Reconsidering the Parable of the Talents
by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken
Traditionally, the parable of the talents has been seen as an exhortation to Jesus’ disciples to use their God-given gifts in the service of God, and to take risks for the sake of the Kingdom of God. These gifts have been seen to include personal abilities (“talents” in the everyday sense), as well as personal wealth. Failure to use one’s gifts, the parable suggests, will result in negative judgment. From a psychological point of view, failure is the immediate result of the failure to feel God’s love. The first two servants are able to see God in a positive perception, as understanding, generous, and kind, while the third servant sees God as harsh, demanding, and critical. So writes the author of the Wikipedia entry on the Parable of the Talents. This is surely a succinct summary of the majority of sermons given on this parable since the thirteenth century when a talent became to be understood as an ability rather than as a unit of money, or rather as a specific weight of silver of approximately 36 kilograms. Clearly, sermons that exhort us to develop and use our abilities for the benefit of others to further the reign of God on earth have merit, but I wonder if this is what Jesus is endeavouring to convey through his parable about the accumulation of wealth.
The possibility of a new interpretation of this parable arises out of the growing understanding of the socio-economic conditions prevailing in Galilee and Judaea under Roman rule. Matthew includes this parable among those Jesus told during the last week of his life. The animosity between the ruling classes in Jerusalem and the peasant prophet from Galilee had grown deadly for Jesus, and his critique of his enemies was increasingly forthright. There is much in this parable that suggests Jesus had the rich and powerful in mind, not his followers who were in the main poor and powerless.
The slave owner is clearly a very rich man. He distributes eight talents to three of his slaves. A talent of silver was worth 6,000 denarii, meaning that the talents the slave owner was entrusting to his slaves were worth a total of 48,000 denarii. To get an appreciation of the immense value of this, a day labourer was usually paid one denarius a day for his work and would hope to earn about 300 denarii a year. The annual income of 160 day labourers could have been funded from these eight talents. The second thing we notice about the slave owner is that he does not do any of the work required to increase his wealth. Rather he goes on a journey. His current location and his destination are not specified, but it is likely he has land holdings in Galilee, and his destination is Jerusalem. The holy city was the home of many wealthy people whose income was being generated by the labour of people in Galilee. Often the only time the Jerusalemites went to Galilee was when rents and interests on loans were due to be paid. This is what the slave owner does. He turns up when it is time for the returns on his investments to be handed over to him.
It is notable that the slaves don’t get a tangible reward for their work – like their manumission, for example. Rather the two slaves who double their master’s talents are simply given more work to do. “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master,” is how the slave owner responds. Of course, it is possible that their living conditions were improved, and their positions in the hierarchy of the master’s slaves were elevated, as a result of enriching their master. Jesus leaves that to our imagination, however. Also not explicitly stated is how the two profitable slaves achieved such an extraordinarily high rate of return on the master’s investment, but perhaps we can speculate from their success that it involved unscrupulous trading, or to put it bluntly, they probably overcharged people.
Now we need to consider the “wicked and lazy” slave who kept his master’s property safe by burying it, which was a common practice for storing treasure. This slave is honest in that he returns to the master what is his. He is also insightful. He knows the master belongs to the class who don’t sew and reap their own land, and tend to treat harshly the poor and dispossessed. Archaeologists have noted that there is no evidence of shops in the rural villages in first-century Galilee. After tenant farmers had paid their rents, taxes, and tithes, there was barely enough produce left over to sustain their families, and certainly no surplus funds available to spend on retail therapy.
Is the third slave “wicked and lazy” as claimed by his master? The slave owner criticises the third slave for not investing the one talent entrusted to him with the bankers, in other words with the money lenders. While for us investing our money in a bank is a safe and sensible thing to do, this was not an ethical option for the third slave. He would have had to find a money lender who was a foreigner who didn’t charge interest on loans made to Jews, which would have been impossible. The law said, “You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. On loans to a foreigner, you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest.” The Torah’s rules governing Israel’s economic system were intended to avoid generational poverty. Not only was charging interest forbidden, but debts were to be wiped every seventh year. By the time of the oppressive Roman occupation, it appears that these laws had ceased being widely implemented, and as a result deprivation was widespread.
In criticising the third slave for not lending out his money on interest, the master reveals himself to be an unrighteous man who wants to financially benefit from breaking the law without sullying his reputation. He could have invested his talent with the money lenders himself, but in giving it to his slave to invest he plans to avoid approbation. He can say that it was his slave, not him, who broke the law. However, his reaction when he discovers that his slave has not invested his money unethically exposes his true nature. In anger, he takes the talent off the third slave and gives it to the probably corrupt first slave to trade with.
We now come to the crux of the story, when Jesus observes, “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.” In terms of the story, the third slave has nothing (he is, after all, a slave). Even the wealth he was temporarily responsible for, and which has been taken from him, was not his to begin with. Moreover, he has lost his master’s respect, and what little advantage he may have had from being considered a worthy enough slave to be given one talent to invest. Now he is considered wicked and worthless. Jesus can be seen here to be passing judgment on the injustice of a prevailing socio-economic system. Throughout Scripture God demonstrates an intense concern for the poor, as in this passage from the prophet Isaiah, “The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? Says the Lord GOD of hosts.” As in ancient times, today, the rich get richer and the poor become more impoverished, and get blamed for their poverty. The outer darkness into which the “worthless” slave is thrown is not hell, but a place of mourning, indicated by the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Jesus tended not to provide explanations for his parables, and where they are provided in Scripture the suspicion is that the interpretation came from the early church and not from Jesus himself. This ambiguity allows the parables to acquire multiple possible meanings, depending on the circumstances of their interpreters. In our conversations about the parables, Martin Stewart would always ask, “Who is the Jesus figure in this parable?” In the traditional interpretation, the Jesus figure is the slave owner. Having gone on a journey to heaven, Jesus will one day return to reward those who have grown their God-given talents and reject those who have not. God’s abundant grace tends not to be in the forefront of such an interpretation. In the alternative understanding of the Parable of the Talents that I have been suggesting, the slave owner is a hypocrite, and the Jesus figure appears to be the third slave who is assigned to a condition of mourning for refusing to compromise his adherence to the teachings of the Torah by exploiting others for financial gain. From a position of powerlessness, he confronts the powerful and suffers accordingly. Matthew tells us that Jesus told this parable only two days before Passover and his crucifixion.
The Parable of the Talents has got me thinking about our economic system that requires constant growth and consumption, leading in turn to the plundering of the earth’s resources and to the pollution of its land and waterways. If we were simply content with what we have and sought to preserve rather than increase our metaphorical talent, the planet’s ecosystems would be a lot healthier and maybe we’d be a lot happier. Maybe the third slave has something to teach us about changing our economic priorities. Maybe. Amen.
 Deuteronomy 23:19-20. See also Exodus 22:25
 Isaiah 3:14-15
 Matthew 26:1-2