts of kindness we show to the vulnerable and needy that flow from a compassionate heart. A life of selfless love manifested in simple ways seems much more preferable to a life spent dutifully trying to maximise growth.
But is this really what the parable is about?
I decided to explore my anxiety. The first thing I realised was that it was partly the comparison with money – a talent was a measure of money in Jesus' day – that was making me uneasy. I live in a major American city and the social, emotional and environmental impacts of greed are visible all around me. However,But even if I lived in a village in the mountains, the warnings about wealth and the storing up of riches would still ring out loudly from the Gospels and give me a heightened awareness of the dangers of money.
The idea that God is some kind of businessman or investor made me uncomfortable. But of course this is a parable, Jesus isn't talking literally about God giving us differing amounts of money. What, then, are these talents meant to represent?
The most common answer to this is that they signify talents in our modern-day understanding of the word: abilities that we have been gifted for our own enjoyment and the benefit of others. I'm sure this interpretation holds much truth. God certainly blesses us with a great variety of aptitudes and he surely wants us to use these gifts to bless others. But what about those who try and do not achieve? Or those who are unable to multiply their gifts, perhaps due to a physical or mental illness? What about those who struggle to know what their talents are in the first place?
Read simply through this lens, the parable seems to imply that what God values above all is striving and will reward those who maximise what they have been given for the simple reason that more is better.
The problem is that this just doesn't ring true with other sayings of Jesus. The beatitudes do not talk about the successful, the productive, the prolific being blessed. Quite the contrary: it is the simple souls whom the world overlooks who are advancing the kingdom of God and who are called blessed. Jesus also chides rather than blesses Martha for her anxious busyness while Mary who sits simply listening is the model who is held up to be emulated. When my anxieties about my productivity and worth rear their heads, it is often Jesus' words to Martha that come to me in prayer: 'Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed, indeed only one.' And, as Mary knows, what matters is that we sit at the feet of Jesus and learn to love God as the Son loves the Father.
Having unravelled my understanding of the parable I was left perplexed. As is often the case, a revelation came via CS Lewis. In The Four Loves, Lewis writes:
'I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God's will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness. It is like hiding a talent in a napkin and for much the same reason. "I knew that thou wert a hard man." Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural love, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw near to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour.'
Although Lewis only mentions the parable in passing, the connection he makes between the talent and love completely shifted my understanding of the parable. First, in making the connection between the talents and love, Lewis implies that the talents are not just divinely bestowed abilities to be used with love but are, in fact, love itself. This immediately made sense to me because surely love is our greatest talent. In love we receive God himself and although we often love and are loved very poorly by those around us, we all bear the seeds of love and it is a gift that cannot but be fruitful when used.
All our other talents are refractions of this ultimate gift and talent, and once we receive them as signs of love they no longer have power to oppress us with shame and anxiety but instead become reminders of the love by which we are held and which we are called to share.
Lewis' words also impacted me because I realised that I had mistakenly assumed that the failure of the third servant is a failure of productivity, when really it is a failure of relationship. The servant does not understand the nature of his master, thinking him to be a harsh master who reaps where he does not sow. He doesn't understand that the master gives generously and out of his abundance and that the proper response is to share and increase, whatever the cost to ourselves.
In contrast to the third servant who operates from a place of fear and scarcity and sees the talent as something he must protect, the first two servants receive God's love as something to be used. They rush out into the world and are risky with love. They give it away and it is increased. They have no defensive armour. They know God and they trust him.
After reflecting on Lewis' interpretation of the parable, I realised that the parable implies less that God is like a businessman shrewdly allocating resources and more that he is like a loving and generous parent who presents his beloved, and artistically inclined, children with new colouring sets. The children rush to the table to draw and colour and create and eagerly present their finished pictures to their parent who then pins them to the fridge. They might not be masterpieces but they have been completed with the exuberance that flows from a trusting relationship in which everything is received as gift and is to be used flamboyantly and without fear or anxious consideration of the possible result.
The final fruit of my 'Aha!' moment while reading Lewis was that it finally removed the dualism I had created between the parable of the talents and the parable of the sheep and the goats. Understood through the lens of love, the parable of the talents is not only compatible with the parable of the sheep but requires the parable of the sheep and the goats.
The parable of the talents tells us to go out and be risky with love, trusting that we have a good master and the parable of the sheep and the goats shows us what being risky with love looks like in practice. If we want to be like the two good servants, we must give whenever we see need, we must share our love with those around us and we must do so in small yet tangible ways. We must feed the hungry, give a drink to those who are thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick and visit those in prison. All our talents are tokens of love, our most precious talent, and they are given to us so that we can better love and care for those around us, especially the vulnerable.
And as the parable of the sheep and goats make clear, when we serve those who need love, we serve Jesus. In other words, to love those who need love is how we offer back our love to the one who is Love.
Jennifer Goodyer is a writer and artist living in Chicago.