Monday, June 14, 2010

The Parable of the Talents: A New Interpretation

If you're a Christian, or probably even if you aren't one but live in Western society, you've heard about the parable of the talents. That's the story about the master who goes off for a bit and leaves three guys in charge of his stuff. He gives each a different number of talents. When he comes back, two guys say "Look, I used your talents and made you more talents!", but one guy goes "Yeah, uh, I was afraid of you, so I buried your talent in the ground so I wouldn't lose it. It's over there," and the master gets all mad at him. Now, you are probably aware that our english word "talent" meaning "ability" comes from this parable. And if you were told it in Sunday School you probably also have heard that the moral of the story is that God gives everyone special abilities at birth essentially and you're supposed to use them for God. Right? Well, I'm going to suggest that that reading is incorrect.

It is amazing to me that the evangelicals and Christians who most believe that the Bible is the Word of God, every word inspired, continue to believe whatever interpretation they are taught, even if it conflicts with the actual text — the text that God supposedly dictated. Part of the difficulty in reading the story is that when we hear the word "talent" we now immediately think of ability. We have TV shows like America's Got Talent which focus on people with skills. But in the story, talents are an ancient measure of money. Now, the clergy all know this, but they want you to think that it's not about that, it's really about skills. They're part right; it's not about money, but it's not about the sort of ability they think it is. In their reading, "talent" is essentially a code word for "ability"; God gives you abilities and then you use them or don't. This reading is born out of Matthew 25:15: "And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey." So the modern Christian jumps on this and says, "You see? It's about ability!" ...But let's break that down for a minute. If the talent was ability, why would ability be seperately mentioned? In the story, the guys already had abilities! The talents were on top of those and based on those. This implies to me that the notion of God-given talent at birth is not quite right, at least when gleaned from this passage.

I should note that I'm using the parable as given in Matthew's gospel. A seemingly identical parable appears in Luke 19, only there they are given minas instead of talents. Imagine if that had caught on. "Stay tuned for America's Got Mina!" You may debate with your friends whether they are the same parable, or similar ideas with different functions.

For my entire life I've been taught that the story was about natural abilities. There's something frankly very stressful and paranoia-inducing about that. You're told all your life that God gave you gifts and by cracky you'd better use them! So then you worry about what your talents are, and then how do you use them. Is this a Godly enough use? People like to think of it in terms of writing or singing ability, or other obvious things. "If you're good at making cakes, then make cakes for a sick friend in the name of Jesus!" Not that there's anything wrong with that. Good deeds are part of Christian living. But the example I always use is what if you're the world's greatest boxer? How do you justify that? "God made me a boxer, so I'm gonna be all I can be and knock an endless string of guys unconscious for sport and the bloodlust of an onlooking crowd... for Jesus!" Or you're a great assassin. How does that work out? Lest you think that ridiculous, David even before Goliath was known as a "mighty man of war". So is waging bloody war a good thing if it's something you are skilled at? Yes, you can serve on police forces or in a military capacity, which can be good, but I think you'd have a hard time saying you were honoring God with your skill as a sniper. And let's not forget the many athletes or musicians who attribute their latest award to God, because that's how they've been raised, even though I doubt God tells the angels to quiet down so he can listen to Destiny's Child sing about their bootylicious bodies. That's a holy sound, right there, right?

If then the parable is not about these things, then what might it actually be talking about? Well, recently I've come to believe that the "talents" are spiritual gifts. So yes, they are given by God, by they are not the same as being able to speak well or anything like that. Primarily I'm thinking of the spiritual gifts Paul mentions in Romans 12. For support of this hypothesis, I draw your attention to verse 6: "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us." According to the grace given us. This is just after Paul has said how each of us individually has his own function in the body. So is this not another way of saying that the gifts are given based on ability? Or at least, based upon our variations? Just as the master in the story gave talents to each of the men based on their different abilities and levels of skill, the Spirit gives gifts to the church body based on the sort of person each one is.

Further support for this idea comes from the structure of the story itself. I think we can all agree that the laborers represent us, the people and that the master represents Jesus. Look then at the way the story begins in verse 14:
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them."
There are a few important things going on here. First, the man (Jesus) is going away for awhile. Second, the servants are "his own." This is a very important detail upon which the entire parable hinges. The modern Christian world wants you to believe that this story is about the abilities that all humans have, and that when they come to God they can be shown how to use them. But that's not what the Scripture says. It says these men were already Christ's own servants. So this story is 1)about Christians and 2)about the Church age. It is not about the abilities of all humanity through all the ages. The master is going away for a time, just as Christ left the earth to prepare a place, with the promise he would return. And at the end of the story, the master DOES return, pronouncing judgment. In the gospel, this ending leads into a discussion about Christ's final judgment on the earth; in fact the entire chapter and the one before it are about the imminent return of Christ. This story then is about the work Christians do in the world before He does return. It's about the church age.

Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus says that when He leaves He will send the Spirit. The Spirit will comfort, and the Spirit will give power to do His work. Now compare that with the parable; when the master leaves, he gives the servants talents to do his work. Does this not then support my understanding of "talents" being gifts of the Spirit in the same manner Paul described? I believe that rather than being given at birth and being "natural" abilities (which usually are not innate at all, but learned based on some other inclination), they are spiritual things given at salvation, based on those internal inclinations that make you who you are.

I also find it remarkable that these same people who want me to believe that God gave me certain things before I even knew him with the express intent that I should use them are often the same people who teach that God completely changes people. They teach that sometimes when you get saved (or even after) God will completely change who you are to make you able to do what he wants you to do. Now, color me crazy, but doesn't this seem contradictory? If God wanted me to do job X, wouldn't that skill set be included in my "talent toolbox" at birth? Sure, God CAN do anything He wants, but I do not believe he changes who people are in that way. Paul was a zealot before he was saved, then he was a zealot after. The method was different, but it was the same essence. Similarly Peter had a big mouth before he met Jesus (that got him into trouble), and then Peter had a big mouth that proclaimed the risen Christ. Even the very fact that they were fishermen, and Jesus made them "fishers of men" speaks to it being a sameness. Jesus doesn't come to the shores of Galilee and say, "Hey, you four! You're fishermen? Right, you're lawyers now. Come with me." What sense would that make? But this is a digression. Suffice it to say that many Christians are blissfully unaware they have faith in a fundamental contradiction.

At the end of the parable, the servant who was unfaithful and squandered his gift is cursed. Verse 30 says of this sort that they will be cast "into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." This is fancy Bible talk for damnation. So the man who said he was a Christian, who thought he was a Christian, didn't live like one. He didn't walk with the Spirit, even in so much as getting some use out of his gift. You basically wouldn't even know he had it. So God sent him to hell. This reading I'm sure makes many uncomfortable who believe that one can never "lose his salvation." And yet the passages precedent and elsewhere speak of those who will not go with Christ because they were not ready. Jesus warns in these passages about being watchful. Indeed, this story is directly preceded by the statement "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming." The Bible I think is clear that some will fall away, and no longer be counted with the faithful, if ever they truly were. You know those parts about the two men going up the hill, the one taken and the other left behind? The ones that many believe refer to the rapture of the church? Well, Jesus spoke these things to his disciples, not to large mixed crowds. The guys left behind are not necessarily the rotten nonbelievers; they are the unfaithful who cause Christ's name to be blasphemed among the Gentiles. Now, maybe the majority don't like thinking that the story implies would-be Christians are ultimately doomed. Maybe that's why they focus the story on all humanity and all ability rather than what the text says. ...Though I shudder to think how they explain that ending with the generally understood reading. I didn't use my singing voice to sing Christian songs and now I'm damned for eternity? See how scary and bizarre that reading is??

Ultimately, I hope I've illuminated for you an oft misunderstood text. If "talent" doesn't mean talent, then what does it mean? Things of the Spirit. Paul mentions some: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leadership, mercy. If you're truly a servant of Christ, then seek out the knowledge of what gifts the Spirit has given you. They aren't your basic abilities or the things that make you who you are, but they do work with those, use them and enhance them. God knows who you are and he knows what you can do. He's given you "talents" to empower you, knowing what parts about you make that gift just right for you, so you can serve your function in the body of Christ. To him who is faithful, much will be added! The things of God are far richer and deeper than you may have been led to believe. Find your spiritual function, and may the Master be pleased upon His return!


  1. Wow! I thought it was just me. It bothered me a lot that I was the only one who saw that talent and ability are both mentioned in the parable. That talent was given according to ability and that talent, in its literal meaning, represented a certain amount of money and that this money was given to each of the three according to their abilities. To me that was the meaning I thought pastors and the rest of us would follow. But no, they said talent was ability. So what was ability as mentioned in the parable? No mention. Thank you for your new view point that talent means something of more value that just money or capital. I think I will lean on this one.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Charles. It's nice to have some validation for this reading.

  3. I wasn't sure if talents were ability or money! Your explanation makes a lot of spiritual sense, thank you. The real zinger for me was this, "So the man who said he was a Christian, who thought he was a Christian, didn't live like one. He didn't walk with the Spirit, even in so much as getting some use out of his gift. You basically wouldn't even know he had it." WOW!