In today’s Episcopalian services we will hear the Jesus’s parable about the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), one of my favorites. A master, about to go on a trip, gives talents (bags of gold) to three servants and then, when he returns, asks them what they have done with the money. He praises the two who have found ways to increase it and damns to hell the one who has simply buried it. Here’s the parable’s climax:
So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
So is the master (God) a stockbroker here, telling us to invest in the stock market? Humorously, we’d have to say that God is a Keynesian rather than a practitioner of Benjamin Franklin’s “a penny saved is a penny earned” persuasion. More seriously, I used to be put off by the harshness of the final penalty. My appreciation of it grew when I realized it was not a punishment that God metes out but a psychological description of the the cost of not using one’s gifts.
We experience heaven on earth when we use the gifts that we have been given. When we turn our backs on these gifts, we experience weeping and gnashing of teeth—or at least lives of quiet desperation (which is a slow burn version of the same thing).
As a teacher, I see one of my major goals as helping my students identify their gifts, as least to the extent that they can do so by talking and writing about literature. Since a good literature essay can reveal a lot about students, I have a special window, which I share with them. Often their gift does not correspond with the career they think they are supposed to have. I tell them that if they ignore the gift by burying it (in another image Jesus warns against hiding one’s light beneath a bushel basket), then there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
But finding how to express one’s gift, even if one knows what it is, is difficult. Sometimes it can take decades before people fully understand why they have been given their gift.
For those who are frustrated, who (say) love writing poetry while they make a living doing technical writing, I offer up this Milton sonnet. Milton, well aware of the talents parable (which he refers to in the third line), is chastising God for depriving him of the loss of his eyesight. He finds himself unable to use the remarkable writing gift that God has given him. Milton tirelessly used this gift, and burnt out his eyes, in service of (as he saw it) building God’s kingdom on earth through a Puritan republic. Now he is resentful at this strange turn of affairs and perhaps feels guilty for not being able to do more.
And then, in the remarkable last line, God, sounding like the God in a number of George Herbert poems (say, “The Collar”), reveals to Milton that “they also serve who only stand in wait.”
Milton waited and for a while all seemed bleak. His political dreams foundered with the restoration of the monarchy and he spent time in jail and even faces the prospect of execution. But England’s greatest epic. Paradise Lost was composed six or so years after “On His Blindness,” written out of the poet’s urgent need to “justify the way of God to man”–which in his case meant figuring out why he was going through all this suffering. He waited and the result was the English language’s greatest epic.
In short, figure out your gift, believe in it, honor it, and do what you can to practice it. You will be serving it as you do so and there will come a time when the world shows you how much your gift is needed.
On His Blindness
By John Milton
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day labor, light denied?” I fondly ask.
But Patience, to prevent That murmur, soon replies,.
“God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts.
Who best Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.
His state Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed,.
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.