This parable is often read as an exhortation for us to use our talents. After all, the word 'talent' came in the early fifteenth century to mean a special gift rather than a piece of money because of this parable. So if you have a 'talent' for gardening, writing and are a devout Catholic, then perhaps you might conclude that you should use your talents by, for example, writing articles on gardens for the Catholic Herald.
But this interpretation starts from the wrong place. It begins with me, my gifts. This is an ego-centric way of reading the gospel that fits in well with the 'Me' spirituality of today: a spirituality of self-cultivation.
When a gifted young Polish actor and playwright called Karol Wojtyła decided to try his vocation as a priest, his friends tried to dissuade him by appealing to this parable of talents. He would be burying his light under a bushel if he gave up acting. But Karol did not start with his gifts but with what God was calling him to do and be, the urgencies of this moment, and entered the seminary. As Pope John Paul II all his theatre skills found a fulfilment that he could never have anticipated.
So the first task is keep our eyes open for what we are called to do. St Paul says that we must keep awake and not sleep on. One of the ways in which we sleep is by getting trapped in introspection, self-realization, rather hearing the cry of my neighbour and the demands of the Kingdom. The lazy servant would not have been spared punishment by arguing that he did not have much of a talent for business. This is what he had been asked to do. In responding, we may discover talents that we never knew we had.
Notice that the master speaks exactly the same words to the two servants who use their talents well, despite the fact that one earned five and the other only two talents. No comparison is made. If we are always obsessed with measuring ourselves against other people, then we will be less alert to the cries of those who need us. If I am always comparing my skill as a swimmer, or my income, with someone else, then I am less likely to hear the cry of the person who is drowning or of the poor.
The master invites them to enter into his happiness. If one is obsessed in measuring oneself against others, then one will not even be able to enjoy one's own happiness but be stuck in miserable insecurity.
Finally, we are not necessarily the person best placed to judge what our most useful talents are. The 'perfect wife' in the reading from Proverbs is praised 'in the city gates.' This is where the men gathered for conversation and communal decision making. No doubt the women met elsewhere and took their own decisions about what really was going to happen! The point is that it was the community which discerned her gifts, her skill in managing the household, her charity to the poor.
The community can sometimes see better what we are best able to do than we are ourselves.
This is evidently the case in religious life. A brother is not necessarily right in thinking that he has the gifts to be a second Thomas Aquinas. Maybe the community sees that he might actually be better suited for a less glamorous task, such as Prior or Bursar. I can have my say, but through conversation in the family, or at work or in the church that I will discover what it is that I am called to do and be.
So we must dare to open our ears to the Lord who calls us, and to the people around us. How is God calling me to love him and my neighbour as myself? If I have the courage to do so, even when the challenges seem beyond me, I may turn out to have gifts that I never knew I had.