Talents: Mechanism of the Mortal Experience
Roderick Saxey, MD
In the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30) the Lord describes a man leaving his servants with responsibility for varying amounts of wealth. Upon his return, the servants are judged on how well they managed that wealth and increased it, or in one case, hid it away and did not do anything with it at all. It should be pointed out that the parable was given to describe “The Kingdom of Heaven” and therefore most clearly corresponds to our various responsibilities and callings in the Church, but we can derive a more generalized interpretation as well.
That more general interpretation is related to an important problem of philosophy and religion, namely, why bad things happen to good people. When that question is posed by a 16 year old, most fathers will answer something like, “That’s life, son. Get used to it.” That short answer, though harsh, contains considerable truth, but to understand why, we need to start by understanding the nature of mortal life.
Matter matters. “For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy.” (D&C 93:33) The life we lead and all that we perceive around us are composed of temporal elements, of which the Lord says, “Behold, all these (sun, moon, stars, etc.) are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.” (D&C 88:47) Joseph Smith went on to teach in the King Follett discourse, “God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory.”
So, “all the glory” is in the elements. Glory as used here is much more than credit or honor, and is commonly described as bright light or fire (in one account of the First Vision Joseph said he was afraid that the trees would catch fire from the glory) or power (recall that Moses could endure the presence of God only because His glory enwrapped him and had power to preserve him).
Not only is matter important, it is universal—everything is matter. Joseph taught, “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; we cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” (D&C 131:7) It may be more than coincidental that the astrophysicists, in order to account for the behavior of the visible universe, say at least ninety percent of all matter must be invisible; some theorize that that “invisible” matter consists of multitudes of particles so tiny our instruments cannot detect them directly.
We may view God as the Master Scientist. He knows all the principles of matter, all the laws of the universe, applies them perfectly, and through His faith and knowledge can accomplish His purposes, even performing miracles, which are the application of higher laws to overcome or circumvent lesser ones. There is no magic; nothing is supernatural. This brings us back to the question, “what is life?” The Lord told Moses that His purpose, His work and glory, is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39) Remember too, the glory is in the matter, and life is material. “Eternal Life” is life as God lives it.
Understanding that God creates by organizing eternal elements gives added significance to the phrasing of the creation account in Moses Chapter 2: “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life. . .” and “Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind . . . and it was so.” Similarly in Abraham Chapter 4: “. . . Let us prepare the earth to bring forth grass . . .” Then there is this interesting statement, “And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until the obeyed.” Likewise in verses 20 and 21, “Let us prepare the waters to bring forth abundantly . . . And the Gods saw that they would be obeyed, and that their plan was good.” So when matter has been organized properly, it brings forth life, living creatures. When God places a spirit matter body into temporal matter which has been so organized it becomes a “living soul” which is more than the sum of the parts. Joseph implied this when he said, “All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 1976, page 181)
There is one person who hates all of this. Lucifer was cast out of heaven along with his followers because they wanted to upend the whole structure of the universe, deny our agency, and seize the power and glory—remember what that is—of Heavenly Father. He hates Jesus for being chosen as the Creator and Savior, he hates us for choosing Jesus, and he hates all living souls because he cannot become one. So he labors with all his might to destroy all things good, true, and beautiful. He specially strives to prevent mortal souls from obtaining eternal life by tempting them to commit sin, that is, to think or act contrary to the commandments of God.
Not only are we subject to temptation and sin, any temporal matter organized into living creatures is subject to the natural laws of biology, chemistry, and physics; our bodies are subject to all manner of illnesses and failings, seen and unseen. These are the limitations of mortality and they account for most of the “bad things that happen to good people”. Our faith teaches us that through the resurrection and the atonement all these will be corrected and we will rise triumphant and perfected from the dust. In the meantime, however, here we are.
With that as background, let’s turn to the Parable of the Talents. Our word, talent, is derived from the Latin, talentum, which itself comes from Greek, talanton, which means a scale or balance. A talent is a measure of weight, about 71 pounds for a Roman, 57 pounds for a Greek, or 67 pounds for a Babylonian or Hebrew. The parable does not say whether the talent was of gold or silver, but in any case it was a substantial sum: a Greek talent of silver was 9 years wages for a skilled worker.
We tend to think of talents in terms of our modern English sense of “skills and abilities”, especially in terms of the arts, but it may be useful for understanding the parable in its broader application to mortality to think of a talent in the original sense as a weight, a burden. Thus, those “skills and abilities” are burdens, positive and exciting though they may be; just ask the parent whose spare income and free time are consumed by children’s dancing lessons, singing lessons, and athletic camps. We have a responsibility to develop skill and expand ability by applying and working with them, otherwise they can fade away; fulfilling that responsibility is not always easy.
Similarly, the limitations we have are also talents in the sense of weights, negative burdens we have to overcome. And by some wonderful cosmic economy, the overcoming of those limitations becomes a source of growth for us—our weaknesses can be made into strengths. While we may scratch our heads trying to decide what special abilities we have, each of us can come up with a list of limitations, for they are usually very much in our consciousness.
These limitations come in many forms, most of them inherent in our flesh—the misregistrations of our RNA and DNA, the errors of development of our tissues, the inherited mutations and results of infections and trauma and chance, the imbalance of our hormones, the aging and decay of our normal functions, the predispositions to one sin or weakness or another. Some are obvious, like the child with phocomyelia, whose deformed limbs anyone can see; except for the blind, whose burden is likewise easily discerned.
But most are not obvious—they are limitations in our ability to learn, or to understand, or to feel. They are the many forms of mental and emotional illness, ranging from mild personality disorders to bipolar disease to schizophrenia, all the way to psychosis and delirium. There is not one of us whose life is not touched by these diseases in ourselves, our family, or our friends and co-workers. Our physical limitations may include a predisposition to homosexuality, or to hypersexuality, or to laziness, or to violence, or to swearing. One of the occasional findings in the inherited condition called Tourette’s Syndrome, for instance, is extreme difficulty refraining from profanity and other inappropriate language.
Much of our behavior originates deep within the brain where we experience emotions; regulation and control are based in the frontal cortex, where our consciousness is located. Errors of development can cause the frontal lobes of our brains to not grow as fully as they should, or those limited fibers controlling the deeper brain functions may be smaller or weaker than normal, a common finding in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Individuals with that condition often have great difficulty controlling their impulses. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and other recent research techniques have shown anatomic or biochemical abnormalities in patients with a variety of behavioral abnormalities including such common problems as dyslexia and difficulty controlling anger.
It used to be taught in medical school that the number of brain cells and their complex connections did not increase after maturity—it was only downhill from there. Modern research has demonstrated that this is not the case. Neural tissue remains adaptable, trainable, and capable of further growth throughout life, a condition known as “plasticity”. Plasticity is greatest during periods of rapid growth such as infancy; a similar rapid growth of grey matter in adolescence partially explains the dramatic improvement in cooperation and understanding we see in teenagers between late adolescence and maturity. Plasticity is still present, but less when growth is completed, so even though we really can teach old dogs new tricks, it requires more effort and time. Like a muscle that becomes stronger with exercise, the brain becomes more effective through use, hence the importance of our habits and thoughts and the subjects of our personal studies. In spiritual terms, the often admonished lifelong scripture study comes to mind.
Brain function depends on more than how much we use it. The way it is used and how it is nourished are equally vital. Avoiding sin, living prudently, following the Word of Wisdom—all these help us to avoid turning biochemical “switches” that can increase the inner burdens and limitations of our physical bodies. Addictions of all sorts are dangerous for more reasons than their immediate effects, they influence and limit our behavior and decisions and all the consequences that flow from them.
The predisposition of our bodies to weakness, error, and sin is referred to in the scriptures as “the natural man”. King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon quoted an angel who said, “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him. . .” (Mosiah 3:19)
Recognizing a physical counterpart to behavior is not to excuse sin. Just as muscles become stronger with exercise and brains become smarter and more insightful with use, so our minds and bodies adapt to the thoughts and habits we choose to fill them with. Plasticity can be for good and ill, as we choose, even if the choice is ever so difficult, and it is not always clear biologically what is cause and what is effect. Nevertheless, we have the assurance of heaven that we can handle it. Paul wrote, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Cor 10:13)
Knowing the limitations of the flesh reinforces the importance of not judging, that is to say, not condemning others. We do not know what burdens our brothers and sisters labor under. Understanding, forgiving, and helping others deal with the limitations of their lives are a vital part of the testing and learning in our own. That bring us to another story that Christ told about talents. In response to the question about how often we should forgive others, the Lord told (Matt 18:21-35) of a servant with who owed his master 10,000 talents, was forgiven when he begged it, but prosecuted a fellow servant who owed him a trivial sum. (It may help to know that the annual budget of ancient Athens was less than 2,000 talents.) Forgiveness of his debt should have taught the servant great mercy and understanding.
There are other burdens, negative talents we carry around such as ignorance, incorrect traditions, emotional and psychological conflicts in our families, guilt for unrepented sin or repented sin we have not ourselves forgiven, limitations of social status, prejudices of other people, and the endless temptations of the adversary. Such are the trials of earth-life.
Alma taught (Alma 12) that we are judged on our words, our works, and our thoughts, which include the “secret intents of the heart”. We are not mind readers and we cannot know another’s “secret intents” unless they are revealed by God, for He does know them. The Lord reassures us, “Yea, I tell thee, that thou mayest know that there is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and the intents of thy heart.” (D&C 6:16)
It turns out that those limitations of mortal life, the negative burdens or talents we carry are of great importance in making our experience here work to our benefit. They are an essential part of the mechanism that makes life both a test and a learning experience. The Lord told Moroni, “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27)
Our weaknesses, including the “bad things that happen to good people”, the limitations of our flesh, the natural consequences and chance occurrences of being part of a physical universe, are to help us turn to Christ; the understanding and forgiveness we extend to others in their limitations and trials help us to become more like Christ. Or in other words, our limitations and the limitations of others enable us to take full advantage of the Atonement.
Concerning the Atonement the Lord said, “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.” (D&C 19:16-19)
I am grateful that our judge, our great and good judge, is also our creator and has a perfect knowledge of all our talents, both the positive ones that we are responsible for developing, and the negative ones that we have to overcome and that are responsible for developing us. He sees the inner hormonal balance or imbalance, the correct or incorrect neural pathways, the biochemical errors, the genetic flaws, the shortcomings of our culture or social circumstances. And it all will be taken into consideration.