Misreading the parable of the talents

There are few passages in the Bible that I feel more strongly about than the parable of the talents. This is partly because it is so often interpreted in a way that means it can be used to justify ideas that are contrary to Jesus’ teachings and to much of the Bible. I am convinced we have been reading the parable “upside down”.

If you’re unfamiliar with the parable, or can’t remember it all, you can find it in Matthew 25,14-30 and in a slightly different form in Luke 19,11-27. The gist of the story is that a rich man goes on a journey and leaves his servants to look after his money (Matthew uses the term “talents”, which was a unit of currency). On his return, he finds that two of them have invested the money and gained interest. He rewards them.

The third servant has hidden the money, gaining no interest. He tells the rich man that he was afraid of him because “you are a harsh man, you take what you did not deposit”. He gives him back his money. The rich man throws him out and, in Luke’s version, follows this by having his enemies killed in front of him.

Christians usually suggest that the rich man represents God. Nineteenth century clergy said it showed God will reward those who invest money well. Now it’s more common to be told that it means we will be rewarded if we put our skills to good use (this is helped by the convenient double meaning in English of the word “talents”).

Try reading this story to someone who is unfamiliar with it, without commenting, and ask them with which character they most identify. When I have done this, the response has been “the third servant”. He seems to be treated appallingly harshly and yet he has the bravery to speak truth to power – “you take what you did not deposit”.

Why are we so keen to equate the rich man with God? What does it say about our theology if we assume that a rich and tyrannical figure must represent God?

Jesus constantly sided with the poor and marginalised, extending his love to all and making clear that repentance for the rich meant a change in the way they used their money. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a first century Jewish teacher such as Jesus would have promoted usury.

What if Jesus intended the third servant to be the hero of the story? He tells the rich man the truth about himself and refuses to collude with his unrighteous moneymaking.

The parable thus becomes a comment on the sins of inequality: “to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away”.

It seems that this interpretation is becoming more common among biblical scholars, although I have sadly never heard it preached in church. For a more thorough examination of the parable from this perspective, I recommend Lloyd Pietersen’s book, Reading the Bible After Christendom (Paternoster, 2011).

I am not suggesting that there can be only one meaning of this (or any other) parable. If Jesus had wanted only to issue straightforward instructions, he would not have told parables. They are meant to make us think. My point here is about what attitudes and assumptions we bring to the reading of the Bible. Do we expect to see God identified with the powerful or the powerless?

The “traditional” interpretation of this parable is positively harmful. Christian investment banker Jeremy Marshall uses it to argue that “banking is a biblical principle”. We cannot know just how much financial exploitation has been defended on the basis of this misread parable, but it’s certainly played a part.


12 responses to “Misreading the parable of the talents

  1. Thanks Symon, I think in this parable the rich man is Alan Sugar and one apprentice refuses to take part in the challenge because it’s so awful. For American readers Alan Sugar is like Donald Trump crossed with Sid James. If you don’t know who Sid James is then I don’t know what to tell you.

  2. Try reading this story to someone who is unfamiliar with it, without commenting, and ask them with which character they most identify. When I have done this, the response has been “the third servant”.

    Well, yes; isn’t that the point? Jesus told parables mainly in order to get people to change their ways (the misnamed parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, was told to Pharisees to point out that they were acting like the ungrateful older brother, and should change).

    So it makes sense that people who are told any parable should identify with the character who is being punished, who ought to change.

    Jesus never told parables to make people feel good about themselves. He never told a story where the aim was to make the listeners think, ‘I’m doing pretty well; I should keep doing what I’m doing, only maybe more so!’

    This particular parable is hard to interpret, and I’m never sure exactly what we’re supposed to take from it. But I am sure that we are supposed to identify with the third servant, realise that he was doing something wrong, and that we are making the same mistake, and change our ways (just as the Pharisees were supposed to realise they were acting like the ungrateful older brother, and that they should be grateful that sinners were being saved instead of resenting them).

    There are parables about rich men in which the audience is supposed to identify with the rich man: the parable of the rich man building his barns, for example. But in all of those something terrible happens to the rich man (the one who build the barns is scolded by God Himself).

    In this parable nothing bad happens to the rich man. He gets to go on being rich. The audience therefore must be intended to identify with the one being punished (as they are in the rich-man-building-barns parable, where the rich man is punished), and that is the third servant.

    I wish it was clearer what the third servant was doing wrong, and how we should change our ways to avoid being like him. It’s clearly not just to do with investing money, any more than the parable of the good seed is about horticulture. But it seems clear to me that he was doing something wrong, and we are doing the same thing (whatever it is) wrong, and that is why he is punished, and we need to work out what that is and try to repent of it.

    • Thanks, D. I really appreciate your detailed response, which has helped me to think about the parable further.

      You’re right to say that just because listeners identify with a particular character, that doesn’t mean that character has got things right. Often we’re intended to identify with a character precisely because he’s got things wrong. Your comment has made me realise that I’d not taken sufficient account of this.

      However, I still stand by my interpretation of the parable. I disagree with your point that the rich man in the story cannot be the target of Jesus’ criticism because nothing bad happens to him. This presupposes that the parables always describe what *should* happen, rather than what *does* happen. What if many of Jesus’ parables are pointing out the unjust, sinful nature of the reality around him?

      I’m not suggesting that the parable is intended to make us feel good about ourselves (although I’m wary of suggesting that Jesus didn’t want people to feel positive). If the third servant is the hero, perhaps he is an example that most of us are failing to follow. Whereas he refuses to collude with sin and speaks out despite the danger to himself, we all too often go along with sin and fail to speak out. Thus we can read the parable as an encouragement to live more faithfully to God by following the example of the third servant.

      As you say, this is a difficult parable (I’m glad we agree on that, especially as so many people imply that it’s straightforward). Of course, if Jesus hadn’t wanted us to think things through, he would not have talked in parables. I’m glad we are having these sort of discussions.

      • What if many of Jesus’ parables are pointing out the unjust, sinful nature of the reality around him?

        Well, a lot of them are. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins, for example. However, they usually are clear about what the unjust behaviour is, by clearly identifying either the good / to be emulated behaviour (the Samaritan who acts as ‘neighbour’ by putting himself in danger when the Levite and priest pass by) or the bad / to be avoided behaviour (the rich man who cares about happiness in this life, the older son who is scolded for his not rejoicing in his brothers’ salvation from a life of hedonism).

        Perhaps there are other examples of parables where the ‘target’ of the parable (ie, the person who is supposed to hear the parable and (if they have ears to hear!) be changed by it) is not punished / otherwise identified as such within the parable. I can’t think of any, though. Can you?

        Here’s an idea: perhaps the third servant is supposed to represent someone who only follows God because they are afraid of Hell, or alternatively because they want the pleasures they imagine are found in Heaven. That is, they don’t follow God because it is the right thing to do, but instead follow Him for selfish motives of personal gain.

        Therefore instead of sharing God’s message by ‘investing’ it, they keep it to themselves: they figure that as long as they do they right stuff and say the right prayers, they will get into Heaven and that’s all they care about.

        The servant, after all, was so afraid of losing his master’s favour that he failed to do what he was supposed to. And his efforts to manipulate his master’s instructions for his own personal gain led to him losing exactly that which he was trying to gain. whereas the ones who acted without thought of personal gain, who took risks and therefore acted within the spirit of the master’s instructions (rather than trying to game things for their own benefit) were rewarded.

        So the parable is saying: don’t follow God out of fear of Him, or because you’re trying to do the minimum necessary to get into Heaven. Instead, follow God and abide by His laws because it is the right thing to do, without thought of personal reward.

        How does that sound as a reading?

  3. I really want to agree with you Symon, but the context of both passages seems to infer the traditional reading. How would you explain how the passage fits into the other stories around it, particularly in Matthew?

    • Thanks, Tschaka. Your comment has led me to look more at how the passages fit with the stories around them, which has been very helpful. However, for me this has confirmed my interpretation rather than undermined it.

      Firstly, though, I should say that which other stories are nearby is down to Matthew and Luke rather than Jesus. Biblical scholars generally accept that the ordering of Jesus’ teaching is at least partly to do with the Gospel-writers’ editing.

      Nonetheless, I think that looking at the nearby passages strengthens my approach rather than undermines it. In Matthew, the parable of the talents is followed immediately by Jesus’ description of separating the sheep and the goats according to how they have behaved towards people in need. Thus the parable describes reality now (the rich exploiting the poor and more being given to those who already have lots) but the following story describes the reality that will come in the future (people being rewarded for their support of the poor and vulnerable). I’m not surprised Matthew put the two stories together (or that Jesus possibly told them together).

      In Luke, the parable follows the story of Zacchaeus, who repented of his exploitative ways, paid back those he had defrauded and gave half his wealth to the poor. Zacchaeus is a rich man whose behaviour is exemplary after being challenged by Jesus. The parable of the ten pounds then makes clear that we need to keep challenging the rich, who benefit from an ongoing sinful system.

      I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on all this. Thanks again.

    • Thanks very much, Julie. I find your intrepretation really interesting and I’m glad you’ve shared it on here.

      I think our interpretations overlap in some places; for example, you point out that people naturally feel sorry for the third servant. I’m open to your argument that Matthew and Luke see the third servant more negatively than Jesus intended. As always, it’s hard to distinguish between Jesus and the Gospel-writers. I’d not come across the version of the story in the Gospel of the Nazarenes. Thanks very much for mentioning this. I will look it up.

      Your interpretation suggests that the third servant was naive in thinking that he could simply follow the letter of the rules. I’m not convinced on this point, but am open to persuasion. To me, it seems significant that the servant denounces the rich man to his face (“you are a harsh man, you take what you did not deposit and reap what you did not sow” – Luke 19,21). I think this implies he had an awareness of the situation and was taking risks to challenge what he saw as wrong.

      I like your interpretation of this parable as a story about how we must take risks to follow Jesus and go further than simply following the rules. It is not my interpretation, and I still find it difficult to imagine Jesus talking about usury in any way that did not imply opposition to it. However, I think it is quite legitimate for a parable to have more than one interpretation. My problem with the “traditional” interpretation is the simple equation of a rich tyrant with God and I think your interpretation avoids this.

      I look forward to reading more of the document you linked to, as I would like to see your interpretations of other parables.

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  6. I would really love to discuss the parables you were speaking of. I really agree with all of it but would love to go more in depth.

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