The Parable of the Talents: Embracing the power of imperfect actions

June 17, 2011 | 16 comments
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This past Sunday found many of us discussing the parable of the talents. This parable is especially powerful to me because of what it teaches about God’s plan for us. God’s plan—at this stage—is not about a particular set of outcomes being credited to us. Instead, God wants us to join with Him in sculpting our will and internal resources toward ends He knows will lead us to realize our full potential. In other words, the Gospel is about our “becoming” through imperfect actions under God’s guidance.

In the parable, the master praises the servants who acted to increase their talents. When praising the faithful servants, the master’s choice of words does not depend on the number of talents possessed by the servants at the end of the day. On the other hand, the master condemns the servant who does not try to increase his talent because he is afraid of the risks that come with such an action. In particular, the master reminds the servant that he (the master) reaps where he has not sown. The master can be seen as suggesting that he and his plans do not depend on the gains or losses experienced by the servants. Instead, the master’s purpose is to help the servants become good stewards through the opportunity to act on their own to put their talents to use.

In a related way, God has arranged His plan so that the consequences of our mistakes, sins, and imperfections will not, by themselves, hold us back from progressing and returning to Him. What freedom He has given us! We need not be held hostage to concerns that our imperfections might thwart His plan. In fact, it is immobility arising from such concerns that would actually thwart God’s plan for us.

It is easy to lose sight of this very fundamental fact—we must learn to exercise our own judgment through action if we are to progress and fulfill God’s plan. Getting hung up on our imperfections or limiting our actions out of fear of making mistakes misses the point. Having imperfect judgment and abilities means that we will make mistakes of all kinds. But the point of our lives is not to avoid individual missteps. The point is to grow through exercising our will through action. Understanding this not only helps us do the right thing, but also helps us to see ourselves as God does.

In writing this very post, I am reminded of how easy it is to forget the lesson from the parable. As I type out my thoughts, it is easy for me to be beset by concerns about whether or not I am turning out a good post: Will I be able to convey my thoughts in a clear manner? Will I write something that will be mundane and unnecessary? Will it be too long? Will it make a difference to someone? Will I later regret having written the post?

In the end, whatever I write will surely be imperfect. I can let my concerns cause my writing of the post to consume too much of my time, and I can even let my concerns prevent me from posting at all. However, when I realize that the writing and the sharing of the post—imperfect as the post may be—are not so much aimed at producing a perfect result as they are aimed at sharing, connecting, and growing through imperfect actions, I find the perspective to do it. And, in so doing, I find joy unhindered by imperfections and growth that would be impossible without imperfect actions.

16 Responses to The Parable of the Talents: Embracing the power of imperfect actions

  1. Clark Herlin on June 17, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    I never thought about this parable in such a way. Great job.

  2. Cameron N. on June 17, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Great post, thank you so much. This shows that the Spirit can help us have great insights in spite of such a familiar lesson.

  3. Kade Hendershot on June 17, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    Great post!

  4. James Olsen on June 17, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    “We need not be held hostage to concerns that our imperfections might thwart His plan. In fact, it is immobility arising from such concerns that would actually thwart God’s plan for us.”

    Spoken like Eve herself! Great post Brad. And welcome to our Salon.

  5. Thomas Parkin on June 18, 2011 at 3:13 am

    Yes. Yes. Yes. The project is to become like Christ. That means we will become _more_. More what? More in every area where you can become more. The path is marked by experience; is defined by, learning, expanding. How does Alma’s potential convert know that the word is good? Because his soul ‘doth begin to expand.’ One of the sure signs of false righteousness is fixity: the man with one talent.

    Thanks, Brad. Spot on.

  6. Robyn Wright on June 18, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Thanks. This is something that I am just starting to learn about and understand.

  7. Adam Miller on June 19, 2011 at 4:05 am

    Amen.

  8. Dave on June 19, 2011 at 8:47 am

    Parables are short and open to many interpretations. I think we generally read into them rather than out of them the points we ascribe. The parable, for example, might be read as saying we should be risk takers rather than be risk averse, as is the poor fellow who just held safe his talent. Live dangerously, as Nietzsche said. That hardly matches the counsel dispensed by LDS leaders. Mormons aren’t counseled to live dangerously or to write dangerously. Mormons who write about Mormonism do so while looking over their shoulder.

  9. OC on June 19, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Interesting use of a positive lesson rather than the traditional negative one of loosing all because one had accomplished or attempted nothing.

    While the traditional message is still valid, a fresh look allows The Holy Spirit to work in us and opens the door to greater understanding.

    Thanks for the innovation. Very refreshing.

  10. Adam Greenwood on June 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Meaty stuff.

  11. PL on June 20, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Your thoughts here about the Parable of the Talents are brilliant! Thanks for helping me to think.

    I have therefore pondered this all weekend. I went back to the Bible to read this parable to better understand it myself. Then I decided I needed to read the other parables and words of Jesus surrounding this parable. I also did some research to find out just what a “talent” was back then 2,000 years ago. Back then a “talent” was a very large amount of money — infact, it was approximately 20 years of wages. In Jesus’ time a talent did not refer to a “gift” such as a beautiful voice for singing, etc. I think we need to understand this so we don’t confuse our modern definition of talent with the meaning in Jesus’ day when he gave the parable of the talents.

    So here’s what I noticed in reading Jesus’ words both before and after this parable:

    1. After Jesus had made his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem & cleansed the temple, He answered many questions from the Sadducees and Pharisees by teaching with parables.

    2. THE GREAT COMMANDMENT Matt 22:34-40
    They asked Jesus what was the most important commandment in the Law. The answer Jesus gave was this:”And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like unto it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’ ”

    3. Then in Matt 24 the disciples asked Jesus about the signs of His coming and the close of the age. Now Jesus teaches the disciples in Matt 25 with three parables. I think that the Parable of the Ten Virgins as well as the parable of the Talents are all about THE GREAT COMMANDMENT — love God & love your neighbor. It’s about love! How do we put oil in our lamps? LOVE. How do we increase the “talent” our Lord gave us? LOVE. So these two parables are about LOVE.

    4. Next I read the 3rd parable in Matt 25 — The Final Judgment or the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. This parable brings it all together. The Lord (Jesus) separates the sheep from the goats. The Sheep go to Heaven to live with God. The Goats are not allowed in. The ten virgins & the two faithful servants who followed THE GREAT COMMANDMENT increased it with the love they showed for was God and for their neighbor. They are the SHEEP. Those who didn’t show their belief & faith by loving God and loving their neighbor as themselves are the GOATS. And Jesus didn’t ask those on His right side (the SHEEP) what the name of their church was or even if they had known His name (Jesus). All Jesus asked was to love one another — that was it! Those who lived a life of love chose Jesus whether or not they ever knew who He was or knew His name!

    So now getting back to what you wrote — Here’s how it fit’s in for me to the context of the surrounding teachings of Jesus. For whatever reason, the servant who didn’t bring an increase to the wages given in advance by his master, did not take the risk or challenge to do what the master had asked him to do which was THE GREAT COMMANDMENT– to love. He might have been afraid, lazy, not willing to take a risk, etc. The other two faithful servants took the advance wages(God’s love for us) and then did what the master had asked. They faithfully lived out their life loving others — thus increasing the love given them first by the master.The master didn’t ask the servants how many mistakes they had made on the way — just did they increase the talent.

    The talent = God’s free gift of grace through his love for us
    Increasing the talent = taking God’s love and gift of grace & giving out love and grace to others
    hiding the talent = not showing love to others as it was given to us by God who loved us first

  12. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 20, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    Having taught this lesson in my own ward, let me throw out a couple of observations:

    As PL notes, we all too often think that the “talents” in the parable have the modern meaning of “special skills”, a meaning that was apparently derived from the imagery in this parable. The “talents” were large investments of wealth that were entrusted to the three servants. One of the key elements in the parable is that the master goes far away for a long time, so the servants don’t know when he is going to return. Their need to remain faithful even when the master is not directly overseeing them is one of the lessons.

    Another point that is often overlooked in analyzing the lesson of the parable is that the talents are OWNED by the master. He is simply entrusting them to his servants.

    Assuming, with all these parables, that the master is God, I think a question worth asking is, What is the precious thing that represents “wealth” in the eyes of God? We latter-day Saints learn that God’s work and glory is to bring immortality and eternal life to mankind. D&D 18 teaches us that “the worth of souls is great in the eyes of God”. I suggest, therefore, that the image of the Master entrusting his valuable assets to his servants suggests God enstrusting his valuable souls–his children, the members of this Church–into the hands of those who are called to lead and teach and minister in the Church as we await Christ’s return.

    Thus, the parable is about the same concept that is taught in other scriptures, the need to “magnify our callings”, to take the responsibility of watching over our brothers and sisters in the Church, and in the rest of the world, and increasing the number who are securely in God’s treasury, becoming His “peculiar (valuable) people”. As we teach the gospel to our children and our neighbors, and as we perform ordinances for the dead, we are “magnifying our callings” and increasing the valuable “talents”–human souls–that gosd has entrusted to us as stewards, accountable to Him for increasing His treasure.

    Some of the more traditional views of the parable suggest that it is talking about the various spiritual gifts. It is true that these are meant to help us serve each other, and depend on each other, and thus promote unity. And using any spiritual gift in the execution of our callings is certainly appropriate. But I also think that the spiritual gifts are more of a thing that we are given and which we own. And they are ultimately not of an eternal nature. As Paul points out in I Corinthians 13, and Mormon in Moroni 7, all the various spiritual gifts are thaings we can enjoy and benefit from, but the thing which is more valuable than such gifts is having–and therefore exercising–the pure love of Christ. And we do that best in the context of our callings in our families and the Church.

    Indeed, when we ask what God gives us, it is clear in Ether 12 that God gives us “weakness” that we may “be humble”, and His grace is sufficient if that humility causes us to be supplicants for His grace. Indeed, each calling we get can stretch us beyond our capacities, and show us our weaknesses and inadequacies, and thus prepare us for the blessings of seeking and accepting God’s free gifts to us all.

    I think this interpretation takes us away from the notion that we have some kind of duty to God to (selfishly) become the best singer, dancer or novelist we can be, and places emphasis instead on our stewardship for God’s children, including our own spouses and children, our neighbors.

    When we are carrying out our callings as spouses, as parents, as teachers and leaders in the Church, we are literally feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison (including the Spirit Prison!). As we exercise our love for God by carrying out loving acts for our fellow human beings (the First and Second commandments, as also taught by King Benjamin), we are then “magnifying our callings”, we are harvesting and gathering precious souls for God. When we are so engaged, we have fueled our lamps and let our lights shine, and we are endowed with the white wedding garment washed clean in the blood of the lamb that entitles us to be admitted to the great feast at God’s table, which we commemorate with each taking of the Lord’s Supper.

  13. PL on June 21, 2011 at 5:50 am

    FAITHFUL SERVANTS IN THE PARABLE OF THE TALENTS — NOT ONLY THE LDS

    About three years ago as I read once more the first & second great commandments (love God & love your neighbor as yourself) taught by Jesus in Matt 24, I though to myself — If Jesus said this is is the most important thing in the world for us to do then I need to REALLY do it — love God & love my neighbor as myself. I thought — If I am to follow Jesus, I must realize that Jesus had just summarized here in these two commandments the entire gospel — LOVE. If we spend our entire life expanding God’s love for us by loving God & loving our neighbor as ourself, then we will have done the most important thing of all. Jesus meant it when he said “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Then I must take Jesus’ teaching here as the most important thing that He (The Master) has taught us we must do.

    To me the First and Second Great Commandments of Jesus are essential in both Brad & Raymond’s comments helping us take a different look at the Parable of the Talents. When we “embrace the power of imperfect actions” we realize that it’s OK to mess up, make mistakes, etc in our daily walk of following Jesus. As we try to reach out to others even with the love God put into our hearts we will make mistakes. We all do. But we’ve got to take the risk and continue to love others. People will misunderstand us, even hurt us — but if we keep the love of Jesus in our hearts we can risk these things and follow Jesus one day at a time. As Raymond explained every human being is precious to God our Father. He loved us first when we did nothing at all to deserve His love. Yes, God has given us to each other in this world to love each other. When we who are LDS serve each other with God’s love as volunteers in the church, we are the faithful servants in the parable.

    I would propose that not only members of the LDS Church are the servants — but that actually every human on earth no matter what religion he “believes” or is born into is one of the servants in the parable of the talents. Each person ever born lives in the country and culture God put him in. Each person lives according to what situation God placed him in on earth. Every circumstance is unique for each of us. But the thing that is the same is the love God has given us first so that we can then increase it and share it with each other. Our relationships are what we have to work with in increasing and giving to others God’s love. So as servants we all are daily finding out how to better love each other.

    Do we take the chance to risk? Mother Teresa,a Catholic Nun, took that risk to give love. She was one of the faithful servants as in the parable of the talents. She served God all her life by loving her neighbor as herself. She was definitely living her life giving love to other people and doing just what Jesus taught was the most important thing to do — love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Looking at what Jesus taught in the parable of the final judgment dividing the sheep & the goats in Matt 25, I think The Master would put her on his right hand with the “sheep” because her life of love & service fits. In that parable I didn’t see the Master (King) ask the sheep anything other than did you show love to others in your life on earth — nothing more than that — NOTHING MORE.

    And to take this one step further — Can someone who is neither LDS nor Christian also be one of those faithful servants in the parable? Within the environment God place them in — YES THEY CAN. They can take the love God put in their heart and give it all their life to their children, family, and others. At the final judgement can they be one of the “sheep”? YES THEY CAN! We know this by the parable of the sheep and the goats taught by Jesus. All the Master asks is if they gave love to others. NO OTHER QUESTIONS PERIOD!

    It’s all about LOVE.

  14. chris on June 22, 2011 at 9:10 am

    I think this is great and I think its helpful to evaluate the parable of talents with Those that follow it — the parable of sheep and goats. Just as you observed with the talents look at the parable of the sheep and goats and we can see the only things that condemn us are those things which we have not done. Those mistakes we make while trying to do the Lords work can be washed away in the blood of Christ but what about those things we did not do? Depart from me, I never knew you.

  15. Kurt on June 26, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    This is a wonderfully insightful post. Perfectionism so often leads to a paralytic fear where action is postponed because of anxiety that it won’t be up to par, let alone “perfect.” What a liberating concept it is that imperfect results based upon sincere motives and faith in God enable us to become perfect in Him.

  16. Teresa on June 29, 2011 at 6:56 am

    Great thoughts Brad. As always, I enjoyed hearing your perspective.

WELCOME

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