A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, November 13, 2011 | Carl E. Olson
• Prv 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
• Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
• 1 Thess 5:1-6
• Mt 25:14-30
Americans are fascinated by talent. New talent, young talent, fresh talent, and especially marketable talent. Musical talent is especially popular, as evidenced by shows such as “American Idol”, “Nashville Star” and “High School Musical.” There is even a show called “America’s Got Talent,” which features judges—arguably the real stars of the show—whose main talent is apparently the ability to be celebrities.
While much that passes for talent in popular culture is void of heft or substance, the word “talent” comes from a Greek word, tálanton, which, ironically, indicates a certain weight, specifically a measurement of money. The Book of Revelation, using the same Greek word, describes hailstones as “heavy as a hundred-weight” (Rev. 16:21; RSV). The talents mentioned by Jesus in the parable of the talents, heard in today’s Gospel reading, likely referred to a hundred pounds of silver. That weighty sum was roughly twenty years of income for someone working for minimum wage.
During the medieval era the word talent (talenta in Latin) began to take on the meaning it has today—a special natural ability or aptitude. This came from the close connection between talents and ability found in the parable: “A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one--to each according to his ability” (Matt 25:15).
The Greek word for ability (dúnamis) emphasizes strength and power, especially in contrast to cowardice and fear. The contrast between strength and fear is vital to the parable; it is fear that undoes the servant given a single talent: “Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.” Why is the servant fearful? Because he does not respond and act out of love for the Master, but out of concern for his own well-being. And it is this self-interest that distorts his understanding of the Master’s trust and intentions.
“For many people in the church resemble that servant,” wrote St. Gregory the Great about this parable. “They are afraid to attempt a better way of life but not of resting in idleness. When they advert to the fact that they are sinners, the prospect of grasping the ways of holiness alarms them, but they feel no fear at remaining in their wickedness.” The paradox is that we can only be strong in God’s grace when we recognize how weak we are in our flesh. Fear and pride are so often joined at the sinful hip.
The Catechism makes an important point about talents (pars. 1934-1937). It first emphasizes that “all men have the same nature and the same origin” and that all are called to participate in God’s divine life. “The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it.” But it also notes that every man is different from the other, and that talents are not equally distributed.
Yet these differences should not be cause for jealousy or bitterness, but for an appreciation of our need for one another and for God. “These differences belong to God's plan,” the Catechism explains, “who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular ‘talents’ share the benefits with those who need them.”
Both natural and supernatural talents are gifts from God. We can either develop them and use them for the good of others and the glory of God, or we can horde them out of selfishness and fear. Love is essential to the proper use of our talents. “Whoever has love receives other gifts as well,” wrote St. Gregory, “Whoever does not have love loses even the gifts he appeared to have received.” Talent used rightly receives a heavenly reward, even if never seen by the judges of “America’s Got Talent.”
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the November 16, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)