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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  • Dave says

    So Rohrbaugh is claiming that Jesus Christ got it wrong.

    Yup, Jesus Christ, Logos, differentiator of chaos and order, the creator of order out of chaos, ie the the universal reversor of Entropy, and thus the creator of space and time, got it wrong.

  • Jason says

    I offer my own challenges to Rohrbaugh’s interpretation, although I freely admit I am but a layman and am not as well schooled as most others.

    1. Rohrbaugh’s interpretation relies heavily on the premise that all forms of wealth accumulation would have been considered “bad” by Jesus’ audience. It is difficult to accept there was no room for appropriate wealth accumulation in ancient Judean society. The patriarchs were extremely wealthy, powerful men, in particular Abraham being the most venerated of all. Jesus warns of the dangers of having wealth, but says nothing about wealth accumulation in general being wrong.

    2. Rohrbaugh’s premise is that there was only one form of wealth accumulation (appropriating the property of others through unlawful or excessive usury or other unscrupulous means), and that this was the means by which the master conducted his own business. If there were more scrupulous methods for building wealth (trade, for instance?) the premise is faulty.

    3. Admittedly the servant’s characterization of the master as “hard” and taking that which he did not own supports Rohbaugh’s interpretation. There is nothing in the text to suggest that the servant’s assessment of his master is not accurate.

    4. The master’s use of the phrase “well done, good and faithful servant” isn’t befitting a villain. It is too similar to the general theme of patience, waiting, and being good stewards of that which God has given in Jesus’ other teachings.

    5. That the master does not refute the servant’s assessment of him as a hard man, nor his suggestion that he put the money in the bank, is not necessarily an admission of guilt or supporting immoral moneylending. In another interpretation, the master is calling the bluff of this lying, lazy servant. In other words, he’s saying “You say I’m a hard, unscrupulous man, and that’s why you did nothing? Fine, if that were true, then surely you would have at least put it in the bank to earn some interest No, you didn’t put it in the bank because my character has nothing to do with it. You did nothing with the money because you are lazy and shiftless.”

    6. The Master’s response is particularly harsh. Is the Master Jesus? This seems problematic given that the servant loses everything and is cast out to his ruin, and then immediately following this parable is the parable of the sheep and goats, where Jesus teaches his followers that caring for those who have lost everything is in effect caring for him personally, and that those who do not care for the least of these will go to eternal punishment.

    I am still not sure which interpretation holds more water for me. Both are problematic in my view.

  • Jason says

    It is a shame that so many people here, who, feeling they are somehow spiritually superior, resort to hateful personal attacks against the author. Disagree by all means, and do so with force if necessary, but be careful calling someone a fool or questioning their faith or integrity.

    Some of you have said “Why not just interpret the parable in the most obvious sense?” There is hubris hidden in this statement, as though our reading of it now is more enlightened than a reading of it by an ancient Palestinian. We should have great curiosity about how the original audience would have interpreted it. Arguments against Rohrbaugh’s interpretation should at least include refutation of his premises about how ancients would have understood the story. The noisemaking about “obvious interpretations” rings hollow.

  • Jess says

    I completely disagree with the author. Obviously the Bible makes it plain that the first two servants did what they were supposed to while the last servant was wicked. The parable was talking about something of a spiritual nature.

    As some others have pointed out.. I believe the parable wasn’t talking about financial investments; instead it’s about opportunities of advancing the kingdom of God. For example, say the first servant was given a platform of some sort; he was famous. If he used his fame to reach people with the saving message of Jesus Christ, then he would be rewarded.

    It’s about what you do with the life you were given. Not everyone was given the same things- some people have bold personalities perfect for public speaking, others have the ability to cheer people up and show mercy, ect. So in other words, with whatever abilities you were given will also come opportunities to share Christ (not just the message of salvation, but His love, generosity, forgiveness, ect.) with others. If you see an opportunity to advance the kingdom of God by behaving like a disciple would, and you take it, then you will be rewarded

    On the other hand, if you were given opportunities to share the love of Christ with others and instead chose to do nothing- you will face the wrath of God. The last servant was an example of a person who, over the course of their entire life, could have shared food with the hungry, but chose not to. Could have spent time with the weird person no one else liked, but chose not to. Could have stepped in and stopped a fight between others, but chose not to. Could have shown mercy but chose not to. Could have done something nice for a loved one, but chose not to, ect. the list goes on and on. And notice I said COULD HAVE. God won’t expect you to do things He hasn’t given you the ability to do. But if you CAN do something, and DON’T, there is no excuse.

    This also lines up with the parable of the sheep and the goats….

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