When we hear the word ‘talent’, most of us will think of some special skill or ability, as in Britain’s Got Talent. So it is useful for us to have non-usual terms crop up in the Gospels, such as denarius (a day’s wage). In today’s parable, a talent (tálanton in Greek) is a measure of weight: roughly seventy-five pounds of silver, or the equivalent of 6000 denarii, wages for sixteen and a half years. When we hear ‘talent’ then, we should not imagine the wretched servant in the parable burying a coin, but going to great lengths to hide an enormous treasure. Nor should we confuse tálanton with a special skill, as though the servant’s hell-meriting sin is to hide his abilities from the world. It is something much more precious which he denies to the world.
In the parable the Master who goes on a journey entrusts his possessions to his servants. Seeing that the Master is God, his possessions, or rather ‘those things over which he has charge’, must be something utterly precious. It is something that belongs to God by right and which he yet entrusts to humans to share in: his creative prerogative. God alone creates. God alone can give life, and make something come to be. And more than that, God alone makes anything to be. We creatures are creators of a kind also. The philologist J.R.R. Tolkien calls this human act ‘subcreation’. Human beings are subcreators, that is, creators under God. One obvious example of subcreation is procreation, because it is a kind of creation (of new human life) in which God allows us to participate. Another example is living the virtues in a life of charity.
Thus the refusal of the tálanton is a denial of who and what we are, and a refusal of God’s purpose for us. This is apparently what Ivan does in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. He cannot accept a world where grace comes in and somehow creates harmony, while ignoring justice. He explains to his brother Alyosha,
‘I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. … It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.’
The ticket he wishes to return, the tálanton left uninvested, is entry into a world suffused with grace. Only God can create something, and create it new. Only God’s grace working with our subcreative nature can make new things: forgiveness, reconciliation, peace. But Ivan rejects these because he believes justice is left unserved. Acknowledging Ivan’s objection, Pope Benedict XVI taught,
‘Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. … Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened.’ (Spe Salvi, 44).
What God gave him freely Ivan wants to return saying, ‘Take back what is yours’. This is throwing away the life of grace, and not trusting sufficiently in God’s justice. That is why the parable ends with what strikes us as so unfair: the servant with ten talents receives the one-talent servant’s only talent too. Life and joy can only abound for those who want to enter God’s world.
The converse of this, the acceptance and delight in our graced human nature, is the life of God’s children—the glorious liberty of the children of God, as St Paul says. Through a life of active love, we subcreate by grace, introducing new things into a thwarted and self-thwarting world; things like forgiveness and hope. Such a life as subcreators is not simply a life filled with joy, but the other way around: a life lived in joy. Our life, which is the lesser thing, is received into the greater thing: God’s joy. That is why the Master in the parable concludes, ‘Enter into the joy of your Master’.