In the 1989 movie "Dead Poets Society," Robin Williams plays the part of John Keating, an English teacher at an elite all-boys prep school in Vermont in 1959, whose unconventional teaching methods get him into trouble and eventually result in his dismissal. In one memorable scene, Keating escorts his students into the hallway to view the trophy cases filled with sports trophies, footballs and team pictures. He invites his students to look at the faces of the boys in the pictures, former students, many of whom had died in wars.
“They're not that different from you, are they?” he asks. “Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in.” And then he whispers: “Carpe — hear it? — carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
In a Nov. 6, 2005 interview on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," Billy Collins, who was the national poet laureate from 2001 to 2003 and poet laureate of New York state from 2004 to 2006, the interviewer asked if she had correctly picked up in one of his poems the theme of the passage of time. Collins replied that the passage of time was a major chord running through all poetry. “The theme of poetry,” he said, “is death. The oldest theme in poetry is carpe diem. The reason you would carpe the diem is that you don’t have too many diems left. Poetry,” he said, “always looks through the lens of mortality, and looking through this lens tends to italicize life. The result provides the second theme of poetry — gratitude.”
This same theme (carpe diem) can be found, it seems to me, in some of Jesus’ parables. One, known as the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), is about a rich landowner who, before going on a journey, gives various sums of money (talents) to three of his servants. One gets five talents, another two and another one. The first two servants invest the money and when the landowner returns, they give back twice the amount entrusted to them. But the third servant buries his talent and merely returns it to the landowner. As he explains in his defense, he was afraid, so he did the safe thing. The landowner praises the first two servants (“well done”), but calls the third servant “wicked and lazy.”
Church-goers are familiar with this parable and with the usual interpretation equating “talents” with native abilities (a meaning of the word that, in fact, is derived directly from this parable). So we have all been told that we should not “bury our talents,” but use them for God’s purposes. Often this is a self-serving message, encouraging people to do more for the church and to give more.
I have come to think that that interpretation of the parable is too narrow. I don’t think that Jesus told this parable to shore up support for the stewardship drive, or to get people to volunteer for more jobs in the church. The question I hear the parable asking is a broader, more basic one: What have you done, what are you doing, with the greatest of all gifts, the greatest gift you will ever receive: the gift of your life? What are you doing with your life?
I may be wrong, but that is what I hear in this parable of the talents: the passing of time, death and carpe diem — seize the day! Don’t bury this greatest treasure of all: your life. Don’t be afraid to live your life. Don’t play it safe, like the third servant. Or, as Mr. Keating says, “make your lives extraordinary!”