What’s a talent? Who’s got talent? Generally speaking nowadays, a talent refers to a special ability someone has. This meaning of talent actually developed from the ancient meaning of the word, which had to do with weighing or scales and money. In biblical times, a talent did not refer to someone’s ability; it referred to a certain weight of gold or silver. The exact weight varied over time and by culture. It was a large amount, somewhere between 50 and 75 pounds. That’s a lot of gold or silver.
It’s easy to see how, as a natural extension of the meaning of talent as a large quantity of gold or silver, talent came also to refer to the deposit of one’s natural abilities. Just as wealth is something people have in varying degrees and in varying commodities—cash, land, livestock, investments, minerals, etc.—all of which must be managed and wisely invested to be beneficial, so also each person has abilities, strengths, and desirable qualities that need to be developed and used in order that those talents bring about a good benefit.
According to some etymological dictionaries, one of the reasons why the word talent came to take on the meaning of personal ability has to do with the fact that the word talent is used in the parable of the talents according to the Gospel of Matthew. The popular interpretation of the parable of the talents has largely focused on the natural, God-given gifts and abilities that each person has and for which each person will give an account to God on the day of judgment. While I wouldn’t say that this is a wrong interpretation of this parable, I will say that it is an interpretation that has in my experience created more guilt and excused more pride than it has actually helped people to enter into and experience the kingdom of heaven on earth.
This parable is, after all, a parable of the kingdom of heaven. It is not a parable of capitalist economics. Christ is certainly not teaching us that we please God by getting the most out of life or the most out of our investments or the most out of our natural abilities. And yet, this is how many of us have come to understand this parable, because this is how the parable is generally taught, if not explicitly, certainly implicitly.
Thus, natural abilities have more and more come to be associated with this word, talent, to the extent that one cannot read this parable without thinking that the talents mentioned by Jesus refer to natural abilities rather than units of money, which is what they actually referred to. And even if we have bothered to read the notes in our Bible telling us that the word talent refers to a unit of money, still we do not stop to consider that this large amount of money referred to in the parable might be referring to anything other than one’s God-given or natural abilities.
But how does the Church teach us to interpret this parable? One of the themes of the service of Holy Tuesday is this very parable. The following is a verse from the Presanctified Liturgy for that day. It goes like this:
Come, O faithful, let us work zealously for the Master, for he distributes wealth to his servants. Let each of us, according to his ability, increase his talent of grace. Let one be adorned in wisdom through good works. Let another celebrate in service of splendor. The one distributes his wealth to the poor; another communicates the word to those untaught. Thus we shall increase what has been entrusted to us, and, as faithful stewards of grace, we shall be accounted worthy of the Master’s joy. Make us worthy of this, O Christ our God, in your love for mankind.
Note that in these verses and elsewhere, not only in this particular service, but in other hymns of the Church, the Church interprets the talents in this parable as referring to grace. The wealth of the kingdom of heaven is grace, not natural abilities. “God distributes to his servants grace, each according to their ability,” or to quote 1 Corinthians 12:11, “The Holy Spirit distributes to each one individually as he wills.” Grace is God’s, not our own. It is given to us. Grace is, indeed, God himself, God the Holy Spirit as he comes to us and as he gives himself to us and abides in us, or, to quote the parable in Matthew, “to each according to his own ability.”
I like to use the image of three glasses of water to illustrate this idea of “to each according to his ability.” Imagine a shot glass, an orange juice glass, and a pint-size beer glass. If all of these glasses are full of water, we can see that each is full, even though the capacity of each is different. In the same way, we can say that each Christian is full of the Holy Spirit or full of grace, even though the capacity of each person differs.
But unlike glasses of water, the human capacity to be filled with the Holy Spirit is not static. As in the parable, the one who receives two and the one who receives five talents traded with them, literally in Greek, ergazomai, that is, worked with them. They increased their talents; so we also, if we work with or cooperate—again, co-operate, work with—the grace of God given to us, we, too, increase our capacity for grace. God gives himself to us freely. We cannot earn the grace of God. We can, however, increase our capacity for the grace of God. We can also, if we are not attentive, lose the grace of God—perhaps not completely, but certainly practically.
Our spiritual life, our life with God, is given to us freely, but it is not static. This is why the word gift is so troublesome when we are talking about God’s grace. The problem with the word gift used to translate the word charisma in the New Testament, especially in 1 Corinthians 12, the problem is that it just doesn’t mean in English what it means in Greek. There are two word groups in Greek, or in the Greek New Testament, that are translated into English as gift, and these two Greek word groups have very different emphases.
The Greek word doron or dorea translates very nicely as our English word gift. A gift, in English, as doron or dorea, in Greek refers to a fixed thing that is given or received. Charisma on the other hand, refers to grace—a bit of grace or some grace. It can manifest in concrete actions, things, or experiences, but charisma is not about the action, thing, or experience, as it would be if it were a doron, a gift proper, or a dorea, a free gift. But rather, the word charisma draws attention to the grace that causes or manifests the action, the thing, or the experience. The very word itself is just a form of the word grace. Charis means grace; charisma means “some” grace or an endowment of grace, or perhaps we might even say grace-iation.
When God gives his grace, God gives himself. This is the teaching of the Orthodox Church. By the way, if this is a new idea to you, I suggest that you take a look at Fr. Peter Alban Heers’ podcast called Postcards from Greece, the one entitled, “The Uncreated Grace That is God.” That’s a good podcast to introduce you to this fundamental Orthodox understanding of God and grace and how God comes to us.
Grace is nothing less than God himself coming to us by his divine energies or workings. For example, the sun makes an excellent metaphor. We actually experience the sun itself when we experience its warmth and light, for the heat and light of the sun is nothing else but the sun itself as it radiates outward. However, although we truly do experience the sun itself, we do not experience the sun in its essence, in its inner activity. All we know about the inner activity of the sun is based on scientific speculation, not actual experience. We both experience and don’t experience the sun. Similarly, we both know and do not know God. We know God in the intimate biblical sense of the word know inasmuch as God comes to us, as God reveals himself to us, as God the Holy Spirit fills us. We do—or at least we can—certainly know God.
However, God is also unknowable. God in his essence, in his God-ness, in himself, as God knows himself is completely unknowable to us. We are creatures. God is Creator. That’s it. And yet, God has created human beings in his image and after his likeness. God has created human beings to walk with God, as did Adam and Eve in the garden before the Fall. God created human beings to participate in his divine light and even, to some extent, in his divine nature, or so St. Peter tells us, in 2 Peter 1:4. “God has created us to know him, love him, and have him even abide or dwell in us.” This is grace; this is God coming to us, walking with us, transforming us, abiding in us, and loving us and the world through us.
So to return to the parable of the talents: when we read this parable, we must realize that the master is none other than God, and the talents that has given are nothing less than God’s wealth—God himself, God’s grace, God in his energies or workings, God as he comes to us. This parable is not really at all about external things—our natural abilities or what we normally call talents in English—and when we interpret this parable in this merely external way, I believe it causes more harm than good. I actually know people who have been burdened with guilt for years because, for example, they used to play the piano well, and now they no longer play the piano very much. They are full of guilt because they have been taught that the meaning of this parable is that God will judge us if we do not develop and keep growing in our natural abilities. I’ve also heard sports figures, even fighters, boast of and justify their pursuit of an athletic career by claiming that they are just being faithful to the talent God has given them.
Now, I am not saying that there is anything better or worse than pursuing an athletic career. Certainly nothing worse than pursuing a career in politics, law, finance, or, dare I say it, writing blog posts on spirituality. There’s nothing better or worse about athletics. But what I am saying is that to refer to a proclivity or ability in any field of endeavor as the talent one has been given by God or for which God will judge them if they do not attend to it—this is just not true. It is not the message of Jesus. Yes, God will certainly judge us, but not concerning whether or not we continue to play the piano or play football or stay in politics or whatever other activity we may be good at. No, God will judge us according to his grace, according to what we have done with the grace that God has given us.
Certainly, grace manifests itself in our life in concrete ways. There are manifestations of the Spirit and fruits of the Spirit. There are ministries and activities and experiences of all sorts that are the outworking of the grace of God in us, which is the same thing as the Holy Spirit in us, which is God abiding in us. Like Mary, the sister of Lazarus, we need to attend to the one thing needful. Attending to the one thing needful, we may also wash dishes, play the piano, change a baby’s diaper, and, yes, even play football. But the most important thing is the grace in our hearts, embuing us, compelling us, and guiding us.
This is what the Church means when it teaches us to keep our mind in our heart. We attend to Christ in our hearts. Christ in our hearts—this is the gift of grace. From there, the heart is full of grace. All sorts of various ministries and works will be manifested from this, but the works, even the works that we are naturally good at, these are not the talent. The talent is the grace, and it is the grace we must increase as we work with it, as we attend to it, as we cooperate with it, as we co-labor with God. This is the talent that God has given us: to be filled with his grace, each according to his or her own capacity, and to work with that grace until, as it says in Ephesians, we reach the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.