“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” Matthew 25:29
What does the parable of the talents say to people reading it now?
Back in the Noughties, I heard an English academic speaking on the parable. He insisted that the parable had been misunderstood, that it should not have been read in a straightforward way and that Jesus would never have commended someone who made 100% profit.
I objected that if I were a barrow boy in London, I would probably need to sell apples for twice the price I paid for them in order to cover my expenses and have enough money over on which to live. He ignored my comment and continued to talk about the ethics of profit.
It is difficult to find exact figures, a margin of 50% might be closer to the reality for many street traders in our own times, but the point is that the hundred per cent profit made by two of the people in Jesus’ story is not so far removed from the reality of life for people now who rely on a good mark up in order to make a living.
Were the servants in the parable of the talents real business people trading on their own account, rather than being people working on behalf of their master, the ones who earned five more talents and two more talents would need to repay, with interest, the money they were given and would need to use the other half to reinvest in stock and equipment and to pay their taxes and would find that their final profit margin was considerably less than the 100% of the parable.
In real economics, Jesus does not seem to be suggesting daring or outrageous activity, he is certainly not suggesting they were profiteers, what he seems to be suggesting is that the servants in the story get on with hard work necessary to produce a reasonable return, a return that the parable says, in verse 19, was “after a long time”. Imagined in annual terms the margin may have been no more than a few per cent a year.
How do the servants respond?
The sums of money in the parable are huge, a talent was the equivalent of what a working man might earn in twenty years. The servant given the two talents might have complained that he had not been given five, but instead goes out to make the most of what he has. The servant given the one talent believes his master, and the world in which he lives to be harsh and unjust, so does nothing with what he has.
The servant given the one talent is not thrown into outer darkness because he has failed, he is rejected because he has not even tried. “You wicked and lazy slave”, says the master in verse 26. The servant is wicked because he has not used honestly what he has been given, he is lazy because he has chosen to complain and to do nothing.
The servant given the one talent is not asked for a greater response than that of the other two servants, but he chooses to make no response at all.
Of course, Jesus’ point is not about economics, it is about the Kingdom of God; it is about how God’s people use what they have been given in the service of their master. It is a hard parable, it says that God looks to us for a response, that his welcome depends on the response to him.
Perhaps people would not be inclined to admit it, but, for many, there are probably times when they feel like the servant given the one talent, they think they are poorer than they are. (The servant given the one talent was entrusted with the sort of money of which an ordinary working man could only dream, just as people here have the sort of wealth of which hundreds of millions in the world can only dream). The problem is that people tend to look not at what they have, but at what they don’t have, look not at what they could do, but at what others have done.
Jesus realizes that people know the world is a harsh place, they know it is a place that is filled with injustice, they know that wishing it were different does not change the facts of the situation, but what Jesus is saying to those who will listen is that in God’s Kingdom, how much or how little they have does not matter.
Jesus is warning us against being like the servant given the one talent, he is warning us against being people who do not respond.
For many people, the most difficult line in the parable is verse 29, “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.” It is a verse seen as justifying great economic inequality, but it’s not about economics, it’s about God’s Kingdom. Those who respond to Jesus are those welcomed into the Kingdom, they will have an abundance, for there can be no greater abundance than eternal life; those who refuse to respond have no place in the Kingdom, they have nothing and at the end, no matter how rich they are, even their wealth has gone.