“Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.”
This is the greeting the faithful and wise servant hears upon the master’s return in Jesus’ parable of the talents. The servant was rewarded because he was a good steward of the master’s treasures. Actually, two of the servants in the parable hear this greeting when the master returns from a long absence. The third servant, however, does not. The master is not pleased with this servant’s stewardship and calls him a “wicked, lazy servant.”
The parable of the talents provides a rich source for reflection on our lives as stewards of the gift of faith. In this line of thinking, the “talents” represent the gift of faith.
“Talents” were a monetary measurement in the ancient world. Various regions or empires calculated the value differently, but generally it would represent an amount of weight of a particular precious metal. The weights ranged somewhere between 50 to 70 pounds of the precious metal per talent.
The Roman talent weighted approximately 71 pounds. So one talent of gold, for example, would mean by our standards 71 pounds of gold.
This is a huge amount. Consider in our own day where one pound of gold would be worth approximately $19,000. By current standards, one talent would be worth approximately $1,349,000.
All this to say that when those servants were given the talents – regardless if it was five, three or one talent – they were each being trusted with an very large responsibility.
The talents represent “faith” in terms of a gift – in other words, all that Jesus teaches, preaches and demonstrates about life. This would be similar to Jesus’ use of the “buried treasure,” or the “pearl of great price” to describe the Kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 13:44-47).
Responsibility is one of the key elements of the parable. Two of the servants were deemed responsible. They took the talents and invested them. When we consider what is involved here, we might think of the way we handle our savings, property or possessions today. If we had a substantial amount of cash, and we gave it to a financial firm to invest for us, we would expect – in fact, demand – that there be a substantial return on the investment. If not, we would find another investor with whom to work.
The same would be true if our valuables were wrapped up in stock or property. We expect the people who care for these items to be responsible and to give us a good return.
In this sense, it becomes even clearer that the first two servants were the responsible stewards. They will be given more responsibility because they have proven trustworthy with the master’s treasures.
So what does all this mean in terms of faithful stewardship for Jesus’ disciples, then and now?
It seems that Jesus is giving us a teaching on discipleship. He has entrusted us with a treasure that cannot be measured because it is so valuable. The gift of life is priceless. We can not put a value on it because its worth is beyond anything else in this world.
Jesus uses the talents to describe this reality in a way we can grasp or at least try to imagine. The talents therefore represent all that he has taught and shown about the Father’s vision for life. All these teachings lead us to love, joy, happiness and peace.
Responsible stewardship entails taking these teachings to heart and having them transform our lives. We “invest” these teachings by living them, by making decisions on how we think and act based on them – not only for ourselves, but for the world in which we live. So all areas of life, personal and communal, are the places where we make these “investments.”
Here’s an example. Jesus teaches us to not only have compassion on the poor and needy, but to actually care for them. Next week’s Gospel passage describes the separation of the goats and the sheep at the end of time. When the sheep are invited into the fold, the king says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.
“Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
“And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
We can trust Jesus that this teaching – the care for the poor and needy – leads to life, not just for them, but also for us.
Being faithful or responsible stewards of this teaching means putting it into action. If we think it’s a good thing to help the poor, but do not do anything about it, then we are like the second son in the parable of the two sons. The father asked both sons to work in the vineyard. The first said “no,” but eventually went. The second said “yes” but never went (cf. Matthew 21:28ff.).
Or, more to the point, we are like the servant who took the one talent and buried it. Faithful stewardship requires us to invest in this teaching by actually giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty and so forth. If we do this, then we are like the servants who received either the five or two talents.
The mystery and beauty of this faithful stewardship is that the more we invest, the more we will receive of those gifts that cannot be measured. Jesus teaches us about life and how to live. He is the answer to all our serious questions about life. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
So it’s not just the one teaching about the care of the poor or needy that leads us to life; it’s all of Jesus teachings. He gives us all these teachings, represented by the talents; the more we invest, the more the return.
The point of the parable, then, is that Jesus wants us to have life in all its fullness. He wants us to take what he gives and invest it in our lives and in the world around us. He wants us to be good stewards of his teaching and of his kingdom, so that when our lives our done, he can greet us as the first two servants were greeted:
“Well done, my good and faithful servant … Come, share your master’s joy.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.