The parable of the talents is for me about fear, or rather, about the ways we respond to fear. I have been attentive recently to how much of modern life is controlled, or at least infected, by fear. One reason for my attentiveness is because I am something of an expert where fear is concerned. It’s no secret to my friends and family that I am by nature given to sometimes obsessive worry, and over the years I have learned mostly to accept that it’s just something I have to live with.
Mostly, I do pretty well in that regard. I have learned to distinguish rational from irrational worries, worries I can control from those I cannot. I remind myself that this is usually familiar territory, and that whatever I happen to be worrying about at a given time will eventually fade away.
I pray, reminding myself that regardless of what happens, God is with us, and I move on – pretty standard cognitive-behavioral therapy stuff. But sometimes my fears are more persistent, not so easy to shake. They stay with me, and in spite of my best efforts, they control my life. Sort of like the third servant in this parable, the fear that something awful will keep me from doing what I want to do, or what I should do, and so I do nothing at all, except wait, anxiously anticipating the worse.
I don’t think it is merely projection to suggest that my personal emotional difficulties writ large are a pretty fair description of the social order within which most modern North Americans live, where we invest huge quantities of energy and resources to protect ourselves from… what? Much could be said about the consequences of this “politics of fear”; about its effect on the foreign and domestic policies of the nations we inhabit, the health of our local economies, the way we sequester ourselves from each other in big houses in what once were called neighborhoods, they way we numb ourselves with mindless amusements.
One could argue that it is the politics of fear, as much as it is greed, that is the engine of our current economic troubles. Clearly there is much about our way of life that demands radical change, but no such change appears to be forthcoming. James Howard Kunstler refers to our collective failure to do what needs to be done as the “psychology of previous investment,” meaning we have become so habituated to our present way of life that we cannot bring ourselves even to contemplate anything different. We are afraid. I think Wendell Berry captures this mentality as well as anyone in the first stanza of his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” where he writes:
Love the quick profit, the annual raise / vacation with pay. Want more / of everything ready made. Be afraid / to know your neighbors and to die. / And you will have a window in your head. / Not even your future will be a mystery anymore…. / When they want you to buy something / they will call you. When they want you / to die for profit they will let you know.
Students of Christian tradition know that another name for the parable of the talents is the parable of the hard master. I like this name, not because I think of God as a hard master, but because it suggests to me the possibility that all three of the servants feared their master and had from time to time experienced his anger. The difference among the three is in the way they acted in the face of fear. The first two servants received their masters’ praise, not because they did not fear him, but because they were willing to risk failure in spite of their fear. The third servant failed because he played it safe, refusing change and avoiding risk.
All of this suggests to me that the point of this parable is that the life of faith, though is can be scary, entails risk. Not reckless abandon, necessarily, but a willingness to follow a savior who, though he shows us the way, also reminds us of the possibility that things will, at least in the short term, not turn out the way we had wanted or expected. Yet this is of little consequence, for the savior we follow has, by preceding us in the way, transformed history so that we can risk following him.
In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard offers a fragment of wisdom that captures the spirit of this parable and serves as a pretty good metaphor for the well-lived life. “One of the few things I do know about writing,” she says, “is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place…. Give it, give it all, give it now.” May we have the courage to give all of our lives, to God, now.