I remember having a long-standing and spirited debate with a friend of mine when I was only sixteen. Just a shot in the dark, here, but I’m guessing most sixteen-year-olds don’t enter into deep theological arguments supported by Platonic logic structures and supplemented with thoughts by classical Russian novelists, but maybe I’m being biased against my generation. This friend of mine was older than I was, and, to her profound credit, treated me as an intellectual equal – if somewhat less studied than herself. This debate was on whether or not God had given men rights (the right to life, liberty, and so on kept ringing in my ears as I argued this point) or had given men duties (love the Lord your God, love your neighbor, etc.). You see, both of us were, and still are, deeply interested in philosophy and theology, my favorite book at the time being “Pensees” by Pascal, and hers being “The Karamazov Brothers” by Dostoevsky. I reiterate: I was not a normal teenager (even if I also read my fair share of crazy horse-girl novels and Trixie Belden mysteries). The bottom line of our debate really came down to some hair-splitting: was humanity busy shirking their duty to God and man in this fallen world, or were they abusing the rights He had given them with reckless abandon?
Have I lost you yet? Well, buckle up, because we’re going deeper by the end of this post.
Now, for those of you familiar with the New Testament, you may recall Jesus’ parable of the talents (or minas, for those with NIV and other similar editions). I’ll link to the NKJV edition of Matthew Chapter 25 for reference.
I always liked the phrasing of ‘talent’ because I, and my brothers, also, were frequently told that we were ‘talented’. Therefore, I reasoned with my very young and child-like understanding, God had given us riches in our abilities, and we seemed to be doing just about the right sort of thing with them.
We’re gonna make a hard turn here, so hang on to the nearest handrail.
I recently purchased a GORGEOUS copy of Miyamoto Musashi’s Five Rings: The Art of Strategy. I am absolutely in love with it, and it isn’t even my first rodeo with Musashi. I had a simpler copy a while back, and I read it cover to cover in about four sittings. This one has a red satin binding, phenomenal illustrations, and I haven’t even gotten through the historical and biographically-rich introduction yet.
Look up a one-sentence summary of Musashi and it might go something like this: Musashi was the greatest swordsman in Japanese history (1584-1645), and he lived in a cave for two years while writing his opus on strategy.
Longer version, with some of my speculation, goes something like this…
Miyamoto Musashi was a master of combat at a young age, winning his first mortal bout at the age of 12 or 13, and I think he got a taste for that kind of power over life and death, so he continued fighting and winning up until he was 28; then he fought the master warrior Sasaki Kojiro in a duel. Musashi had become known for dressing casually, calling most schools of fighting pretentious and/or frilly, and never really losing. Ever. When Musashi fought Kojiro (the polar opposite of Musashi in appearance and mentality), however, he had a brush with death that was closer than anything else he had experienced up to that point. One of the stories goes that Kojiro’s sword stroke came so close to a mortal hit that it cut the cloth holding Musashi’s hair back. Musashi won: Kojiro died. After this, I think Musashi didn’t enjoy fighting the way he had. Death’s cold hand had touched his neck, and he didn’t want to ever feel that, or to give that feeling, ever again. He kept dueling as he was challenged, but he never killed his challengers if he could help it. In fact, he often fought with sticks or sheathed swords. He still won, but he didn’t kill outside of the bounds of warfare. He adopted two sons at different times, and they became successful young men… but not warriors, and not swordsmen. He helped plan the layout for a town, he consulted in the training of samurai, and he turned to meditation, poetry, and art.
But even Musashi knew that possessing a talent like this demanded at least respect from him, if not his love. So he sequestered himself in a cave to write down what he knew and why he believed it to be true, and then he passed it on to those he thought could use it wisely… instructing them to burn the pages after they had committed them to memory. He died eight days later. They did not destroy his manuscripts, and we now have those notes, translated into languages across the globe, and read with similar thought and intent as Sun Tzu’s Art of War.
I was floored by these details of Musashi’s life. I thought, surely, a man with his insane talents would have reveled in them and sought adoration and following because of them. His sword strikes must have been as precise and well-executed as Rembrandt’s brushstrokes. Yet, I don’t believe he enjoyed his ability, not in the latter part of his life. But he still honored it. He knew that possessing something so profound could not be ignored.
It makes you wonder about the servants in the parable. Did they want to handle the money left to them by the Lord? Did that pressure weigh on them? Did they want to just hand it off to someone else? The one servant who ignored his talent and buried it in the woods was the one who disrespected the gift (wanted or unwanted) from God.
Musashi had been given a talent… a talent for swinging a sword, whether he wanted to or not, and this man who had never heard the gospel could still grasp the fundamental truth of the last verse in the Parable of Talents:
29 ‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Somehow, I think Musashi would have agreed with both my friend and me: we are given great rights and freedoms to use the talents of this life, and with those talents comes a duty, which, if neglected, comes due in the final judgment. Though his idea of a final judgment and mine differ significantly, as he was somewhat eclectic in his beliefs (having said, “Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help.”) and I operate in a reformed Christian school of belief, thought, and life.*
And so, nearly ten years after the birth of this friendly theological debate, with the help of a centuries-dead samurai, I came to realize that we were both very much in the right.
What about you? Do you have a talent for art, music, language, mathematics, proportion, cooking, charisma, empathy, or anything else? Have you given this talent the honor which it requires to garner interest by the end of your days on earth? Are you doing your duty to the talents in your possession? You’ll have to excuse me, but I think I should probably go practice my violin for a few minutes…
*Why then, you might ask, am I delightedly reading about a Japanese swordsman’s philosophy? Well, Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” And I enjoy finding universal truths in unexpected places, whether it be Alyosha’s musings of the stars, Pascal’s random thoughts, or Musashi’s ideas of strategy.