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.

Visiting Tokyo
IP rights discussion