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The Parable of the Talents

23 Pentecost

Interpretations of today’s gospel generally take two directions. First is the economic interpretation — associated with what Max Weber called the Protestant ethic — in which this parable would justify accumulating material wealth as a sign of God’s favor. That’s good news for the rich, not such good news for the poor.

Second is the moralizing interpretation. Even though the Greek word for talent means a huge sum of money, and has nothing to do with the ability to paint or sing, innumerable sermons on this parable exhort us to use our talents in God’s service. That is good advice but not really the parable’s message.

First reading and psalm: Jdg. 4:1-7Ps. 123
Alternate: Zeph. 1:7, 12-18Ps. 90:1-8,
(9-11), 12
1 Thess. 5:1-11Matt. 25:14-30

We need to grasp how shocking and scandalous this parable would have been in Jesus’ time. We are apt to admire the good business sense of the first two servants who invest their money and double their return. And we are apt to scorn the servant who buries his money in the ground just as we scorn people today who stuff their life savings away in mattresses. After all, money loses value with inflation and we must invest it wisely to stay even.

People in the ancient world thought differently. The rabbis taught that when someone entrusted you with a large sum of money, burying it in the ground for safekeeping was the most morally responsible thing you could do. The underlying premise was that the supply of this world’s goods is finite and already distributed. If you were born rich, fine, but if not then the only way you could get rich was by making someone else poor. People who became wealthy through their business dealings were universally suspected of fraud, deceit, or theft. Financial success was not the badge of respectability that it is today: quite the opposite.

Jesus’ original audience probably regarded the first two servants as shady and dishonest characters — just like their master who reaps where he has not sown and gathers where he has not winnowed. And the great scandal of the parable is that these disreputable servants end up being rewarded, while the honest servant ends up being punished.

What does Jesus mean by telling such a transgressive story? Perhaps he is challenging us to imagine a different kind of world, governed by different economic laws, with a different kind of wealth, denominated in a different kind of currency. In a world of finitude and scarcity, hoarding treasure makes perfect sense in certain circumstances. But maybe the talents in the parable represent not commodities to be invested or hoarded but spiritual gifts to be shared.

Our Lord has entrusted into the care of his Church what is sometimes known as “the deposit of faith” — the gospel, sacraments, creeds, liturgy, prayers, and all gifts of grace. He intends us to share these spiritual treasures liberally. Our great temptation is to fear that unless we build a fence around them to protect them they will become corrupted by the world and we will lose them. By keeping them to ourselves, we end up effectively burying them in the ground. Paradoxically, only by giving them away do we keep them. And when we share them — freely, generously, and abundantly — we find that they keep on multiplying until our Master returns and bids us enter into his joy.

Look It Up
Compare the words of the master in the parable with the Old Testament prohibitions on charging interest (Exod. 22:25, Lev. 25:36-37, and Deut. 23:19-20).

Think About It
What gifts have we that are not diminished but rather multiplied by being shared with others?

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