Faith Matters

Martin Henry: Life doesn't get its meaning from earthly success - or failure

The parable of the talents should challenge our notions of humanly-inspired success or failure - and remind us to live life as created by God, says Martin Henry

The Parable of the Talents by 17th century Dutch painter Willem de Poorter, which depicts the climactic scene of the master confronting the "wicked and slothful servant" who hid his talent
Martin Henry

LIKE many biblical passages, the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is one that has left a significant trace in several modern western languages.

It is the source of the modern term 'talent' - an ability or aptitude - although in the parable itself, the 'talent' at issue was in fact a measure of silver.

But apart from its noteworthy cultural legacy, the parable could perhaps raise the question of how important talents really are in the grand scheme of things.

At first sight the parable's meaning looks clear.

Its point appears to be obvious: that we should be concerned not so much about how great or small our talents happen to be, but rather about what we try to do with them - how we use or don't use them, as the case might be.

For anyone whose life is progressing steadily, this interpretation of the parable will no doubt sound reasonable.

But how might this way of seeing the parable come across to those who think they haven't done very much with their lives?

Can we just shrug our shoulders and say to such people: "Well, you had your chance. If you didn't make the most of it, that's too bad. You'll just have to accept the consequences of your failure."

Where then, though, would that leave the 'good news' that the Christian faith seeks to proclaim? How could people who fear their lives are a failure see much good news in such a view of the parable?

One might take a more benign approach and say: "Well, at least the man with just the one talent didn't actually lose it.

"Things could have been even worse. He could have speculated or gambled with it, and lost everything.

"So, he can at least return the talent to his master. Maybe the parable wants to suggest, then, that it is in fact very difficult, if not impossible, to be a total failure in life, in much the same way as it can be said of a clock which has stopped that it can at least tell the right time twice a day.

"Similarly, everyone can point to at least one or two good things they have done in their lives."

But this kind of attempt to find in the parable a consoling silver lining for life's seeming failures, may not add up to very much, and may indeed be somewhat beside the point.

For the parable may not really be about giving advice on how to live a successful life and avoid the pitfalls associated with fear of failure, or sheer laziness.

To accept the risk of living can be regarded as a fundamental human expression of the theological virtues - as they used to be called - of faith, hope and charity, or love 

What else, then, might it be about?

Perhaps it could be seen in this way: if we look at life as objectively as possible, it is clear that every life is going to end in failure, in the simple sense that every life moves inexorably towards death.

Even when parents bring children into the world, they know from the start that their children - like themselves, like everyone - are born mortal; that's to say, that they are one day going to die.

Nevertheless, although parents know it's not a possibility but a certainty that their children will one day die, they still think it worthwhile and right and good to take the risk of giving their children the chance to live.

To accept the risk of living can be regarded as a fundamental human expression of the theological virtues - as they used to be called - of faith, hope and charity, or love.

For in accepting this risk, we show that we do believe in, and are willing to live for, something more than simply success, because any success will finally be taken from us.

Not for nothing, the influential Jewish religious thinker Martin Buber (1878-1965) said: "Success is not one of the names of God."

And from a perhaps less likely source, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), comes the assertion that "success has always been the greatest liar".

But since taking the risk of faith cannot be thwarted or prevented even by death, the hope can also be maintained that God is able to, and will, make out of faith-inspired lives something that must lie beyond any humanly conceived success.

To return directly to our parable, we might even hope that, in his outer darkness - which of course couldn't exist if there were no light - it might eventually dawn on the third servant that, as far as human beings can ever judge, life does not and cannot find its deepest meaning simply in our successes or lack of them.

If anyone can make that discovery, it can free them from the fear of failure and encourage them to take the risk of living life as created by God for his own good and eternal purposes.

  • Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.

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