The Parable of the Talents

It has become clear to me that the parable of the talents is almost the premier go-to example for Christian proponents of capitalism, libertarianism, or conservatism. As such, it represents a major stumbling block in our way of understanding the implications of Jesus’ teachings.

The parables in particular are given awful treatments by the vast majority of readers and commentators, twisted out of shape and into accord with preconceived notions, usually on some form of privatized, individualistic readings popularized in the 18th and 19th centuries. The parables are not little stories to illustrate spiritual ideas. They are not really about getting into heaven, the human soul, or any of the other common readings. They have to do with Israel as the people of God, and the Kingdom that Jesus was announcing would arrive at His resurrection.

Matthew’s parable of the talents is one of the most commonly misinterpreted parables, one so completely misread that we end up turning Jesus’ point on its head. The typical reading of the passage goes something like this: “Jesus tells us that good stewardship means investing your money in a capitalist economy and condemns sitting on what you have without generating more of it. In this way He supports the use of capitalism and tells us to go out and put our money to use in the economy as good stewards of what we have been given.”

The other alternative is scarcely better, spiritualizing its force away so that it concerns our “gifts” or “callings,” the final judgment, and the return of Jesus. This is also wrong.

The place which both views agree with each other is on the identification of the wealthy protagonist with Jesus Himself. As we shall see, this reading creates a great deal of tension in how it represents the character of Jesus (or God). As I have always emphasized on this blog, we must read carefully and into all the details if we are to correctly read any passage of Scripture. So what does a close reading reveal to us about this “nobleman”?

First, it tells us he was a “nobleman.” This does not sound very much like Jesus, who has been preaching to the poor, who has shown solidarity to the poor throughout the gospels, and who has condemned the rich and wealthy and powerful throughout. This does not sound like the Jesus who has said that His Kingdom would be characterized by a voluntary surrendering of power and wealth (see my comments on the Beatitudes) and who Himself willingly surrendered everything to take on our flesh and experience our poverty and pain (Phil. 2:5-7; Heb. 2:17-18). This Jesus, the Jesus of the gospels, isn’t likely to count Himself among the powerful or wealthy.

Second, the servant who did not invest the money given to him says “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid” (Matt. 25:24-25). A couple of people have suggested to me that the servant simply misunderstood the character of his master and merely thought he was a hard man, but this doesn’t seem to be the direction the text is heading. The “nobleman” does not protest this summation of his character, but rather confirms it: “You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest,” (Matt. 25:26-27), and then punishes the servant for his refusal to do what the nobleman demanded (Matt. 25:28-30). This, again, does not sound very much like Jesus, who describes His yoke as “easy” and “light,” not “heavy,” (Matt. 11:28-30). This is specifically a call to those who labor and are under heavy burdens as a release.

Third, the “nobleman” demands that his servants commit usury, forbidden in the law and the prophets. He tells the “unfaithful” servant, “you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest,” (Matt. 25:27). That is, the “nobleman” has demanded his servants violate the Torah in one of its most basic precepts, the practice of usury (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-37; Deut. 23:19-20). The practice of usury was considered a direct affront to Yahweh, and the one who practiced such things would answer with his life. The Psalmist declares that the one who will dwell with God in the Temple is the one who “does not put out his money at interest,” (Psa. 15:5). Ezekiel declares that the righteous man “does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice,” (Ezek. 18:7-8). In contrast, shall the wicked man who  “lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself,” (Ezek. 18:13). Jesus even upholds this principle Himself (Luke 6:34-35). After all, He came to fulfill and uphold the law, not do away with it (Matt. 5:17-19). Jesus would never encourage usury, let alone demand it of His servants. The “nobleman,” on the other hand, expects and demands it, reaping what he does not sow and harvesting what he does not plant. The “unfaithful” servant has something startling and challenging to say to the “nobleman” when he returns his money to him: “Here you have what is yours,” (Matt. 25:25). In other words, the servant says, “I know that you take what is not yours from others by usury, but I have not done this. Here, take back the money that belongs to you.” This so-called “unfaithful” servant is actually challenging the “nobleman” on his behavior. He is saying, “I know you take things that don’t belong to you, but here, I’m returning what does belong to you.” We’ll come back to this servant in a moment.

Fourth, the “nobleman” proves himself to be every bit the harsh and cruel man that he is in his response to the last servant. He strips the last servant of what he has and declares, “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away,” (Matt. 25:29). This again does not sound very much like Jesus. Do we imagine that Jesus would support stripping the poor or the laborer of what little they have, and give it to the rich? Does this sound like the Jesus of the gospels, of whom it was said, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;  he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty,” (Luke 1:51-53)? Does this sound like the Jesus who said that the Jubilee promise of Isaiah 61 was fulfilled in His own ministry (Luke 4:18-21), a final, eschatological Jubilee that includes the promise that Yahweh “has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God [upon the oppressors],” (Isa. 61:1-2)? Does this sound very much like the Jesus who said, “only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23)?

As we have shown, the characteristics of the “nobleman” are entirely contrary to the character of Jesus and His ministry. The question left to us is, “How could we possibly have inverted this parable at all? How could we have so seriously misunderstood Jesus’ ministry?” How could we have confused Jesus with Satan? Cruel, harsh, usurious, full of malice and avarice, taking what little the poor have and giving it to the rich? Sounds like a pretty good description of Satan to me. Reading the parable properly reveals that the “nobleman” represents everything that Jesus opposes, and the servant which the “nobleman” declares to be wicked, slothful and “worthless” (Matt. 25:26, 30) is actually righteous and faithful to God. The other servants whom the “nobleman” gives command over cities and much wealth are told to “Enter into the joy of your master,” (Matt. 25:21). We can now correctly understand this as a counterfeit of the Kingdom, a parody of God’s rewards in the Kingdom. Like with the hypocrites who pray to be heard by men, fast to be seen by men, and give to be respected by men, those who are set over the great and mighty things in the world have truly “received their reward,” (Matt. 6:2). Blessed will be the poor, but “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” (Luke 6:24).

So who is the nobleman and why does Jesus tell this right before the great judgment scene in Matt. 25? The answer involves all three of the stories in Matt. 25. It is of vital importance to note that this whole discussion comes on the heels of Jesus’ prophecy against Jerusalem and the Temple, predicting its destruction within a single generation (Matt. 24). This took place just as Jesus said it would, forty years later, in A.D. 70 when the Romans swept across Israel and tore down Jerusalem and the Temple. Immediately following this discussion, Jesus tells the parable of the virgins, ten of whom are prepared for this destruction of Jerusalem and ten of whom are not (Matt. 25:1-13). The ten unprepared virgins are shut out of the Kingdom, and represent those in Israel who have refused to believe Jesus’ words.

The parable of the talents then follows this discussion of those who are included and those who are excluded from the Kingdom, when it arrives, in A.D. 70. The parable of the virgins raises the question, “How do we know who is in and who is out?” To answer this question, Jesus tells two stories of two  judgments, both of which have to do with the arrival of the Kingdom. The first is the parable of the talents, which, as we have seen, is a picture of the sort of judgment which Israel expects. The “nobleman,” powerful and harsh, comes and rewards those faithful to his way of life, the life of mammon and rebellion against God. Jesus is subverting Israel’s expectation that the Messiah will rise up and slaughter the unfaithful in Israel (those who have not seemingly done anything with what God has given them) as well as the Romans, slaughter them and set faithful Israel over the cities and power centers of the world. This is a presentation of judgment as Israel expects it.

Jesus then immediately contrasts this with the true judgment of the Kingdom, when He takes the throne and uses Rome to destroy Jerusalem and the earthly Temple. In this picture of the rule of the Kingdom, Jesus inverts Israel’s expectation by rewarding those who personally assist the poor, who live the way of the cross in the expectation of the coming Kingdom. It is not those who have amassed great wealth or assisted them in such hoarding that will inherit eternal life but those who have lived according to the Kingdom code Jesus set out in the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of His ministry, the ones who voluntarily renounced what they had, who practiced sharing, hospitality, generosity, who fed and clothed the poor, who cared for the needy, who visited the widow and the orphan in their affliction. Only these will inherit the Kingdom. And salvation is at stake in this issue. When Jesus tells the rich man to sell all he had and follow Him, the rich man is sad. Jesus says, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Looking on, people say, “Then who can be saved?” Not, “How difficult for those who do not believe.” Not, “How difficult for those who have not heard the gospel.” Not “How difficult for those who hold to a different theological tradition than us.” Instead, salvation is (at least in part) about Mammon.

“How difficult for those who have great wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.”


4 thoughts on “The Parable of the Talents

  1. Adam, you know I’ve got an open mind, but are you sure this parable is about money at all? Isn’t it about stewardship of the Covenant in general, and misuse of it to oppress God’s people? The parable of the virgins seems to be about those who rejected the Spirit at Pentecost. This one seems to be about being faithful and allowing God to bring the increase. Perhaps the idea of reaping where he had not sown is about the Gentiles. Usury, like slavery, was allowed when those in debt were not Hebrew brothers, so this too might refer to investment in a Gentile increase. The to and fro goes back to Eden and Havilah: if Israel is faithful as priests, the kings will bring their riches and glory into the Sanctuary. If Israel is unfaithful, the Gentiles will come as eagles and vultures, and steal even what she had away from her. This would mean that the commerce here is liturgical, the “fine gold” and “buying and selling” in Revelation. Then Jesus redefines the idea of Hebrew brethren in the next story. The sin that broke the camel’s back was Zedekiah’s reversal of his decision to mandate the release of all Hebrew slaves. The target of Jesus’ parables here was the Jewish leaders, who viewed even other Jews as fish to be filleted.

  2. Adam, I believe your reading is fraught with difficulties.

    First, you assume that the parable really is *directly* about money, whereas very few (if any) of Jesus’ parables are that direct regarding their subject matter. If your assumption there is wrong, you falsify everything, for several reasons, including the subversion of Jesus’ point about “gaining money at interest,” and equally the supposedly unjust character of the “nobleman” in view.

    Second, you appear to ignore verbal cues which tie this parable to other parables in this Gospel. The power to cast the servant into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, is not a power that could be aptly attributed to anyone other than God Himself. Nor, for that matter, would be the corresponding blessing, “enter into the joy of your master” (which is probably a reference to Ps 16:11)—even apart from observing the probable intended resonances of the term kurios.

    Furthermore, this is not simply a narrow observation regarding this single parable in the abstract: five other times in Matthew, the same terminology of weeping and gnashing of teeth is used, and each time it is used to refer to divine judgment against those who reject Jesus or His kingdom, or abuse His kingdom’s servants. It is predicated of the “sons of the kingdom” who reject Jesus in 8:12; of the weeds in the field in 13:42; of the unrighteous “fish” in 13:50; of the man without the wedding garment in 22:13; and of the wicked servant who abuses his fellow servants during the delay of his master in 24:51.

    Third, in the preceding chapter in Matthew, it is Jesus who is depicted as a master who departs on a journey and returns to provide judgment, not someone or some group in Israel that is acting unjustly.

    Fourth, this parable is about the nobleman’s own property (Mt 25:14), and in the Gospel of Matthew, it is God or Jesus who is the property holder and master, while it is Israel or its leaders who is/are entrusted with the household, property, and goods. See e.g. 24:45. Moreover, elsewhere “servants” are not the “servants” of the wicked, but of God or Jesus.

    Fifth, the “harshness” of the nobleman has a specific context and it in fact fits well with what you yourself claim: He judges those who do not do as He says, which of course includes serving one another and caring for the poor. The care of the household is given in trust, not for oneself, but for the Master.

    Sixth, the “aristocratic” character of the master is not to the fore. Matthew does not even use the term “nobleman” (he simply mentions a man traveling to a far country), but even if he had, the term is not at all unsuitable for a reference to King Jesus, who compares Himself to a rich householder repeatedly in this very Gospel (again, e.g. 24:45).

    Seventh, in Luke, Jesus puts forth this parable as a counter to those who supposed that the kingdom of God was going to appear (in fullness?) immediately (Lk 19:11–12). This fits exactly with the parable’s picture of the master departing on a journey, as Jesus shortly does.

    Ironically, the parable does fit in quite exactly with a castigation of Mammon, once it is read in context with the other parables. Because how the things entrusted “bear interest” is not by handling them for oneself, but precisely in service to others. The master sets servants over the household in order to give his fellow servants food (24:45), for example.

    Paul has a much better reading of the parable than you provide here. In a passage about money, he speaks in Gal 6 of sowing to the Spirit, and we find that the time of harvest is eschatological. And the way of sowing to the Spirit is by partnering with faithful teachers of the Word, doing good to all, and particularly those of the “household” (Gal 6:10—does that sound familiar? cf Mt 24:45; the Greek words are closely related).

  3. Mike, you’re right that this parable is about more than money, though I think we can’t hand-wave away from either the details or the implication of the surface-level of the story, which *is* about money, economics, and usury. Though I would want to say it is really about Mammon, which is broader than simply love of money, and is a handy summary of the “Gentile way” which Jesus denounces in Luke 22:24-20 and elsewhere. It was this lifestyle that Israel was secretly enthralled with – they denounced the Gentiles on the surface and made a show about being different, but secretly they wanted to be like the Gentiles, to have the same kind of power and authority over them as they (in Jesus’ present) had over Israel.

    I would agree that the passage is about covenant, but I would point out that it seems as though Jesus has something in mind when he talks about faithfulness to the covenant. Over and over again I found in my work on the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus quotes or alludes to Isaiah 58-66, which concerns the coming of the eschatological Jubilee that Jesus made the characteristic of His Kingdom (Luke 4). The thing that Israel wasn’t doing was Jubilee. They lived and behaved like the Gentiles, and they wanted the sort of power and authority of the Gentiles.

    I think the connection with the Gentiles is possible, but unlikely. The focus has been on Israel throughout, Jesus ministry is primarily concerned with Israel and drawing Israel back to her mission. The parable of the talents is a judgment scene like the ones that precede and follow it, but it is a judgment as Israel expects it to happen, not as it will happen.

  4. I find it interesting to note how this parable reflects James’ renouncing of the rich in James 5:1-6. While the scattered tribes were bracing for Roman invasion there were those getting rich on others misery. Instead of helping the widow and orphans they seem to be buying up, capitalizing on their despair. It’s very necessary to not lift this parable out of the context of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. It’s the second half of Jesus’ wait and work counsel. In James epistle the second coming is the coming of Jesus in vengeance to destroy the Temple and the warning about the rich fits into the same sort of exhortation as Jesus gives here. Jesus in essence is exhorting to be a part of the solution not a part of the problem ….and there is no middle ground.

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