Talents for Motivation.
(Parable of the Talents retold)
Through discussions here and elsewhere around the validity of modern interpretations of the Christian message I have been asked to show how understanding the Parable of the Talents as showing that Jesus intended us to work hard and get rich is a gross misinterpretation.*
There was once a CEO who wanted to take a sabbatical from running the corporation he had built up over twenty-five years into the leader in its field so he called in three senior managers and explained how he wanted the company to be run during his year off.
We are in a situation now where the need for economic growth in order to maintain our Western economies has set us on a path to self destruction. It really is time for a serious rethink of the way we do things.
As a pagan I have been campaigning against the advance of the "pressure cooker" society for years. It did me no good of course, everybody has to make a living and my particular talents propelled me into a very high pressure sector of the world of commerce. From there it was easy to see that we must increasingly consume more than we can produce in order to maintain the status quo.
One of the drivers of this economic suicide cult has been the resurgence of religions based on the philosophy of John Calvin, the sixteenth century Swiss thinker whose creed contains the (misunderstood) idea that people whom God favoured were rewarded with material wealth in this life. What Calvin probably meant to say was that people who do well financially should remember just how lucky they are but in fact this particular item of faith released in Calvin's followers an unhealthy obsession with the gathering of riches. Thus we come to the parable of the talents which to my mind, along with the story of the Good Samaritan contains the essential core of Christian faith when interpreted properly.
Like other important passages from the New Testament the Parable of the Talents has its roots in older mythologies, notably those of the Greeks and Celts, so as the people who wrote the gospels had no compunction about retelling stories to suit their agenda I, while sticking to the spirit of the story, will retell it in a modern context.
Before we begin it must be pointed out that the usual translation of Talent from ancient Greek has always been rather dodgy. A talent is taken to mean a large sum of money but that is suggested by the Greek gospels rather than older tradition. In Greek talanton meant a balance for weighing money or precious metal, a word that derives from talos - brass. Now brass coins have always been small change. In English talent comes from tol, a word in the Indo - European root language, which means to lift up. So a talent is something which lifts or raises us.
It is worth noting perhaps that in Northern England "brass" is still used as slang for money. Where there's muck there's brass was a popular saying for my parents' generation. Let's cut to the story.
"I have split the business' six regions into three divisions," he said. "Jim you are the most experienced man, I want you to run North, Central and International. We have never really penetrated the overseas market so there's a challenge for you. Think you can handle that?" Jim was confident.
"Now Joe, you can take South and West. Jim's regions, North and Central, combined bring in the largest slice of revenue but South is potentially as big as North and West is ripe for development." Joe thanked the boss for having confidence in him.
Lastly the CEO turned to John. "I could have called on several more experienced managers to take on the East region but you are young and I like to give people the opportunity to stretch themselves and grow whenever possible. East is our weakest region at present, we need to improve brand awareness, streamline our dealer network, reorganise distribution and motivate the workforce. Do you think you are ready to take on the task of managing a rundown division?" John said that he was.
Having told his deputies they would assume their new roles on the first of the month the CEO went off to buy some new golf clubs and rent a holiday home.
A year later he returned, spent his first day going over the books with his financial team and next morning he called his managers to a meeting.
"John, what have you to report, apart from the fact that you have grown a few grey hairs."
"Well boss, by contracting out distribution in the East we saved ten per cent on overheads, the sales force has been trimmed of dead wood, a lot of those guys were just not hungry anymore and by offering big incentives to dealerships we raised our market share in the region."
The boss beamed "You've done a great job John, I see we are looking a little overstretched in a couple of ways, that comes from pushing too hard when a little consolidation is called for but you are young, enthusiasm is good. When I announce my expansion plans there will be an important role for you. Joe, you're next."
Joe cleared his throat nervously, "Well things did not go quite to plan, I re-engineered the business processes, downsized the regional office operations and introduced a new direct marketing system. We increased turnover in both areas. Unfortunately costs got a little out of control and though we have more revenue we are actually making less profit."
"We can look at that in private Joe, but I'm impressed with your creative approach to revitalising those regions. You've done a good job. Now Jim, tell me about your results.
Jim leaned back, interlocked his fingers and smiled smugly. "No worries here boss, I steered a steady course and everything is exactly as it was when you left. No whacky schemes to increase sales, no big cost incurred through restructuring, if it ain't broke don't fix it I say."
"And what about the overseas operation?"
"With the political situation the way it is I decided overseas trade is too big a risk. I did a good job you know, we're still the leading company in our field."
"Looks to me as if you sat back and let your team do the job for you Jim," the boss said, "Anybody wish to add anything before I review the year?"
John started, "I'd like to thank Joe for the help he gave, some of the ideas came from him and he was very generous in sharing his team's experience."
"That's very generous John," Joe said, "but you helped me too by getting involved in supplier relations and by helping motivate my staff."
The boss looked at Jim questioningly. Jim said, "Hell boss, you know I'm worth my bonus, I didn't let you down."
The boss then looked at all three, letting silence drip menacingly. When he did eventually speak his voice was quiet and controlled. " John and Joe, you have my thanks; you both used your various talents to help each other and through that you have both gained valuable experience, John, as Joe says you are a great negotiator and have a wonderful way of communicating with staff, Joe you have always been a brilliant ideas man, an innovator and you have shown you are willing to share your ideas for the benefit of the company without any though of gaining kudos for yourself. Jim, you let your colleagues down and in doing that you let me down. You are the most experienced man here and yet when you saw things going off track you put yourself first and did nothing to help. You have tried to turn the whole exercise into a competition in which the odds were stacked in your favour, a man who possessed the leadership skills I was looking for would have helped his colleagues for the good of the whole company. You decided the company owed you when in fact you owed the people who will come after us, the people who will depend on what we do now for their living after we are gone. I'm sorry, these two will become joint deputy CEOs but I'll have to think seriously about your future, maybe you could head up our operation in Paraguay or somewhere.
Simon Schama, history professor at Columbia University, NY and broadcaster says that to understand history we have to put ourselves into the minds of people who lived in the era we are studying. The Bible is not history and even Bible literalists cannot argue that the parables are factual. Even so we have to remember that the usual interpretation of this story is that of scholars who lived between four and five hundred years ago and that their brief (which may be viewed in the British Library by accredited students) was to produce a book of Christian faith in the English language, that could be understood by the common people. The world has changed in those intervening centuries.
The story on which the original Christian version contained in the literature of the Greek Christians is based on a myth that occurs in both Greek and North European mythology (this does not mean that Jesus did not tell the story. His sect, the Essene, were much influenced by the Greeks so he would have been aware of their myths and religion. The Greek myth concerns a King who divided his kingdom into three parts, giving a part to each of his sons.
In my version I have moved closer to that original myth by having a businessman delegate the running of his corporation to three managers. The parable of the talents is bigger than just offering advice about managing money wisely, after all we have to remember that when talking about The Eye of the Needle Jesus was telling a rich man the only way into the Kingdom of Heaven was to give away all his wealth which is hardly compatible.
If we take the English meaning of "Talent" a gift of nature (or God if you wish) that lifts us above mediocrity, rather than that doubtful translation of a sum of money, the whole story takes on a different aspect. It advises us that what we are given, no matter how much or how little, we must take that gift and develop it as far as we can for the good of everybody, not just for our own narrow advantage. There are many talents besides the ones my three businessmen have of course. Some people have a talent for making money by doing business in various ways, some people are born healers - in modern society they tend to do well materially because we value our health but not so long ago in the western world (and still in much of the third world) the best doctors and nurses chose to give a lot of their time to working in charity hospitals; doing what was right meant more to them than getting rich.
Good teachers have a talent that is undervalued in our society. A good teacher does not simply present information, he or she inspires pupils to want to learn. The lesson they teach, one that tends to be ignored in the modern educational system, is that knowledge is worth pursuing for its own sake.
Musicians, artists, writers, craft workers, performers, sports stars, they all have very obvious talents (or in some cases talented publicists) but a talent need not be in any of these big, showy areas. Some people have a talent for being parents, they may go on to do youth work with difficult children when their own families are grown up. Others are naturally gifted gardeners while there are plenty more whose common - sense approach to fixing things or solving problems enables them to save many otherwise hopeless situations. A talent for common - sense is impossible to put a value on.
It is up to all of us to find what our talent is and to develop it. In some cases that may lead to great financial reward, for others their efforts may seem to go unnoticed. That kind of success however is mostly down to being in the right place at the right time. Whether material wealth, fame or power comes the way of an individual, the real reward in developing a talent and using it is a very personal one. We know we have done the best we possibly could. The greatest gift anybody can have is the gift of life, but it is up to us to take that gift and do the best we can with it.
Anybody who thinks the human community deserves any less than their best is truly letting the boss down, no matter what name that boss goes by. On top of that there is the small matter of having let ourselves down.
have to eat