She has nothing. At least nothing that anybody else would value. At forty-seven years old, she is unmarried and still lives at home. Because of a little oxygen deprivation at birth, she is not quite as sharp mentally, not quite as quick, as most people. Her face is friendly and open, and she is cheerfully self-deprecating, but no one would call her conventionally pretty. When we see her for the first time, she is tall and solidly built, with frizzy dark hair, and wearing a gold lame dress with, oddly, dark stockings and open-toed high-heeled shoes. In response to someone rolling his eyes when he hears that she’s almost fifty years old, she makes a joke. “And that’s just one side of me,” she says, and wiggles her hips. Everyone is laughing at her.
And then she opens her mouth and begins to sing.
And the judges of the television show Britain’s Got Talent are stunned into silence. So is the audience in the studio. The video clip quickly goes viral.
Susan Boyle, who appears to have no assets, nothing to offer the world, no talent at all – is possessed of a breathtakingly beautiful singing voice. And so, in the second half of her life, she now enjoys sharing her talents with the world as a professional singer.
God does not distribute talents equally. Every one of us is talented at something, but some people seem to have more than the rest of us. And with that reality in our hearts, may we hear the strong warning that Jesus gives to me and to you with the parable of the talents.
In this reading, a talent was a coin. A single talent was equivalent to a year’s wages. But it’s clear that Jesus is using the word metaphorically to call for good stewardship of everything we are entrusted with. In fact, that’s how the word talent came to mean our abilities and aptitudes, because of this very parable.
The master of the household entrusts three of his servants with large amounts of money, with the expectation that they will be wise stewards and provide him with a good return on investment. He decides on how much money to give each servant based on the servants’ abilities.
It doesn’t go well for the servant who is given a single talent.
In this parable, Jesus clearly wants us to ponder the less talented servant. He doesn’t give us many specifics, but let’s consider one possible reason why the one-talent servant was distrustful and resentful toward his master and so didn’t invest his talent.
When the master questioned this servant, he says: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” The servant considers the master unjust. Why? Nothing else in the parable points to the master’s unfairness. Something in the servant is fueling this perception of the master. What is it?
Jon Bloom is a co-founder of the Desiring God organization. He has this to say about what might lead the servant to distrust and fear his master: “I don’t have to look very far to see one very possible cause: Being given less talents when others have been given more talents can appear unfair to a proud heart. I don’t have to look far is because I see how my own pride responds to more talented servants. I am surrounded by people who have received more talents. I am regularly tempted to covet the talents others have and wonder why my Master didn’t give me more.”
And yet, Bloom says, you and I and most of us don’t always recognize that we are coveting our neighbors’ talents.
Discouragement. Self-pity. Hopelessness. Quitting before we start. Making an assumption that we can’t win, so there’s no point even trying.
That almost happened with Susan Boyle. Although she had quite a good reputation as a choir singer and soloist in her little village in Scotland, she had rejected out of hand any suggestion that she perform on a larger stage. She had refused to try out for The Voice and The X Factor because she was too old and too plain-looking.
It took quite a bit of persistent persuasion to get her as far as a regional tryout for the third season of Britain’s Got Talent. And even once she made it to London, she almost turned right around and went back home. She came within a whisker of putting her talent in a jar and burying it in the earth for all time.
Today, she has released six hugely popular albums. She’s internationally recognized and a steadfast supporter of a number of charities.
But that almost didn’t happen. And as Jon Bloom points out, this subconscious decision-making, this deciding that we haven’t got what it takes, is based in pride, the core of so many of our sinful thoughts and acts. “All that feeling bad about myself, it’s all about me,” he says. It’s a form of self-worship.”
My love of God gets eclipsed. My loving relationships with others – out the window. Gone is the knowledge of the grace of God that has given me any talent at all. And I’ve lost the recognition that I want to be a good steward of the gifts that God has given me.
Everything has been buried under my own pride and covetousness.
And maybe that’s why the master in today’s parable calls the last servant “wicked and slothful.” Being given a single talent means less of a chance to really impress the master and improve the servant’s own position. Therefore, the servant believes, the master is harsh and unjust.
Pride infects all of us, no matter how many talents we have. In a number of parables, Jesus takes aim at people with a generous amount of prestige, wealth, and power. That’s why this parable stings so much. Jesus is talking to an ordinary person with a standard amount of talent. He’s talking to me and to you.
So what’s the answer? What can I do, what can you do, with the talents God has given us – no matter how few or how many?
All of us can and must be on the lookout for the sin of pride, which is at the root of so many unhealthy behaviors. Pride takes so many forms, including discouragement, self-pity, and hopelessness. This has been a harsh year. We’ve all had to learn first-hand and on the fly how to redefine and nurture relationship, to surrender so many activities, to walk with loved ones through job loss and illness.
In the midst of that, every single one of us is a cherished and deeply loved child of God – and God has blessed every single one of us, richly, with talents. It might take some effort to find out how we can use those talents. But making the effort is a fine way to shut down self-pity and the sin of pride. Looking to strengthen relationships in new ways can invite us to find talents we never knew we had, and to share them. And that also means that we have to trust God. To trust that God knows exactly what He is doing in handing out talents. Our ways are not his ways and our thoughts are not his thoughts. God has his reasons for giving me, and you, exactly the talents we have.
And, most of all, what God desires is faithful stewardship. Whether it is of five talents or one, each of us has been granted unique abilities and aptitudes. They are ours to share for the building of the kingdom. Britain’s got talent; America’s got talent; every single one of us has talent. What we do with what God has given us … is up to you, and to me.