Read Matthew 25:14-30.
My New Testament professor in seminary used to urge us when we became preachers not to try to explain or resolve the parables which, as he put it, are meant to "tease and startle the imagination." Yet we take great stories and moralize them, or maybe worse theologize them - when they are meant to break open our thinking and transform our lives.
Yet even with this huge caveat, we sometimes need, from our socio-cultural-historical distance, some tools for unlocking the parables. Where modern people always get stuck on today's story of the talents is in feeling it's not fair: why didn't the owner divide the talents evenly? I have to say that every time I've taught the parable this comes up and I always feel like responding as parents do to their children: who ever said life was fair? Some people do have overflowing talents, high IQs, athletic ability, musical ability, trust funds - etc. Others start with a lot less. As in the parable it's not what you start with but what you do with it that counts.
Whatever else a talent may symbolize it was, first, money. And it helps to know that one talent is not a $100 bill. A talent is an extraordinary amount of money - a ridiculous amount of money. It's winning the lottery. The note in some Bibles says that one talent equals "fifteen years salary of a day laborer." Sometimes when I've taught this parable I give people a little math problem - to multiply their own annual salary by fifteen. That is one talent. For a person making $50,000 a year, that would be three-quarters of a million dollars. Two talents would be 1.5 million dollars, and five talents would be 3.75 million.
Now there are a couple of insights that grow out of doing this math problem. One is that it is still a human tendency to compare ourselves to others and wish we had more. Fifteen years wages as a free gift is nothing to sneeze at. But you know what we say, right? If we were handed "one talent" while our neighbor got two and the person across the street got five, we'd start to talk about how after the government takes it's share and you know, the cost of living being what it is, it's hardly anything at all, really. A mere pittance. In fear and anxiety (rather than enormous gratitude) we bury it, trying desperately to hold onto what we can for a rainy day.
Freud was right about at least one thing: we do project our illusions onto God. Now my seminary professor also warned us about the dangers of allegorizing parables, i.e. of turning the "master" in this or any parable into a stand-in for God. Fair enough. But is it not true, nevertheless, that where we see scarcity, we tend to see God as the third person in the story does - as a "harsh taskmaster." In contrast, when we know that God is the giver of all good gifts and we perceive generosity and count our many blessings, that unleashes gratitude in us and we are freed to live with courage and hope.We want to please the master, as it were.
Whether we are given much or little - how do we use it for the glory of God?