The Parable of the Talents, Revisited

The parable of the talents has always bothered me.

If you’re not familiar with it, in Luke 19 Jesus tells the story of a nobleman who goes on a trip and gives ten of his servants, by my math, almost $500,000 each and tells them to do business with it until he gets back.

One earns $5 million off the money entrusted to him. Another earns $2.5 million. A third stashes away his half-million and,when the nobleman returns, gives it back, intact and unharmed. The nobleman is furious and takes the half-million from the third man and gives it to the first.

This parable often makes me feel inadequate because I have always suspected I would be the guy who hides the cash. Maybe this is because I was always warned about not doing it, or, maybe because when I was growing up, some people accused me of squandering my opportunities and wasting my time and talents. People said I had talent and said I was wasting it, and that has remained a fear for me.

But when I read this passage a few months ago, I wondered whether the “talents” in this story are really our abilities, or whether they might just be our own sacred selves.

Some of us, for various reasons, feel the need to hide who we truly are. In neurodivergent communities, this is known as masking. In LGBTQ communities, it’s called being in the closet. Henri Nouwen writes about it in terms of the true and false self. The false self is who we pretend to be, who we think other people want us to be, but the true self is who we really are, who God made us.

For some of us, there may be very real consequences for coming out, for showing our true selves, but I think this parable is a warning that there are also real consequences for hiding our true selves, as so many of us already know.

I wouldn’t read this parable as saying that masking, or being in the closet, or pretending to be someone you’re not to get people to like you, is wrong or means God will take away that unique part of you that is of inestimable value. When Jesus tells this story, he ends it with passive verbs, telling what will happen, how the world works, not necessarily what God will do. Many of us already know the enormous cost of pushing down and hiding parts of ourselves to be more palatable to others.

To be clear, our true self isn’t found in causing other people harm, and this isn’t an excuse to say, “Well, being unkind is being true to myself.” I don’t think that’s true. Being mean is a false self we put up to defend our true self. We can show our true emotions, but this isn’t an excuse to use those emotions as weapons to cause others harm.

With that caveat, “Be who you are and say what you feel. Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” (Unknown, widely incorrectly attributed to Dr. Seuss)

The world is not made better when you bury your gift by pretending to be someone you’re not long-term, and neither are you.

This article originally appeared in the Herald-Palladium on February 25, 2023