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.

24 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?

      • Seems to me that you are spot on. The real context is found in Matthew. The version of the parable in Luke has lost its context, thus distorting the meaning. In Matthew, this parable is connected to the ‘sheep and goats’ story, and in my view these are both part of the same story. The point here is to contrast how an EARTHLY king rewards his servants with money for their earthly striving and scraping, with the way that the HEAVENLY KING rewards His servants with Eternal Life for helping ‘the least of these’. The master who goes away ‘to get royal power for himself’ bears a STRIKING resemblance to one Herod Archelaus.

  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.

  7. To say Jesus represents the wicked servant is incorrect. Jesus is actually declaring the 3rd guy to be wicked and lazy – the 3rd calls the master harsh and says things about his character that aren’t true. That’s precisely the issue with the 3rd slave. His view of the master was totally wrong and it caused him to do a totally wrong thing. He judges God on the basis of his own feelings and not by truth. “What are you going to do with the time and abilities God has given you?” – that’s the point – if you are like the 3rd slave, you’re illegitimate and not a child of God. This is further substantiated by Jesus saying “And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus leaves the riddle of the parable and directly links the 3rd character with a real person who suffers the judgment and condemnation of God in hell.

  8. Thank you for this interpretation. I love the Bible but have always hated this parable. It seems to justify exploitation and makes God seem cruel. I’ve heard it interpreted “use it or lose it” which almost made it palatable, but not quite. It always makes me feel unnaccepted by God, because I’ve always struggled financially, and I wonder, where is God’s love and mercy in this story. Today, I decided to read it in context. Zacheus says he will give half his money to the poor and make right anyone he has wronged and Jesus declares salvation has come to his house that day, which seems consistent with the rest of the word and what God wants from us. After reading your commentary, I saw anew, for the first time, the words, to him who has, more will be given, and to him who has not, what little he has will be taken away, in the light of our own society, and it sounded more like a prophecy; a commentary on our own society, in which the working poor’s wages are no longer enough to keep even a roof over one’s head, contrasted with tax breaks and tax subsidies for the rich, and for industry….the merchants of the world who squeeze taxes out of those least able to afford them, in order to be more rich. I hope you are right, and I know the merchants of the world (who are unjust I assume) are condemned in Revelation, along with those who destroy the earth, but I am still unsure why Jesus told this parable at all. It always makes me shudder, and tremble at the thought of such a cruel God.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Robin. I’m sorry not to have replied sooner. Like you, I’d never liked this parable before realising there was another way of reading it – a way that, to me, makes far more sense. I think Jesus told the parable to encourage us to stand up to injustice and exploitation. Your point about reading it in the context of the story about Zacchaeus is also important, I think. Thanks for raising that.

  9. I am actually surprised to know that people interpret the parable of talents in terms of actual money. I learned, when I was little, that talent meant to be spiritual deeds. But, referring to talents as a good, seems to be something new, from the Prosperity Theology.

  10. You neglect the difference between the versions in Matthew and in Luke. They were to two different audiences: the inner circle of disciples versus the world at large. That makes a difference. This is a parable is a rendering of Isaiah 58, which talks about the heart of the commandments and the Sabbath has the lynchpin thereof.

  11. Jesus said “seeing they will not see and hearing they will not hear”. The meaning of his words are laid out clearly for all those who He INTENDED to see them.

    He told us in another place to “make friends of unrighteous mammon” so that when we are cast out by the religious leaders of the day we will have a place to go to.

    He meant for us to to go not just to the lost poor people but we should also go to the lost rich and tell them about the gospel that Jesus was bringing. Then the rich who repent would become the first two servants who used their talents (ie..money, time, daily lives) to care for the down trodden and lost with what God has blessed them with and thus receive a reward.

    Jesus even told us through his handling of the third servant (I feel servant three is all of us, well most of the time he is me) that there was hope even for him if he would have just given his talent (or his life) to someone (missions, church, soup kitchen, outreach, visitation) who would use what God gave him to provide a return on God’s investment in us.

    The Lord God does not want our money he just wants us.

    I write these words to myself first in the hope that seeing I too will see and hearing I too will hear.

  12. I am writing this long after the original post was written, but I would like to offer another view. The Lord is the author of life. All good things, from fabulous sunsets to the love of friends and family to an intimate walk with Jesus are gifts from him. He gives to us lavishly, even to the point of purchasing our salvation by the blood of Jesus. Whatever resources we have, be they monetary or otherwise, came from him and belong to him.
    In the same way, God speaks to us about multiplying what we have been given. “Be fruitful and multiply.” “Go and make disciples of all nations.” “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” “The seed must fall to the ground and die to produce more seeds.” Sometimes, we are afraid to let go of the blessings he has given us, but when we do, he pours out even more to us. “Give and it will be given, a good measure and overflowing will be poured into your lap.” All of this speaks of life, of fruitfulness, of productivity, and of love.
    Even the poorest of Christians in an earthly sense have been given abundant and eternal life. Everyone has something that can be used in God’s service. Once, when I was visiting a church in South America, an impoverished woman joyfully presented me with a beautiful card she had made with a scrap of paper and some glitter and glue. I have a dear friend whose health was taken from her by a botched surgery years ago. She amazes me by how well she loves and serves God and people from her couch. These women have limited resources, but they do their best with what they have, and God multiplies it.
    How wonderful and humbling it is that the Lord entrusts us with the most important thing…the gospel…and with lesser things such as money, health, the earth, etc!
    So, how selfish are we when we do nothing with the things the Lord has given us! What a waste when we bury spiritual and physical resources! Why do we do that? Fear. Laziness. Complacency. Ingratitude. A lack of love for and faithfulness to our master. These are the very things that plagued the man who just buried what he had been given in the ground. The master trusted him with his valuables; he responded by thinking the master was harsh to expect any kind of return. Not caring enough to carry out the task he had been given, he forfeited everything.
    Yes, I do identify with this poor man, but not because I see him as a hero or a truth teller. Are excuses and truth ever found together? I know how fearful and lazy and ungrateful I can be. I know how I can fritter time and money and other resources that could be used for better things. And, I can make excuses for it all. But, I have so much more joy when I look for ways to give back to God. For me, this man’s story is a cautionary tale, while the other two men provide hope that I can fruitfully use the gifts God has given me.
    That slides right into the parable of the sheep and the goats. The sheep are grateful and use their earthly goods to invest in people. They see the opportunity to show love to Jesus by loving others. They push past fear, laziness, and selfishness in order to love. The goats, on the other hand, fail to see this opportunity to serve Jesus. In fact, they fail to see Jesus, because they don’t understand his heart. They sit n their resources, much as the man in the parable of the talents buried his.

  13. When I say, “this poor man,” I don’t mean that he is poor financially. He and the other two men lived in the master’s household. I think we can safely say that they had the same access to clothing, food, and shelter. In the master’s knowledge of each man, they were given different levels of responsibility for the master’s assets during his absence. The lazy servant rejected responsibility for even a small share in maintaining these assets. It would not have gone well if the master had assigned him even more responsibility. If we are faithful in small things, we become ready to handle more responsibility. It is part of our growth. We don’t give a pilot’s license to a four year old.
    I don’t see this servant as caring about justice or injustice. Again, he hid what he had. He did not seek to use it in any meaningful way. Caring about people means using what we have in God’s service. The servant did not say anything about using the master’s resource for good. He was worried about himself.

  14. This is my opinion. I could be wrong, so…
    It’s important to note the character of this master; wicked and reaped where he did not sow. Only a thief reaps where they did not sow. Satan comes to kill and destroy that which Jesus has sowed. Also, the character of Jesus is kindness, and forgiveness…etc, but never dishonest or cruel.The three servants TRADED with the talents, meaning they were in it for their own gain and praise. Jesus says,in Revelation 3;11 – hold on tight to what you have received and don’t let anyone take it from you. What we receive from Jesus is never taken back and it is for our learning.The one who was truthful and a true follower of Jesus realised that this master was not Jesus and so he hid it, and refused to be part of the wickedness. The antichrist will come pretending to be Jesus and those who refuse to dance to his tune he kills them. Besides, the Kingdom of God is paved with many tribulations inflicted by antichrist and only FEW walk on that narrow path. The servant who was given one knew it was a gift given by a cruel untrustworthy master, and not the true master. This parable is to teach us to beware of false prophets/spirits who are wolves in sheep clothing.
    This parable is also about repentance.
    It also cautions us about Selling truth to buy lies. The servant with one talent realised he had been given lies and he returned the a’lies” back and stuck with the truth

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