The Parable of the Talents

 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more.  But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 

And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’  

He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 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. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

At the heart of this parable is the conflict between what Erich Fromm called the ‘having’ and ‘being’ modes of existence. The having mode is associated with acquiring, possessing, holding and consuming. The person operating in this mode is alienated from their human powers and seeks identity through status, prestige and possessions. In the being mode there is the active use and development of the person’s powers and capacities for creativity, love and understanding. In the parable of the talents the first two servants represent that being mode while the third represents the having mode.

The wealth of talents in the story are, of course, symbolic of an inner wealth which is bestowed on us at birth. The master represents the force that bestows us with a particular unique personality and its unique gifts of talents and capacities. This scenario can be thought of as a kind of reckoning day where we are forced to answer for the gifts we have been given and how we have used them.

Many traditions speak of the idea of an inner ‘daimon’ or ‘genius’, a kind of guiding spirit, a ‘soul’s code’, as James Hillman referred to it, that guides our life. It is a spiritual force that longs to be awakened within us and to unfold outward into the world. Just as the acorn contains within it the design of the oak tree that it will grow into, so too, we contain with us the image that will guide our destiny.

Talents and abilities that we are naturally endowed with come with a responsibility – to use them in the most effective, efficient and beneficial way. Generally, being the social creatures that we are, this means using our innate capacities in a way that serves and helps the society in which we live. The first two servants in the parable spend their talents wisely – they use their gifts and so have fulfilled the mission the master has given them. The paradox here is that when you spend what you have – yourself – you do not become poor but become further enriched. In investing their talents the first two servants got more back. We can think of someone who helps others – they feel good because they are using and developing their own competency but they are also getting satisfaction from enhancing another person’s existence, the result of which is gratifying. No one is lessened by this or loses anything; on the contrary everyone is enriched and gains.

The third servant, by contrast, held onto his talent. This is the person, all too common in our society, who is endowed with certain natural gifts, but is not facilitated and ultimately fails to find a channel to express these talents and gifts and so they are wasted. This untapped potential, that could create change in the world, rusts inside the person. By ‘storing up’ and not giving away their talent they suffer and the world around them suffers too for this loss. Talents are designed to be used up and if they are not, stagnation sets in; unexpressed energy has a stultifying effect.

Think of all the problems that we currently face in the world. Then imagine all the creative potential that is currently being blocked because of the values of our culture and society (i.e. the economy, money, profit trump the needs of human development and well-being), or because of the individual’s incapacity to find a way of life that allows this potential to develop. If this energy were liberated and directed in pro-social ways, we would have at our disposal possibly the greatest resource possible for resolving these issues.

An education system that really cares for the individual would seek to ‘bring forth’ and nurture what is best within them. This starts by encouraging young people to reflect on what their gifts, talents, dispositions and natural capacities might be. Instead of having a system orientated around what society wants us to learn and become we would have a person-centred approach of allowing the individual to take the lead in their own development. If young people were guided by the questions, ‘What am I good at?’, ‘What are my gifts and talents?’, ‘What is my unique contribution to the world?’, How different might their lives be and how different might the future of the planet be? Putting questions like this at the heart of educational and cultural practice, I believe, would lead to a renewal of hope and faith in the future.