One talent

Published on 12 Nov 2020

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 [1]. 

What is the one talent?  The blind poet Milton understands ‘the one talent which is death to hide’ to be his ability to look at the wonders God has made and to give due appreciation and glory for them.   Seeing, the thing he cannot do, is, he judges, indispensable for his salvation.  He expects to have to give an account of himself to his returning creator.  At first, he supposes that without his sight he cannot serve.  If he fails to serve, the account he will be obliged to render will not do justice to his good heart and high intentions. God will chide him for not having served as he should have done.

As for this good-for-nothing servant, throw him out into the dark, here there will be weeping and grinding of teeth [2].  Is the poet, already in the dark, right to conclude that God blames him for not seeing?   We all of us hope for favourable judgement, despite our shortcomings and weaknesses.  Is there a talent ‘lodged with me useless’?  No doubt many of us are making poor use of God’s gifts. Nevertheless we pray that the most just judge will take into account the circumstances with which we have had to deal.  A merciful judge, a fortiori, might forgive us for what we have failed to do and for inadequate service. God’s grace can triumph over the ways in which we have wasted our talents including the key one which, above all, he hoped we would not bury.  The same grace enables us to give glory to the Lord not in spite of the vital talent being ‘lodged with me useless’ but because of that seeming uselessness.  The blind poet writes a hymn of praise ‘on his blindness’.  He ‘sees’ goodness which many others, seemingly better placed to observe, have missed.  Repentant sinners, contrite disciples of Christ, washed clean by the blood of Lamb, are enabled to take up their cross and follow the Master. The sinful neglect of God’s gifts occasions a conversion of heart.

We do not belong to night or to darkness [3].  We live in the light of Christ.  Milton tells us how he came to understand that there are many different ways of serving God.  There are many who strive strenuously but ‘they also who serve who only stand and wait.’[4]  Patient waiting on God in the darkness of uncertainty is honourable service.  Giving thanks and glory to God for what he has made and for what he is doing for us is possible for everyone. Milton has insights into the divine achievement which help those whom he might think ‘see’ much better than he does.  The exercise of his art and the sharing of his wisdom are the very opposite of ‘hiding’ or burying the all-important talent. The talent, which was buried, is retrieved and given to another.  Repentant, we are now trying to make the right use of what was once neglected or misused. We are not surprised that this turns out to be a handing over to others of what was once given to us.  The allocation elsewhere of the talent is not a punishment.  God’s gifts achieve their purposes and we are all beneficiaries, whatever our role..

I knew you were a hard master who reaps where he does not sow [5].  Eager as we are to serve responsibly, we jib at the burden we re expected to carry.  Grace abounds. The Lord’s help is available to us at very turn, yet he wants us to love him autonomously.  Our service is our own, even though we walk with Christ as his disciple and fellow-pilgrim. The kindly sower who is our creator has sown many good seeds in us.  Our best desires and hopes come from him.  Yet we are not puppets.  I reap where I have not sown and I gather where I have not scattered [6].  The reaping is of a harvest for which we are responsible.  Our gracious God allows us to flourish freely.   As judge, he condemns sin but also honours goodness.  Sin is rebellion, but goodness is more than submission.   The harvest includes obedience to God’s holy will and also imaginative and energetic service of the One who calls us into life and directs us to particular tasks as well as of the good for which all must strive.  Milton reassures us that those ‘who best bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best.’[7] The easy yoke [8] of Christ permits some room for manoeuvre. Patient effort to make good use of the one talent, sluggish and unambitious as it may seem, can be fruitful as prompt ‘trading’ with five or two talents [9].  I heard you were a hard man [10].  The master is not severe: rather he is an efficient teacher who gradually enables the exercise of freedom and the deployment of strength. Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater [11].   God saves us from debilitating fear [12] and educates us in fidelity to him.  We begin with small steps along his way and then graduate to bigger ones. Nevertheless the first little step of a follower of Christ is ‘ that one talent which is death to hide’[13].  As the starting-point, it has significance out of proportion to its simplicity.

We seek to avoid ‘digging a hole and hiding’ God’s grace.  On the contrary, we want to make good use of the help we are being given.   The poet Milton was surely right that the ‘one talent’ is the capacity that we have been given to pay attention to God.  We can, if we so desire, wait purposefully for his return. Stay wide awake [14].  Our attention is prayerful and constructive. He may enable us to do many other things each in proportion to our ability [15].  It may be our duty to ‘at His bidding speed,/ And post o'er land and ocean without rest.’[16]  However the first and essential task is to focus on him so as to be ready for his return.  Our preoccupation with God can be compared to the attention to each other of spouses. Married people are on the alert to give to each other advantage and not hurt [17].  We have our many activities but underpinning them all is our being centred on the One who has sent us into the world.   

The fear of God is a way of experiencing our being centred on him.  O blessed are those who fear the Lord [18].   With awe we notice the many signs of his closeness.  With humility and reverence we are vigilant.  At any moment he may invite us into his presence. Gratitude permeates our alertness to God’s concern. What he gives us is to be looked after and put to good use.  The servant who buried his ne talent sought to explain his wastefulness by fear: I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground [19].   A proper fear of the Lord is not this sort of inertia.  We are all the time learning to love the One who loves us.  We are drawn to him.  The divine beauty is the opposite of deceitful and empty [20].  The goodness of God overflows in the gifts he gives us.  The ‘one talent’ is our being alert to what we have received. We are eager to respond well.  Jesus Christ shows us how much God loves us and teaches us how to live in a way which allows us to love him back. The Son makes, through the Holy Spirit, ready for life with the Father.  He says to us: come and join in your master’s happiness [21].

Homily by Fr Peter Galllagher SJ

[1]              John Milton 1608-1674 ‘On his blindness’ 1673, lines 3-6

[2]              Matthew 25.30

[3]              1 Thessalonians 5.5

[4]              Milton ‘On his blindness’ line 14

[5]              Matthew 25.24

[6]              Matthew 25.26

[7]              Milton ‘On his blindness’ lines 10-11

[8]              Matthew 11.30

[9]              Matthew 25.16

[10]            Matthew 25.24

[11]            Matthew 25.21 and 23

[12]            Matthew 25.25

[13]            Milton ‘On his blindness’ line 3

[14]            1 Thessalonians 5.6

[15]            Matthew 25.15

[16]            Milton ‘On his blindness’ lines 12-13

[17]            Proverbs 31.12

[18]            Psalm (128) 127.1

[19]            Matthew 25.25

[20]            Proverbs 31.30

[21]            Matthew 25.21 and 23