Continuing my off-and-on project of reading about Jesus’ parables (1), I looked up the parable of the talents---a scripture that inspired me when I hoped to deepen my faith during my college years. I already knew that a talent “in the biblical sense” was a unit of mass and value, and that the word had come down into the English language to mean an ability or skill. Like many of us, I read the now-double meaning of talent in a symbolic sense, which spurred and encouraged the stewardship of my abilities.
The parable is found in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27. Here is Matthew’s version:
For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Luke 19:11-27 has the same story but with some differences. For instance, the man becomes specifically a nobleman who goes to a far country “to get royal power for himself.” Luke’s version also ends slightly differently:
“Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.” He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”
Eugene Wehrli notes that although the parable concerns money, it “must not be treated as a story about the correct use of money” (p. 75). Nor should we think the master is an exact representation of God or Jesus, since this master is not the most upright master, seizing things and acting so harshly that his servants act fearfully. The parable is meant to illustrate something rather than to make that particular character a figure for God.
One difficulty in interpreting the parable, writes Wehrli, is following the reasoning. The third servant takes care of the money, too, seemingly in a responsible way. Wehrli’s analogy is a woman who is entrusted with a valuable vase, who then locks us up away from her rowdy children so that the vase can be returned undamaged, which seems reasonable and responsible. But the master had expected gain on his trust, which the other servants were astute enough to realize.
Returning to the idea of gifts from God, Wehri writes, “God’s gifts are not to be merely preserved; they must bear additional fruit.... The man with the one talent protected what was given him but was unwilling to venture it. This is like honoring religion...but refusing to live by its power. This is also like being unwilling to invest one’s life and risk all for the sake of God” (pp. 76-77).
He comments that among differences between Luke’s and Matthew’s versions, Luke introduces the context of the parable differently---Jesus’ followers expected the kingdom to come soon. Also, in Luke’s version, all the servants get the same amount. The basic thrust of the parable, though, is the same.
Seeking an original context for the parable, Wehrli comments that the story seems to be directed toward the Pharisees. Jesus was criticizing their faith, which (in Wehrli’s words) “puts a hedge around... faith to keep it from being contaminated. Instead of investing it or putting it to work in the world, [the Pharisee] keeps it pure by isolating it from bad influences” (p. 79). If the religion person----anyone, not just the Pharisees of Jesus’ time---has discourse and interaction with others but keeps faith to oneself, one has not recognized the purpose and value of faith.
I must interject an important point here: It’s so easy for Christians to read these scriptural accounts and then assume that Jesus’ words characterize Jews and Jewish teachers today, as well. This is wrong. I can testify that my Jewish friends and colleagues are all about putting their faith to work in the world---to the responsibility of “healing the world” (tikkun olam). My Jewish friends continually inspire me to make my own religious faith more devoted to service to the needy and to interpersonal peace. The qualities Jesus criticized in the Pharisees (who had a specific historical reason to be scrupulous in their devotion) are hardly unknown among persons of nearly any religious faith.
Jeremias also discusses the parable (pp. 58-63) agreeing that, in the presumed original context of the story, Jesus would not have identified him or God as the despot of the parable. Nor was the original parable necessarily about the delay of Christ’s return. (The early church could have seen the parable as an allegory for the Second Coming, in the theme of the master’s delay and the subsequent punishment of the third servant. Likewise, the brutality of the nobleman at the end of Luke's version could refer to the harsh justice that awaited the wicked at the Last Judgment.) Jeremias, too, sees the original target of the story as the Pharisees and scribes, trusted with the treasure of God’s teachings but unwilling to risk them.
Interestingly, Jeremias notes that the parable also appears in the non-canonical Gospel of the Nazarenes, in which the third servant has been rewritten (and moralized) into a wicked person who squandered his master’s wealth “on harlots and flute-players” (p. 58).
I suppose many of us---myself included, especially when I first encountered the parable---read it somewhat allegorically. God is the master who gives us talents (i.e., skills), expects us to use them for God’s kingdom, and is displeased if we let them languish. I had several modest talents, and so this call to God’s service stirred my heart.
As these authors note, the parable’s original form was likely a “jab” at the Pharisees and was more analogical than allegorical. But the point is always apropos: the treasure of God's teachings is not something to keep to ourselves but is meant to be a blessing and a healing power to the world.
(1) Exploring the Parables by Eugene S. Wehrli (United Church Press, 1963), and The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).