The Parable of the Talents

I started reading a new book, the Mind of the Market, and so far I’ve only read the first chapter but during that time the parable of the talents came up. I’m not religious anymore but people bring up stories from the Bible all the time and this particular one has always bothered me.

Matthew 25: 14 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. 15 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. 16 Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. 17 And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. 18 But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money. 19 After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. 20 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 beside them five talents more. 21 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. 22 He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. 23 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. 24 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: 25 And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. 26 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: 27 Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. 28 Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. 29 For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. 30 And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The standard interpretation of that parable is supposed to be something to the effect of use it or lose it. Use the skills/money that you have and you’ll get more. If you don’t you are wasting them and you’ll lose even what little you have.

That interpretation never made sense to me. It might make sense if each person in the story started out with equal ammounts but they didn’t. Rather I think there are plenty of the interpretations that make more sense.

One might be that you will fail of you don’t have enough skill, money, whatever. A perfect example is the countless stories of businesses or restaurants that fail because they don’t start with enough money. They have just enough money to start their business but not enough to survive on negative income until the business becomes profitable.

Other interpretation which made more sense to me than the standard one was the guy with only 1 unit only had one chance to succeed. The guy with 5 had five chances. Therefore it was EASY for the guy with 5 to risk and hard for the guy with 1 and not fair at all. Examples from the real world, investors know to diversify. They lose money on some investments and gain some on others but they have to have enough to diversity in the first place.

Another example, movie studios lose money on 19 out of 20 movies. The 1 blockbuster a year pays for the other 19. Of course you could say “well, just make the blockbuster then” but unfortunately nobody knows which movie will be good until after they are made. But, if you only had money to make one movie you’d be stupid to try at odds of 1 in 20. If you have money to make 20 movies then your odds go up that you’ll get your investment back significantly.

We talk about the Rich get richer, the poor get poorer. That’s rarely attributed to the poor not trying. Instead it’s usually attributed to the rich having more opportunities. Well, that’s exactly what the parable says to me. Those with more have more chances.

The only counter argument I’ve heard is the guy with 1 unit didn’t even try. That’s true except with so little to start it could be argued it was the reasonable course of action. He knew he’d lose it since he didn’t have enough to even get started so he kept it. In the real world we’d hope he’d do some other work until he had enough to take the risk but in this parable that option was never considered.

  • Kevin

    Very insightful. I agree with your interpretation. The older view of this one seems, at least to me, to rationalize hoarding.

  • Parable

    I was always taught that the story related to making the most of your abilities.  All too often those with lesser abilities are given a pass when society should be stressing that they should make the most of what they have.  Tolerance of poor work habits and anti-societal attitudes have been devastating to those who have the most to lose.< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

  • banks

    Banks have never tried running after poor people to lend the money to them. (Maybe until Grameen bank?) They are less likely to have the means to pay it back. Banks like lending it to the people who need it least. Girls probably don’t accept dates based on desperation of the suitors. Warren Buffet could have given his money to anyone, but he chose the next richest guy to give it to. Nature works this way too, when deciding which will become the alpha male (he eats first, has pick of the litter etc). It forces all the other males to become lean and efficient. On airplanes, they tell you to disregard a poor, innocent, delicate small child gasping for her last breath sitting right next to you, so you can secure your face mask _first_, and only _then_ worry about her.

  • triage

    Interesting interpretation- hard to say with so little understanding of those times. Another example I thought of was triage and its process. You wind up with those needing the most attention getting the least of all, yet it is by and large considered the best system for many things (saving lives, deciding which bugs to fix etc).

  • globulous
    Probably is more of a spiritual context …

    That link is an interesting interpretation; I’d definitely have to think about it a bit more. I think there is probably a lot of cultural context in the parable that’s lost on us, but from what I understand (thus far), it would seem to me that the parable (ultimately) has nothing to do with talents (money or a person’s abilities) and more to do with a person’s heart/attitude. Generally when one comes across Jesus saying things like “The kingdom of heaven is like…” it’s meant to try to convey idea or concept from a spiritual point of view. Matthew 13, Matthew 18:23-35, Matthew 22:1-13 also have similar “Kingdom of Heaven” type stories.

    My understanding of Matthew 25:14-30 is that it’s really talking more about those people who are (outwardly) professing to be followers of Christ, but the reality is that they’re not. The single talent seems to be more used as an object to bring to light what’s going on in that particular servant’s heart.

    At least that’s my take on things. 🙂

  • Brock
    Yes, there is definitely another context besides the financial.

    Hi Greggman.  That is an interesting post.  (First I wanted to thank you for writing the FlickrDown application and making it freely available.  It’s a real lifesaver, it’s simple, and it just works!)  I agree with you that this parable does seem quite unfair when viewed in the light of financial investments or in a “use-it-or-lose-it” condition in reference to a person’s gifts.  One might wonder that if the servant who chose to not invest was punished so harshly, then he would have surely had hell to pay if he had invested unwisely and lost!

    “Talents” in the context of this parable is strictly referring to a type of monetary denomination.  Without proper footnotes, the translation of the ancient Greek to early 17th century English causes some real confusion.  Anyway, the talents in this case are expected to be interpreted as the “seeds” of God’s Word which were sown in the hearts of His three followers.  Through prayer, meditation, having faith, studying scripture, trying our best to be soft-hearted and humble, and diligently trying to lead a Christ-like life we are supposed to nourish the seeds that were planted so that they might bear the fruits of the Holy Spirit.  The seeds or talents are actually God’s personal investments in us rather than something than we are supposed to invest to turn a profit.  The probable reason that each servant was given a different number of talents was because the Master would only want to put us in charge of as much as we are personally capable.  You may notice that each servant who bore any fruit at all was awarded in an identical manner regardless of the relative amount of fruit that was born.  The duty of each servant was a highly individualized and personal assignment which had nothing to do with the duties assigned to any of the other servants.  Each servant was held accountable personally for his own actions and answered to God directly at the end.  No one was put in a position to lay blame on any other or to envy that anybody received any more or less of an opportunity.

    I am thinking that since these talents were merely seeds of God’s Word, there was no chance for them to be lost like a financial investment.  All they needed was tending to so that they would grow.  The unfortunate servant buried God’s investment in him.  In other words, he hid his light from the world and he did not nurture that seed of truth.  The one thing that God had asked of him to do in his lifetime he refused to do out of fear and his spiritual growth stagnated.  There are many themes in the Bible that add to this.  Jesus comments that a person who does not take the time to have a daily prayer life with Himself and the Father during their time on earth but who only decides to do good works and to go through the motions in his faith will be sent away from Jesus at the end of his life.  Read Matthew 7:15-29.  It demonstrates this example.  The investment that God makes in us is for us to give priority to knowing Him through daily, sincere prayer; to have faith in His Son for our salvation; and to follow His commandments out of LOVE for Him and neither out ofthe motivations of fear of punishment nor for motivation of the reward of heaven.  This way we can avoid the pitfalls of selfish and self-centered action.  Our time on Earth is the dress rehearsal (so to speak) where we can learn to love God and ourselves and where we can learn to express that love for the benefit of all of mankind.  Then through the blessing of the Spirit we may be prepared to be received by Jesus when it it time to discard this temporary flesh.

    I hope that this helps you to understand this scripture and that you are blessed by this interpretation.  Take care!




  • terru

    the guy that posted that banks don’t lend to poor people doesn’t know the story of Bank of America. It was started by Gianini in San Francisco in the 1920s and he believed that he could lend 50 dollars to poor people and the other bankers laughed and said they would never pay it back. Well, his bank is now one of the biggest in the world.

  • jim

    the guy that posted that banks don’t lend to poor people must also have missed what the financial world has been worrying about in 8 months now, the housing bubble caused by banks lending too much too easy to people who couldn’t afford it…

    I think your interpretation makes sense Greggman.

  • kyteroo
    What the parable means to me…

    Take the talents that the Lord has given you and use it wisely. Its not so much that if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. The point is to not sit on the talents you do have. You are to glorify God with your talents. The person who is very good at making people laugh, shouldn’t waste his time sitting at a desk pushing paper when he’s not very good at pushing paper. Even though talents is money, I’d say it is a play on words as well.

    To apply it to investing: Research thoroughly before investing, don’t just leap without looking first. But, OTOH, don’t just put it away for safe keeping either. It doesn’t help the economy, it doesn’t do any good for anyone. I’d argue that person who buried the money was closer to hoarding it instead of using it to help others. The one who traded, helped the economy.

    I only post what follows in the 1st paragraph, to give my own experience and not to save others. The 2nd paragraph is my laughable attempt to get Believers who might read this blog to start getting the message that their actions are rotten and need to change.

    As far as being religious or not:

    I’d argue that God is about a relationship instead of do’s and don’ts. I’d argue that unless you have experienced God, its hard to believe in God. I’ve experienced God in a very profound way. I’ve tried therapy for Auditory dyslexia, I’ve tried self-healing – the kind that athiest believe in, in order to deny God. “You wanted it so badly that you healed yourself.” It didn’t work. Messianic Jews (Jews who believe in Jesus), prayed for my healing. For the first time in 20 years, I was able to understand my sister over the phone without using a TTY.

    Christians and their behaviors: I’d be a devout athiest if it was up to the Christians. Why? A Christian in a new car with a Christain bumper sticker refused to stop to give me a ride in the pouring rain. Atheist smokers listening to Classic Rock picked me up and refused my money. At a Christian College, my 2nd yr netted me no ride to catch the bus. (I got car the 3rd yr.) I walked an half hour to the mall. My dad is a huge hypocrite and porno addict and alcoholic. Insisted we go to church every Sunday. He also insisted that the Lord told him its was okay to drink after he had quit for a year. Rubbish. He tried quitting a year ago, and didn’t last 3 weeks. Lastly, a church and their members refused to help me attend their church (bus service was non-existant on Sundays). I didn’t live that far away, but far enough where you wouldn’t walk. God, fortunately has continued to make himself real to me.

    Good post Greg!

    ps. I am just beginning to learn Japanese.

  • What the parable means to me

    Nice interpretation, for me what the parable means is that in this world nothing is fair, If you whant to succeed in life you make up for whatever resources you have. Just like the saying it better you die trying than not trying at all.




    Deb from Trusler Legal

  • Chrisvactioninginjapanagain
    You missed a couple of important points.

    I don’t think I ever heard that parable(?) but it makes sense to me.

    The main point is that they were all given talent “to every man according to his several ability”. So the guy with 5 talents was able to use all 5 talents well.

    The guy with one talent was able to use the one talent well. Important is that the talent was chosen “by God” for his abilities. Basically think of going to school and doing well in Math but nothing else, so you were given an opportunity to become and accountant or banker or something where math is the main asset you need and that you’d inspire and help others with your ability. But instead you say no thanks I too chicken to try, I’ll just be homeless or go leach off some old lady.

    If you were his teacher, wouldn’t you be pissed and say “WHAT THE F*CK ARE YOU DOING?? You were a math genius!!! You have one sure way to go that would’ve helped so many others and you turned it down???”

    Your interpretations don’t work because you’re thinking of talent as one talent with multiple quantities of the same talent – in your example “5 times more chances” not really. They each have unlimited chances, just some have more diversified talents and others have more specific talents. The chance simply depends on if they’re will to take the risk or not.

    Movie studios’ talent is in there ability to make a lot of movies that will return a profit overall, that just one talent. Then do well with the one talent.

    I have a lot of talents, and I do OK with them, not GREAT but OK. I’m constantly learning new talents from my initial talents. I’m fairly satisfied. Movie studios are certainly making more money than me, but it doesn’t matter, we’re both trying.

    The main point of the parable is you need to try. The only true failure in life is never having tried at all.

  • Chrisvactioninginjapanagain
    to kyteroo

    Sadly I know exactly the types of Non-Christians you’re talking about. They aren’t Christian. Don’t ever believe they are, please. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you believed they were.

    There are so many Bible Thumpers out there that don’t understand word ONE of the bible or Christ’s message. Even if you don’t believe in God, or the Christ is part of God, Christ’s words were still amazing, “love thy neighbor”. Treat others as you would like to be treated. All the Fake Christians that spread hate and fear forget a very important line of Christ- “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” Did those people leave a poor girl in the rain while they were rushing to their anti-muslim rally? or even the “good” people who maybe left a girl in the rain when they were on their way to church. Being on time to church every week is not what Christ was preaching. And to the Atheist smokers, they were much closer to Christ for doing what they did. I’m glad you were able to meet them.

    Just beware of people who try so hard to convince you (themselves really) that they are what they say they are.

    I can’t speak for other parishes, but I know if you came to our Catholic church, you’d never be turned away, you’d be helped with whatever your troubles were, NO STRINGS attached, just love as Christ showed us, and you’re welcome to be on your way.

    (Just a plug for the Catholic church, we dump so much money into the church for charitable reasons, the Catholic church is the largest charitable organization in the world. For those who are against “organized religion”, they need to get informed.)

    Anyway, let’s all be cool with each other and try to make things better.

  • Talent = Money

    The problem with that interpretation is that if you read almost any book on the topic, talent, in that passage is a unit of money. So, it’s not about ability. In fact most Bibles even have that pointed out in their notes.

    It should read, “Unto one he gave $5k, to another $2k and to another $1k” or something along those lines. The fact that the talent was a measure of money then confuses the meaning in English. You can read almost any book on business that one of the top reasons for failing is insufficient funds. You need a certain amount of money just to stay afloat long enough to start seeing revenues in your company.

  • John

    Important to remember-Parables usually had one central meaning-In the larger context, Jesus was describing events surrounding his second coming-the basic meaning of the parable seems to be “don’t do nothing” servant number 3 did nothing-could have deposited money at interest-didn’t even do that-DON’T DO NOTHING WHILE THE MASTER IS AWAY.

  • John

    Well, that which is spiritually written is spiritually discerned.

    The Holy Spirit actually told me the meaning of this parable recently and it is as follows:

    The talents represent gifts from God, which are received by faith in Jesus Christ, as seen by John 14:12-15 and I John 3:22-23 and many other places in the Bible.

    Now, according to I Cor 12, God gives each member of the body of Christ gifts according to his plan; some start with more and some start with less. The gifts he speaks of are not only money, but also things like message of wisdom, message of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, miraculous powers, discernment of spirits, etc.

    Now, those that use their gifts God will entrust with more gifts, and those that ask for more faith will ask for more gifts. Therefore, people get more “talents” by using what they already have and by asking for more by faith.

    To explain the end, when the one servant’s talent is taken from him, let me tell you what God spoke to me. I prayed for a friend of mine once, and God told me to give him 3 gifts: message of knowledge, gift of healing, and discernment of spirits. Then, later that same night, someone who had not been there when I prayed came up and told my friend: I don’t know what this means, but God told me he gave you message of knowledge, gift of healing, and discernment of spirits. Now, the next week, my friend denied that any of this had happened, and basically has buried the gifts God gave him. When I talked to God about it, he reminded me of this parable and said to me: ask me for your friend’s gifts so you can use them for the Kingdom.

    So to him who has much, more will be given, because they get much by faith and by using what they have. To him who has little, what he has will be taken from him because he has lost his faith and does not use what God has given him.

  • cckrueger

    Let me try. First, note that single talent was worth 6,000 denarii. A denarii was the equivalent of a single day’s wage. That means one talent was worth more than 16 years worth of salary! This was a tremendous gift! It was indeed an opportunity beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The lowest servant got that 16 years worth. In fact it says “each one received according to his ability.”

    Does anyone waste their investment, being it money, time, or other resources, on those LEAST able to make use of it?

    Why did the Master disperse these funds? Was it for safe keeping? Or, management? If the answer was safe keeping, then the first 2 took a tremendous risk that just happened to pay off, and the final servant took the safe route. If the dispersement was for management, imagine the Master’s dissapointment when he found out the servant had done nothing at all with what was given to him. He showed no appreciation of the chance that was given to him.

    Thinking spiritually, what if God gave you a tremendous gift of a second chance with your life? Your sins are forgiven and you are restored to a state of righteousness. Your guilt is removed and you stand before God guiltless. Do you go out and do anything with it? Do you show appreciation? Or, do you revel in your new self-righteousness as if you had created it on your own and deserve it rather than recognize that all along it was a tremendous gift.

    Try that for an interpretation. It certainly makes sense.

  • Luke66680

    You should have invested with Bernie Madoff.