As Advent approaches, our home group is studying some of the parables Jesus told about his coming again in glory. Among them is the parable of the talents, a parable that could be said to speak very directly to gifted and artistic people. Or does it?
A talent used to be the term for a weight measure of precious metal and then became an amount of money. It is the parable itself that has given us the term ‘talented’ to mean gifted or skilled. In the parable, those servants entrusted with talents were, on their master’s return, honoured for putting them to productive use, while the servant who hid his talent in the ground was rejected.
Is Jesus telling us that we should use our gifts to the full, and that those who have talents and don’t use them are displeasing to God? I live in an area where people are terrifyingly high achievers. They have distinguished professions, successful children, lovely homes, creative output, a strong work ethic and a moral, responsible outlook on life. Oh, and of course they keep up with social media. No one could accuse them of not using their talents to the full. I love and respect them very much, but is this really the key to heaven? As I understand it, Jesus said broken, repentant tax collectors and despised women living on immoral earnings were entering the kingdom first. These two messages don’t quite tally.
Are artists and writers too prone to feel that the neglect or failure of their creative output reflects on their own worth or their spiritual service to God? This is harsh. And it takes no account of a person’s whole life, their priorities, their relationships, their circumstances, the choices and the sacrifices they’ve made on behalf of other people.
I heard a story that C S Lewis thought the writer George MacDonald a wonderful communicator of myths but not a great novelist. MacDonald might have been a better writer if he had dedicated himself more to that end. However, George Macdonald gave priority to his role as a husband and a father. He had eleven children, passing on his faith and his creative talent, and he and his wife celebrated over fifty years of marriage. And, in fact, his less-than-best writing had a profound spiritual effect on Lewis who called him his master.
There may be so many reasons why we need to respect the choices people make rather than place them on a scale of achievement.
So what can we understand by the parable? I wonder if it helps near Advent to think of the metaphor of light. Each of us is asked to shine with the light of Christ, light that shines in the darkness and brings glory to God. If we hide our light, we are not serving God or anyone else. Light might be shared in many ways, through hospitality or prayer, loving and caring, standing up for justice, making things, growing a garden, writing to express truth or make people laugh, or just for the joy of writing. There are lives of sacrifice and dedication which shine their light through history and we are overwhelmed at the way God speaks through them. And there is the light of the thief on the cross, whose life hardly had much to recommend it, and yet who shone with faith as he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when you come in your kingdom.’