What Does the Parable of the Talents Mean?

Looking at Matthew 25:14–30 with ancient eyes

parable-of-talents

What does the Parable of the Talents mean? This woodcut from Historiae Celebriores Veteris Testamenti Iconibus Representatae—dated to 1712—depicts the Talents’ parable (Matthew 25:14–30). Two men bring the money that was entrusted to them back to their master, while a third man searches for his money outside.

What does the Parable of the Talents mean?

Jesus tells the Parable of the Talents (or the Talents’ parable) to his disciples. It appears in Matthew 25:14–30, and another version of the parable can be found in Luke 19:11–27. The story in Matthew 25:14–30 unfolds as such: A man goes away on a trip. Before he leaves, he entrusts money to his slaves. To one he gives five talents, to the second he gives two talents, and to the third he gives a single talent. The first two slaves double their money; they give the original investment and their profit to their master when he returns. The third slave, however, buries his talent out in a field instead of trying to make a profit; he returns only this when his master comes back. The master is pleased with the first two slaves, but he is dissatisfied with the third’s actions. He reprimands this slave and casts him out into the darkness.

Richard L. Rohrbaugh examines the Parable of the Talents’ meaning in his Biblical Views column “Reading the Bible Through Ancient Eyes” in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Although the story itself is fairly straightforward, Rohrbaugh argues that the Parable of the Talents’ meaning is less clear. An ancient audience would have interpreted it differently than a modern one.

The Talents’ parable has typically been interpreted by the Western church as being about proper investment: Jesus’ disciples are urged to use their abilities and gifts to serve God—without reservation and without fear of taking risks. Rohrbaugh, however, argues that the Talents’ parable is all about exploitation. Whereas a modern, Western audience would applaud the first two slaves for trading and investing well, an ancient audience would have approved of the third slave’s behavior and condemned that of the first two slaves because they profited at the expense of others. Rohrbaugh explains:

[G]iven the “limited good” outlook of ancient Mediterranean cultures, seeking “more” was considered morally wrong. Because the pie was “limited” and already all distributed, anyone getting “more” meant someone else got less. Thus honorable people did not try to get more, and those who did were automatically considered thieves: To have gained, to have accumulated more than one started with, is to have taken the share of someone else.

This interpretation of the Parable of the Talents’ meaning casts the actions of the first two slaves as shameful and that of the third slave as honorable.
 


 
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The scenario played out in the Talents’ parable (Matthew 25:14–30)—of a master leaving his property in control of his slaves—was not uncommon. In the ancient world, greedy people who did not want to get accused of profiting at someone else’s expense, which was considered shameful, would delegate their business to slaves, who were held to a different standard. Rohrbaugh explains the ancients’ reasoning: “Shameful, even greedy, behavior could be condoned in slaves because slaves had no honor nor any expectation of it.”

Accordingly, in the Talents’ parable, the master leaves his money with his slaves in the hope that they will exploit the system and increase his riches. The first two slaves do just this, but the third “honorably refrains from taking anything that belongs to the share of another.”

This slave also does not invest his money at the bank, through which he would have earned interest. The master further reprimands the slave for not doing this, but Rohrbaugh points out: “[S]eeking interest from another Israelite was forbidden by the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:19–20), and, elsewhere in Luke, Jesus says that we should lend ‘expecting nothing in return’ (Luke 6:35).”

Should then the actions of the third slave be condemned or lauded? According to Rohrbaugh, reading Matthew 25:14–30 with ancient eyes suggests that the third slave is the only one who behaved honorably in the Talents’ parable.

Learn more about the Parable of the Talents’ meaning by reading Richard L. Rohrbaugh’s full Biblical Views column “Reading the Bible Through Ancient Eyes” in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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BAS Library Members: Read the full Biblical Views column “Reading the Bible Through Ancient Eyes” by Richard L. Rohrbaugh in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible

The Parables of Jesus

What Was Life Like for Roman Slaves?
 


 

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  1. GREGORY says

    This is an interesting viewpoint! I love it.
    This parable was spoken before the beginning of the New Covenant. There was no universal body of Christ, no church , no Indwelling of the Holy Spirit and no spiritual gifts as yet. Are today’s “unprofitable ” servants cast into outer darkness as was him of this parable?

  2. Jerry says

    The Parable of the Talents is not always understood properly by interpreters. The third servant hid the talent because he did not want to put it into a bank and let them know he had it. The third servant hid the talent because he thought it was “his” talent and he did not want the lord to return. He was hoping the lord would not return. The master goes along with the accusation. He is accused of being a thief. The third servant thought of this because this is the way he thought about people. However, if the master were a thief, then logically the third servant should have invested the talent in a bank (and registered it with the authorities). There was real evil in the heart of the third servant. That is why the lord had him to be cast into a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.
    Jerry Knoblet

  3. Lee says

    Mr. Rohrbaugh seems not to have even read the text. Plainly, from vvs. 19–30 the traditional interpretation is upheld and Mr. Rohrbaugh’s refuted. The first two are described by Jesus as “good and faithful” (v.21,23) while the last as “wicked and slothful” (v.26). What on earth is the author thinking??

  4. Allan says

    Talk about new speak, Rohrbaugh must have had a serious eye problem if that’s what he got from the talents. Jesus always would tell a servant, “enter into your Lords rest good and faithful servant.” Read the talents, the first 2 slaves are issued the same intended “enter in…” The multiplication of talents and goods is a hallmark of all the biblical giants from Abraham on down. Remember Job got back double towards the end.

  5. John says

    Rohrbaugh’s “interpretation” of the Parable of the Talents is absolutely ludicrous. First of all, it’s not his interpretation. This “exploitation” interpretation was first presented by in America Magazine by Sr. Barbara Reid, a Professor of Theology at the Chicago Theological Union. The major sin that Sr. Reid made in her original article, is repeated by Rohrbaugh. They both completely ignore the context of the chapter in which we find the Parable of the Talents. Matthew 25 begins with a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven and the return of Christ and the reward of good and faithful servants. Matthew 25 ends with a description of the Kingdom of Heaven and the return of Christ and the reward of good and faithful servants. So, what would we expect the middle of Matthew 25 to be about? Well, Rohrbaugh, and Sr. Reid, want us to believe that sandwiched in between the parable about Christ’s return and the reward of His faithful disciples and an actual description of Christ’s return and the reward of His faithful disciples, is a parable that has absolutely nothing to do with the Kingdom of Heaven, and that the master who goes away and then returns is not representative of Christ, but rather it is a parable about a wicked master and about how an individual can undermine an unjust economic system! Sorry, Richard Rohrbaugh – and Biblical Archaeology Review – but that dog don’t hunt. There are other problems with this flawed interpretation as well. You can find a more thorough refutation of this interpretation here: https://www.biblechristiansociety.com/newsletter/239-apologetics-for-the-masses-issue-187

  6. Jack says

    The talents are not “abilities” as sometimes supposed. The talents were given to the slaves “according to their abilities.” The talents were responsibilities. Each received responsibilities according to his abilities to handle those responsibilities. The 5 talent man and the 2 talent man discharged their responsibilities while the 1 talent man was afraid. Fear of discharging one’s responsibilities is destructive. Rohrbaugh missed the single important point of the parable.

  7. KARLINE says

    Thanks heavens for those who refuted this man’s rediculous interpretation of the parable of the talents…its obvious this man does not have spiritual eyes to see or ears to hear what the Word is saying here…with no understanding at all in his fat heart… and it is his own mind’s twisted doctrine that he brings here that would lead many good people astray…the good and faithful servants multiplied the talents/the sharing of the revealed word of the Master here who is symbolic of God…they did not keep it to themselves as the wicked servant did by not sharing all that his Master/God had revealed to him…by burying/concealing it deep within himself..the earth….This is symbolic of our kingdom mandate…we too are to share the revealtion of God’s revealed words to others and not bury it deep in our earth within..

  8. Andrew says

    I am astonished that a scholar of note would not simply read Matthew 25:25-30 and see that Messiah literally condemned that first servant to hell! He also penalized the first servant for not putting it in the bank to earn interest and gave that talent to the servant who yielded ten as a reward. The Bible interprets itself just fine, thank you very much.

    If this person disagrees, then my suggestion would be to at least mention these passages even in refutation, to say they were added from later Mss. or something similar. But to ignore them is unacceptable in exegetical processes. Also, Messiah spoke Aramaic and the word for “talents” in Aramaic (and in the Peshitta, the received Aramaic NT) also means “cities”, which puts a whole other complexion on the matter. Please be more thorough next time.

    Respectfully yours,

    Andrew Gabriel Roth
    Translator, Aramaic English New Testament

  9. Dean says

    Rohrbaugh gives us a great example of how ideology blinds oneself to the obvious meaning of Scripture. His interpretation (and apparently Barbara Reid’s) are clearly socialist/marxist in nature. And like all ideas of man, need to twist Scripture in an attempt to legitimize their ideology. As Francis Schaeffer said, communism is a Christian heresy.

  10. Carolyn says

    I suspect the author “interpreted” this passage as he would LIKE to see it – not as it is actually stated in scripture. That is called “self-deception”. The Bible says there will much “deceiving and being deceived” going on in the “last days”. I do believe we are there!

  11. Dean says

    Well put, Carolyn

  12. Mayte says

    When a Marxist/Communist reads the Bible, he cares not about the actual spiritual meaning, only about his backward ideology, already proven to be a failure. There is no such thing as a limited pie. God does not give a limited pie. There is only growth. Like the a lit candle, it can only grow by sharing its flame, without being divided or limited.

  13. Mayte says

    Furthermore, JESUS HIMSELF makes it clear that he disapproves of the 3rd slave hiding the talent he is given, while praising the other 2 who invested theirs. He made it more impactful by giving the sad, miserable, insecure slave have only one talent, while the others had more. So by having only one, insecurity is increased about not doing the proper thing. That is shameful. Use and spread your “talents.” Furthermore, do not succumb to the Marxist Communist ideology of envious losers.

  14. Roger says

    A lot of good comments. I would add that Israelis always had a different attitude toward business from that of the rest of the Middle East. Israelis held business in high esteem. All other cultures considered business to be comparable to prostitution. Jesus encourages his servants to invest, meaning going into business. The last servant was just lazy and had the wrong attitude toward his master. Besides Jesus is talking about investing to lay up treasures in heaven.

  15. Jolynn says

    Mr. Rohrbaugh’s attempt to convince Bible readers that the ancient world supported Marxism is almost humorous. Jesus referred to the third slave as “wicked and slothful” because he did no work for the Master.

  16. William says

    Dean is absolutely correct that this interpretation is a Marxist interpretation. As far as being a sign of the “last days”. It’s very possible but there has been plenty of “deceiving and being deceived” ever since Adam and Eve hid from the Lord to cover up their nakedness.
    From a purely academic perspective this is just bad scholarship. He takes the parable completely out of context as other commentators noticed.

  17. Madhu says

    Rohrbaugh’s “interpretation” of the Parable of the Talents is out of context.When Jesus approved the action of first two slaves and disapproved the action of the third slave by saying ” you wicked,lazy servant” who is more authentic Jesus or Rohrbaugh. Don’t interpret only on the merit of the culture or the circumstances but look at the parable through the eyes of the Master teacher and the context of the whole story as told by Jesus Christ.

    Madhu Christian
    Ahmedabad-India

  18. Sikeli says

    We all just have to remember that it’s still a parable no matter how we interpret it. No one is right and no one is wrong with the Bible, as long as it does make sense to life, ’cause there are still questions out there to be answered.

  19. Wayne says

    The viewpoint expressed here does not reflect the clearly stated point of the scripture passage. Why does BiblicalArchaeology.org even entertain articles like this?

  20. vanessa says

    I thought it was about growing the kingdom of God. The first two increased the souls of man for the Lord and the third was given gifts which he did not use to further the kingdom of God.

  21. James says

    While I will join in rejecting Rohrbaugh’s interpretation, many of the refutations are no better. First, he has a much more sensitive understanding of the ancient worldview than he is credited by the majority. It is anachronistic to regard it as Marxist, since he nowhere argues that wealth should be distributed evenly and, as far as I’m aware, Marxism doesn’t assume limited resources. The ancients believed that one’s status in birth, society, ethnos, etc. entitled one to an appropriate amount of resources and that it was a threat to society to exceed that amount–but the parable does not suggest the earnings were inappropriate or elevated the master’s wealth beyond his station. So that argument is speculative. The master and his competitors could have been expected to work to increase their public honour and personal holdings so as to be more active patrons. There is a whole matrix of ideas assumed by the parable but not stated, and Rohrbaugh has a much better grasp of this social ordering. What he fails to do, though, as noted, is read it in its literary context. But even here, some go too far by drawing an equation between the master, stated to acquire material wealth illicitly, and Jesus. It is a parable. It is an analogy expressed in terms of common everyday life. The kingdom is “like” its message but not the same thing as. The way the kingdom spreads is not illustrative of how we are to behave. It says in essence that, in a competitive society in which masters vie for honour, servants are to fight and compete for their master’s best interests. Rohrbaugh is correct that in the ancient context the profits would have come at others’ loss. Since this is not in focus, we not need pull it in to displace the message that actually is stated, nor draw absurd prophecies about Jesus’ followers managing cities in the new age. It is about the master, not a treatise on evangelism.

  22. Gideon says

    for crying out loud d author said and I quote “viewing the parable of the talent in ancient perspective”so where is the deceit here?

  23. J.A. says

    Thank you, Dr. Rohrbaugh, for an interesting piece. I think one of the most important points you raised in your article is the obvious fact that the master himself is a thief — and not only a thief, but probably, in our modern parlance, a psychopath who has no empathy for others. I’m not sure who Jesus had in mind as a model for the master, but it certainly wasn’t God!

    As always with Jesus’ parables, there are several layers of interpretation, and the literal one is never the one he would have had in mind.

    In addition to the layer about exploitation, I see in this parable yet another of Jesus’ many rebukes of hypocrisy; yet another of Jesus’ realistic commentaries on how society will treat you if you dare to be honest and speak the truth about tyrants (a theme that always reminds me of Shakespeare’s King Lear); and yet another of Jesus’ teachings on the importance of taking responsibility for your own choices and not using the excuse we’ve heard so many times in history: “But my Master TOLD me I HAD to steal from others, and what choice do I, an ignoble slave, have when I’m just following orders?”

    The third slave in this parable is the only one with the courage to refuse to participate in an act of theft.

    Michael Coogan has referred to the Book of Job as anti-Wisdom Wisdom, and I see the same pattern of anti-Wisdom Wisdom in Jesus’ parables. ANE Wisdom decreed that those who do what the master says will be suitably rewarded. Both Job and Jesus said something very different about our relationship with God.

  24. Herbert says

    I don’t see how anyone could interpret that the third servant was good and the other two bad.It defies all understanding and reason

  25. DavidC says

    So, J.A. – Jesus was Wrong – right?

  26. Pragin says

    Actually Richard L. Rohrbaugh is not reading the Bible with ancient eyes but with blind spiritual eyes. May be the western church interpretation is wrong , your interpretation is worse.
    JESUS spoke with parables, neither to entertain you nor to make you sleep.
    Consider my interpretation :
    The slaves are the ministers of the church. The talents given to them are the believers. The work the first two did was evangelism or spreading of Gospel, so that increasing the number of believers. since during second coming, the church will be tested with fire. The souls that withstand(Gold) will alone be accepted.
    Here, truly the third minister was lazy. Anyway he kept the souls given to him from falling, but failed to increase the Gold(souls). God is caring about the souls, nothing else.

    Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.(Daniel 12:3)

  27. J Fred says

    In Luke this parable follows the Zachaeus story. He, like the 3rd steward, decided not to play along w the wicked king’s unjust rule. He no doubt paid a steep price for that. Jesus also refused to conform to the ruler of the world and look at what that cost him.

  28. Donald says

    Wow, what a very naive interpretation. This is a parable, not to be interpreted literally as Rohrbaugh has. I am surprised this website is even offering it. The parable is about the talents that God has given the believers. Talents back then was a currency denomination. However, over time and justly so it has become to describe a person’s skills. In this case, it is the gifts that God has given each believer. Jesus was referencing the gifts that the believers were given to go out into the world and spread the gospel. It is our duty as bondservants of Jesus to do this. It is the Great Commission. The slave who did nothing with his talent received no reward when his master, Jesus returned.

  29. ron says

    Isaiah 5:20 “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! 22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, 23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!”

    Do you think Jesus knew this verse from Isaiah? The Master knows what he is talking about. He said he only says what he hears the Father saying.

  30. William says

    Anyone that is happy to be cast into outer darkness, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, then the interpretation in the article above is for you.

  31. Tracy says

    Notice the story states if with “kingdom of heaven” in italics meaning it is not in the original manuscript. Could be he’s talking about an evil master and his minions – of which the third did not wish to take usury – as it is strictly forbidden to charge interest from a fellow hebrew.

  32. DR says

    If one could miss an interpretation by such length as this author, (although his is not an original thought) imagine what he would do with Jesus stating to ‘drink his blood and eat his flesh’.

  33. aaron says

    I think there is another way of viewing this that doesn’t create a combative environment. What I see is an article about how the audience of the day may have received this parable. The capitalist lense may not have been the filter through which the ancient audience viewed this parable. It is obvious that the Master rebuked the servant, the question that I think is worth asking is would the audience have agreed with the Master’s conclusion? I don’t necessarily see a Marxist plot to subvert the parable in this article. The parable isn’t about money. It’s about the furtherance of God’s kingdom. We see this now in the context of the entire scope of scripture. Would the audience of the day have interpreted it this way?

    If the ancient audience would have looked at this in the way the article describes, does this add information for us to consider. For instance if it was shameful for the master to manipulate the system for his own gain, what does that say about the system and who contolls it. The ancient mind may have seen economics as a zero sum game. Who is the god of this world? When the parable was delivered, Satan had yet to be defeated in our timine. Could the nature of the system been a consideration?

    I found this interesting. It definitely didn’t threaten my understanding of the main themes of the parable. It did make me question how the initial audience would havery received it, and assuming Jesus knew this, what we might learn from some of the subtleties of the narrative.

    We are often too quick to start an argument. I didn’t see this as the intention of the author. This conversation doesn’t threaten my understanding of Jesus. It does make me consider the parable more closely with new information.


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