What Does the Parable of the Talents Mean?

Looking at Matthew 25:14–30 with ancient eyes


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.


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.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on September 26, 2016.


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?


Posted in Bible Interpretation, New Testament.

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  • Cassandra says

    For me the parable is about obedience. In the previous paragraphs, a man named Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so much that he looked around, seen a tree and used it to give him a better vantage point. When Jesus saw this he said that he was going to stay with him that night. In his joy at that, Zacchaeus made the decision to give half his possessions away and give 4 times as much as what he owed to anyone he owed money to. He was using what he had to bless both himself and the people around him. But what was the response of the people around him? They grumbled about “he is going to the house of a sinner”. But Jesus so often told us to love people as ourselves and be a blessing to others. Which is what the man was doing. He was obedient to the word of God. Now to the parable the key is to see the one line. It doesn’t say what religion the master was – only that he was going away and left a directive as well as money needed to carry that directive out – Put this money to work. That could mean invest it – or it could mean buy something else that would yield a return on investment. I read the verse in Deuteronomy and it said don’t charge a brother interest. But taking it to to the bank to invest it there isn’t the same thing as a friend coming to you and asking for $10. You wouldn’t charge interest on that kind of loan but give freely. A business though is different. The bank uses your money to fund things they themselves want to invest in – the money is not theirs so it is only right that they pay interest on it. The same with the money the servants were given – it wasn’t theirs it was their masters and he was clear on what he wanted them to do with it even if he didn’t specify how. As for taking it away – the person wasn’t using it, he merely had it in his possession and it was not his to begin with. If my mom gives me $10.00 and I throw it in a drawer and then she asks for it back to give to one of my sisters – can I really throw a fit if my sister already has lots of money? No. Because it was my mom’s money and not mine. I can only think about how disappointed my mom would be if she had given that money to be to be a blessing to me and I treated it with contempt like that. And that is exactly what that third servant did. AND THEN blamed the master for being mean!

  • Kelvyn says

    There is no questioning his attentiveness to traditions, ancient. But, the context must be found within the scripture itself. What is Jesus actually trying to show us—teach us. Slaves; those surrendered and submissive to the Lordship of Christ are invested with weighty abilities and must be faithful in the administration of their calling? To whom much is given, much is required. Verse 26 & 29 are telling verses. The Kingdom of God is within us. However, this is very intriguing, Rohrbaugh gives food for thought.

  • Greg says

    I’m not sure then according to Rohrbaugh’s interpretation what lessons we are to take away from the parable. If “limited good” was the ancient cultural norm, then perhaps Jesus is actually challenging that. It might even be the main incentive for Jesus relating this parable. In other words, perhaps Jesus was introducing a more “capitalistic” view as more desirable than Rohrbaugh’s more “socialistic” interpretation of the kingdom of God.

  • John says

    Matthew 25:1 shows that the parables in this chapter are related to the Kingdom of the heavens….first parable dealing with the 5 wise and 5 foolish virgins; and then in verse 14 starts off with “For it (Kingdom) is just like a man…….

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