The Parable of the Talents

For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.

And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one: to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.

Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.

And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.

But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.

After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.

And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained besides them five talents more.

His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents besides them.

His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:

And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.

His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:

Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.

Mathew 25, 14-27

The same story is told, with only trifling differences, in Luke 19, 12-27.

Most Christian churches, for reasons that had little to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ and much to do with the economic interest of their leaders, have been hostile to trade, have disapproved of profit and have particularly disapproved of the lending of money at interest. Yet here we have, in the very words of the Master, what appears to be a glowing affirmation of trading for profit as an admirable activity, success in which earns both praise and material reward, while lending money at interest is shown as an acceptable second best option for those who are unable to trade. What are we to make of this?

Those who have been embarrassed by this passage (and they have been many), have hastened to point out that it is a parable. It is a metaphor, to convey a spiritual message not a lecture on economics. This is true. The passage opens with the words “The kingdom of heaven is as…”. It is about the kingdom of heaven, and its meaning lies beyond what appears on the surface of the story. I do not deny this for a moment, nor do I have any problem with the traditional orthodox interpretation of the meaning, which is that the parable teaches us that each of us must make the utmost use of whatever capacities or abilities he or she possesses. It is from this interpretation that the common meaning of the word ‘talent’ as in ‘he has a talent for music’ is derived.

Nevertheless, while fully agreeing that the parable is not a lecture on economics, I contend that it does indeed tell us something, in fact a great deal, about its narrator’s attitude towards some questions of economics.

What are Parables?

A parable is a kind of metaphor, as we have already noticed; it compares one thing with another, normally something which is well known and easy to understand with something else which is more difficult. The simplest form of this type of use of language is the simile either expressed as when we say ‘he runs like a hare’, ‘he fought like a lion’, ‘he eats like a pig’, or implied, as when we simply call someone a lion or a pig. Now, the whole point of these comparisons is that they refer to the actual known (or assumed) characteristics of real things, and what is more, they invoke a whole set of attitudes and emotions that are associated with those things. Lions are not merely assumed to be strong and brave, they are admirable. Pigs are assumed to be dirty and greedy, and they are despicable. If we do not believe these thing – whether they are true or not – the simile is pointless, and so we today have difficulty with traditional comparisons with dogs (‘treat him like a dog’, ‘a dog’s life’) because they imply an attitude to dogs which we do not share.

The crucial point is that most simple similes and far more elaborate and extended metaphors, depend on much more than a single simple correspondence of one characteristic, like ‘quick as lightning’. Much more usually, as in the lion and pig examples, they involve a broad correspondence in emotional attitude, in values between the two things that are compared. While this is not quite always true – there are examples like ‘quick as lightning’ – what is always true without exception is that there is never actual dissonance between the emotional aura of the two things compared. It is unthinkable that anybody should ever use something which he regards as despicable as a symbol for something which he regards as noble, nor something which he regards as evil as a symbol for something which he regards as good.

We can see this point illustrated again and again in the parables of the New Testament. The parable of the sower would be incomprehensible if we did not automatically regard sowing as an activity of vital importance. The parable of the Good Shepherd (and indeed all the references to shepherds) would be meaningless if we did not regard sheep as both attractive and useful animals and shepherds as rather admirable people. One only has to contemplate the possibility of the Good Goatherd or the Good Swineherd to see the point. In our culture the Good Dog-owner would do very well but in the culture of the New Testament it would not have done. We are told not to throw pearls before swine, not before sheep. The prodigal son is reduced to caring for swine, not to caring for sheep, and so on for as long as you like.

Trading for Profit is Honourable and Desirable

What is the application of this to the parable of the talents? The basis of the story is the simple assumption, as obvious as that sowing is important and that sheep are useful and attractive, that trading for profit is an honourable and desirable activity, success in which deserves both praise and material reward, and that it is a fit symbol for the pursuit of spiritual growth, or however else exactly we interpret the real meaning of the parable. That Jesus thought otherwise (or indeed expected his hearers to think otherwise) is as impossible as that he thought that sheep were unclean or that shepherds were scoundrels.

The remark about lending money at interest (which occurs also in St Luke’s version), although it comes over as rather ‘throw away’, is still an essential part of the story. The ‘unprofitable servant’ was not condemned for not having made the best possible use of his talents. A second best would have been accepted, though obviously the reward would have been less. The assumption that lending money at interest is a proper thing and in some circumstances a positive duty, is perfectly plain and clear.

If these assumptions were in any way perverse we would have reason to be puzzled by them, but, on the contrary, they reflect a perfect understanding of the economic process. The active entrepreneurial use of wealth in collaboration with others (for that is what ‘trading’ implies) creates both wealth for those who do it (hence the reward to the ‘good and faithful servants’) but also creates widespread benefits for other people, contributing to the general welfare (hence the ‘joy of the Lord’). Those who cannot undertake entrepreneurship can sill make their contribution by placing their assets at the disposal of those who can, and the institution of lending at interest exists precisely to make this possible.

Is not the parable saying that just as the active and conscientious use of material assets in collaboration (trade) creates wealth both for those who do it and for others, so the active development of spiritual gifts in interaction with others enriches those who do it and enriches others as well. Furthermore, just as those who leave material assets idle do not merely remain as they are but are actually impoverished, so those who neglect their abilities actually deteriorate. Finally, the fact that what would have been the best option is closed to one is not an excuse for doing nothing. There are always second-best alternatives available.

What About the Poor?

How are we to reconcile this unequivocal approval of trading for profit with the equally unequivocal call to certain people to give all to the poor and follow me? We can do so very easily, just as we can reconcile the call to certain people to celibacy with the affirmation of marriage (both are found among other places, in Matt. 19). Any doctrine which is seriously meant to be followed as a rule of life must take cognisance of the fact that different people have to fulfil different roles. For everybody to ‘give everything to the poor’ and become wandering preachers would be the shortest way to ensure that everybody, very much including the poor, starved to death; but some people, like the twelve apostles but not only they, did leave everything and follow Jesus, and He certainly considered that what they did was of the uttermost value.

In recognising that different people have to fulfil different roles we have to recognise too that certain roles are incompatible with each other. Those who take on the role of wandering preachers cannot also marry or be property owners, not only because marriage and property will interfere with their preaching but perhaps more importantly because the life of a wandering preacher makes them unable to fulfil the obligations of a husband or wife or a property owner.

The image of the careful, conscientious property owner is presented with obvious approval in many places in the New Testament for example:

There was a certain householder who planted a vineyard and hedged it round about and digged a wine-press in it, and built a tower. (Matt. 21-23)

Every scribe who is instructed into the Kingdom of heaven is like a certain man who is a householder who bringeth forth from his treasure things old and new which he has carefully preserved, or created, as the scribe preserves old knowledge and creates new. (Matt. 13-57)

In contrast the figure of the rich men who are held up to condemnation in the parables are all people who squander their assets and use them entirely selfishly. The prodigal son ‘wasted his substance in riotous living’ (Luke 15-13). He is proposing to go one worse than to bury his talent; he is proposing to consume it. The rich man in the story of Lazarus is condemned for his selfishness. He could easily have succoured Lazarus but he did not do so.

Jesus Distinguished Between Honest and Dishonest Trading

There is one last problem. How do we reconcile the approval of trading for profit with the expulsion of the traders from the temple? This, too, is not difficult. Jesus Christ explained his actions in the matter in the following words: “Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer but you have made it a den of thieves.” There are two complaints against the traders here. One is that the temple is not the proper place for trading; the other that the traders are dishonest.

It seems likely that the two points were linked; that the traders, under some sort of franchise from the temple, had a monopoly on the supply of sacrificial animals which would be accepted in the temple, and of the supply of the particular coinage that was acceptable for offering to the temple. If this was so, it is not surprising that the traders exploited the pilgrims, and it is very probable that the temple itself shared in the proceeds. If this was so, then so far from being an attack on trading the expulsion was a blow for free trade, but whether it was or not, it is perfectly clear that to condemn dishonest trading is not to condemn trading as such.

So, we see that the countenancing of honest, conscientious and constructive trading which the early Protestants (and some Catholic theologians too, at about the same time) found in the New Testament is indeed there.

Disclaimer: This essay was extracted from O’Dowd’s 1999 occasional paper, “Liberal Reflections”, for the Free Market Foundation. The essay’s name was changed from the original “Trading for Profit” and the headings were inserted by Rational Standard editors.

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Michael Conway O'Dowd (1930-2006) was Chairman of the Free Market Foundation from 1978 to 2005, and of the Anglo-American and De Beers Group Chairman's Fund from 1974 to 1997. In the latter capacity, O'Dowd was a pioneer of corporate social investment in South Africa, contributing immensely to the establishment of rural schools and universities of technology for black South Africans in the previous era. A classical liberal philosopher, O'Dowd is known for his 1966 prediction that economic growth and industrialisation would lead to the demise of Apartheid.
  • Brendon Micheletti

    Interesting read for anyone of faith (or not) that grapples with issues around profit, the poor and religious doctrine. From my experience, this matter is rarely addressed, if ever by religous organisations. For we are conditioned to be wary of those that make a profit.