What's Money Got to Do With Talent?

I'm no biblical scholar. I don't even read the Bible regularly -- or, shall I say, religiously. But there are passages that have stuck with me and irrevocably informed the way I negotiate life. One of the most provocative, most puzzling and a personal favorite is "the Parable of the Talents" (Matthew 25:14-30).

In a nutshell, a master who is about to leave for a long journey entrusts three servants with his property -- five, two and one talent respectively, according to their abilities. When the master returns, the first two servants tell him that they have each put their money to work, thus doubling their money. They are commended as "good and faithful."

However, the third servant says that he has hidden the money in the ground. This response incurs a rather incongruously harsh penalty from the master, who not only chides him but also takes the money back to give to a servant who already has 10 talents. To add injury to insult, the "unprofitable servant" is to be thrown out into the darkness, where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth."

This prompts indignant rebuttal. Especially when we're in the sluggish, protracted aftermath of a recession, the worst since the Great Depression. This is a time when grandma's perennial advice about taking the job that provides the best pension doesn't seem so antediluvian. And the world nods approvingly at the prudent, formic thrift of the Germans -- the only country to come out smelling lily white and low-debt during the euro debacle.

So why does the master punish the third servant so mercilessly? The answer seems to be within the text. The most obvious point is that money is called "talent." A talent, in Greek, was equivalent to about 6,000 denarii, or 20 years worth of wages for an average laborer. Nothing to sneeze at.

Talent in the parable also signifies property. As it is actual land, not cash, that the master entrusts to his servants. In other words, it is part of the Earth, part of nature. From this perspective, talent may be considered our inheritance of the biosphere and the resources inherent within it.

Each of us is given part of this property at birth; it is our "lot" in life. Our innate talents are the natural resources, which each of us has been allotted in order to actualize ourselves, to find out who we are and what is our particular vocation. In this way, we are meant to make our unique contribution to the world and to humanity at large.

Whether the resources come in the form of a trust fund, musical aptitude or athletic prowess, it has been bequeathed to us to be used. Not to be hidden in a hole in the ground. In fact, the resources, i.e., the ore of our talent, must be mined from our depths through effort and then honed through discipline, attention and a striving for perfection.

But the parable intimates that our talents are only on loan. We are merely its stewards. If we are one of the lucky who is born with 10 talents, we are also equally beholden. Because as we see in the parable, the master will don his accountant's hat upon his return and ask for an "accounting," as he does his three servants.

It is only in an ethos where wealth and possessions are glorified in and of themselves, not as means toward self-actualization, that we are in danger of becoming the third servant, afraid of using the resources entrusted to him. He clings to money out of fear, insecurity and pride, a consequence of his misinterpretation--an error of perception and lack of perspective.

There is no feeling of bankruptcy greater than materialism without meaning and purpose. Or having something without becoming someone. If we horde and hide our possessions like the third servant, or spend prodigally without investing meaningfully in ourselves, we are just repeating the past from which our inheritance derives. We stay stuck, failing to aid in our own growth and failing to contribute to the evolution of humanity, which is the ultimate goal.

We are given the gift of our talents so that we can put our own unique stamp on it. So that we can increase its worth through our work. So that we can add to and transform its value from the values of the past. So that in the end, we can return the gift, multiplied and ameliorated, to the Earth and its future generations to use and improve upon.

If sin is defined as "missing the mark," the third servant has failed to see the point of his allotment. In his estimation that his lord is "a hard man, reaping where [he] did not sow and gathering where [he] did not scatter," he betrays his understanding of money as something that can easily be taken from him. This superficial conception breeds fear, and consequently his failure to fulfill his earthly calling and obligation.

It is perhaps now, as we ride out the turbulent tides of an uncertain and grim economy that we most need to be reminded of the true meaning of money. And to have faith in this meaning. It is no coincidence that the dollar bill is inscribed with the motto: In God We Trust.

Despite current conventional wisdom, it is a time to be spending, to be using our resources and talents more than ever. The key is knowing how to spend and toward what end: Our consumption must have meaning and significance to our personal and collective destiny. It is the only control we have toward transfusing our anemic economy with the dose of sanguine confidence it so desperately needs.