The Parable of the Talents

Published on 15 Jan 2018
Teresa McCaffery takes another look at the parable of the talents in the hope of finding some insights for our modern way of living. Are there lessons here about humility and the moral life? 

Listening to lectures by Denis McBride on Jesus and the Gospels I was startled by his interpretation of the parable of the talents.  Now, surely everybody knows that this is about getting on with the work, doing your best and putting your gifts at the disposal of the community even if the boss is grumpy and demanding.  McBride’s suggestion; that the hero of the parable is the man who buried his talent; came as a shock, but I made the effort to see it his way and found myself in interesting territory.

To start with, I was told, the people given charge of the talents were not stewards, or servants, but slaves, owned by their masters.  I am no expert on the matter, but it seems to me that there are three types of slavery:

The one that most quickly comes to mind is the person who is kidnapped, or tricked, or taken as spoils of war.  These slaves lead a terrible life and have no freedom at all.  We think we have abolished slavery of this sort, but it still goes on.  We call it people trafficking now.

The descendants of Joseph were caught up in a different form of slavery.  Their ancestors came to Egypt looking for food in time of famine.  Generations later they had become an unwanted minority trapped in a degraded situation by need: their own and that of Pharaoh.  They had some freedom, but getting out was costly for both sides.  Today we call people like that economic migrants.

This parable is about the third sort: slavery as a career option.

McBride tells us that rich people would buy slaves for their competence.  These slaves could be more intelligent and better educated than their masters.  That was the point, they could do things their masters could not and often this was all about increasing financial income.  These slaves could make money for themselves on the side, and might expect to be freed as they approached the age at which they might become less useful.  But it all depended on their absolute commitment to achieve the ends of their master.  Fail to do that and your dream of retirement in the sun vanishes.  Remember, your master owns you and can dispose of you as it pleases him.  Vengeance is sweet.  Christians had to be warned by the apostles not to sell themselves into slavery, the benefits look attractive, the dangers are hidden.

Now, lets talk about talents.  These, apparently, were the largest unit of money available.  They were ingots of silver.  The five, two and one handed out (in Matthew’s version) represented a huge amount of money; this man was engaged in high finance, his slaves in wealth management.  Money does not grow on trees, it does not grow at all.  The only way to get more is to persuade someone else to part with some of his.  There are many perfectly legal ways of doing this, and the slaves in question knew them all.  In principle both parties benefit; one gets goods or services he needs, the other gets the money, but all too often the money goes one way, from poorer to richer.  Collecting the profits is ugly work, and it is no surprise that the master left the task to his slaves while he went away to increase his political power.

The first two slaves got to work quickly and made the 100% profit that the master would expect, knowing that any further profit they made would be theirs.  The third slave had a problem.  He did not want to exploit poor people and he knew that that was the only way he could please his master.  He could not give his talent away, because it was not his to give., so he buried it.  Let us imagine this man for a moment, digging the hole, dropping this great lump of silver into it and covering it with more earth.  We know that when his master came to ask questions he simply dug it up again.  You see, silver is not biodegradable; the creatures of the earth cannot eat it; and it is not fruitful; it will not sprout and produce flowers and fruit.  The master comes back and commends the first two slaves for making him richer (and a few more poor people poorer).  The third slave hands the talent back, with a lecture.

This interpretation of the parable is terribly topical.  It is not my business to pass comment on our own recent financial crisis.  Do I know who suffered, and who gained?  But I do know about people who have walked away from lucrative careers in favour of doing something with a much lower profile and pay, in a better moral environment.  I also know about people who work hard all their lives making profit for owners and shareholders in the hope of retirement in luxury, which does not always happen.  A job is often seen as a very valuable asset, not something you want to lose. We do not always want to ask if the work we do has real value for the community.  It is good enough that it pays the rent and the grocery bill. 

Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, brilliant scripture scholar, skilled carpenter and charismatic leader, was master of the art of talent burying.  The only thing we know about his childhood and youth is that when he was found showing off his scholarship aged 12 he went back home and was obedient to his parents.  In Nazareth his teaching was challenged because he was so ordinary.  When people crowded around because of his healing gift he decided it was time to move on.  In the passion narrative we hear the same story, writ loud.  In the end he was buried, just like the talent.  What a waste! 

In the Mediation on Two Standards, St Ignatius encourages us to perfect the art of talent burying.  Given the choice, other things being equal, we should always choose the option with the smaller financial return, the lower social profile.  What a way to run a country!  Where is the wealth going to come from?  How will we find new inventions?  Better ways of treating illness?  All I can say is “It works”. 

So far, my willingness to rethink this parable has been helpfully fruitful.  I know it is presented by the evangelists just before the Passion narrative and decide to read it again.

Now my problems return.  I have two stories which seem similar in places but also contradict each other.  In Matthew the hard-working servants are welcomed into happiness with the master, the lazy one sent where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, just as in other parables about the last judgement.  This version clearly forms the basis for teaching about the need to work hard, even when the master is not there to see.  The language in Luke’s version is very different.  The master wants to be king, his servants send a delegation saying they do not want him as their king (would slaves be able to do that?).  Jesus never suggests in a parable that the King who represents God is unpopular.  This king rewards his good servants not with happiness in his company, but with power over others.  The lazy servant simply loses his money and the king generalises that poor people will tend to lose their money to the rich.  This may be a sad truth, but it is hardly Christian teaching.  Both sets of servants are told that they have been faithful in little things, so what were those talents worth?  Both are told they should have put the masters money in the bank, to earn interest for him, and improve the economy for all.  Both lazy servants take good care of the money, treating it as an object to be protected, rather than as a tool to enrich the lives of all.  Luke’s king lines up those who objected to his authority and has them killed in front of him.  We see a lot of that today, and few Christians would endorse such a policy.

It is likely that the king in the parable is a historical Jewish figure who went to Rome to have his authority endorsed by the occupying forces.  He was cruel and despotic, and the people sent a delegation to protest his appointment. But he was appointed anyway.  Matthew, addressing the Jews who should be awaiting the Messiah, makes the talent burier out to be simply a lazy grumbler.  Luke, addressing gentile Christians, is more interested in encouraging people to spread the kingdom of truth and justice.  It is his version that supports the idea that it is better to do nothing than to do something bad.

So, the parables of Jesus are buried talents too, ready to be dug up and presented as challenges to our present situation.