Capitalism and the Parable of the Talents

Serious Christian education requires that we not simply teach the Bible, but that our understanding of the text always be open to refinement. For 40 years I taught my Middle Eastern students, "Keep your exegetical conclusions tentatively final." They have to be final in the sense that, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I must live out my discipleship today. Obedience to my Lord cannot wait for me to read one more technical article in New Testament studies.

At the same time, my exegesis is always flawed. Thus my/our interpretation of Scripture must never be closed to refinement and revision.

One of the biblical stories that needs a fresh look is the Parable of the Talents. Lesslie Newbigin talks about the “plausibility structures” through which all of us see the world. What he means is that each of us looks at the world through the lenses of our language, culture, history, politics, economic theories, religion and military adventures. As Westerners, one of our lenses is capitalism. In this short article I will try to liberate the Parable of the Talents from the presuppositions of capitalism that have perhaps unconsciously influenced our translations and interpretations of this text for a long time.

Herod the Great made a trip to Rome in 40 B.C. seeking a Roman appointment as king, and his son, Archelaus, made a similar journey in 4 B.C. to argue his case against his half-brother, Antipas. Thus, Jesus uses a political scene familiar to his audience as a background for this parable. The key phrase appears in the initial speech the nobleman gives to the servants he leaves behind as he journeys “into a far country to receive for himself kingship, and return.” Obviously, this nobleman is confident that he will receive the kingship he seeks. Not everyone did! His initial speech to his servants requires scrutiny.

The nobleman calls in 10 servants and gives each of them a pound (the equivalent of 100 days wages for a working man). As he does so he says, “Engage in trade en ho I am coming back.” The little Greek expression en ho can legitimately be translated three ways: “until,” “in which,” or “because.” Traditionally, we have read the text to mean, “Engage in trade until I return.” The other options are: “Engage in trade (in a situation) in which I am coming back.” Or, “Engage in trade because I am coming back.”

The first of these options reads en ho as a time reference (until). The second is a literal translation (in which); while the third sees the phrase as a causative (because). What slant have we traditionally given the parable by selecting the first alternative?

With the reading, “Engage in trade until I return” the whole point of the master’s command becomes:
Get out there and hustle. You have a limited time to “do your thing.” On my return, I expect profits! See how much money you can generate! Make hay while the sun shines!

However, when the servants do return, the master commends the first servant for being faithful, not successful. What is the master really seeking?

If the second translation option is adopted, the text will read, “Engage in trade in a situation in which I am coming back.” This literal (legitimate) reading produces a significantly different understanding of the entire story. (If the third option is selected the result is the same.) Imagine a scene where the Shah of Iran, in his last days in power, calls 10 of his servants and tells them:

I am going to take a little vacation. I have $5,000 for each of you. I want you to open shops in downtown Tehran. The sign on the shop will (of course) read, “His Majesty’s Royal Rug (or whatever) Shop.” Keep in mind that I am coming back! I know I have enemies. They will most likely follow me and try to destroy me. But never fear. I will prevail and return. In the interim I expect you to declare yourselves publicly and uncompromisingly (in this hostile, uncertain environment) to be my loyal servants.

What will those servants do once they receive the money and the Shah leaves the country? If they are good Middle Easterners and understand the total instability of the political milieu in which they live, they will bury the money and wait to see who wins, the Shah or his enemies. If they take the risk and start a business in the Shah’s name, the shop will likely be open 15 minutes a week late each Saturday afternoon after most shoppers have gone home.

Such is the real world of this parable. The nobleman wants to know, “Which of you are willing to take the risk and openly declare yourselves to be my loyal servants in a world that opposes me and my rule?” In the story, the nobleman does indeed receive kingly power and return. On arriving home he calls in the 10 servants in order that he might know . . . what?

The Greek text contains a key word which, in the entire New Testament, appears only here. The word is diagramateuomai. It can mean “How much has been gained by trading?” But it can also be translated, “How much business has been transacted?” From the second century onwards the Syriac and Coptic versions of this text have consistently chose the second meaning. Most of the Arabic versions have done the same. The difference is critical.

If the master wants to check the books to see “What has been gained by trading?” then he is trying to find out how much money they have made. But if he is asking, “How much business have you transacted?” then obviously he is seeking to discover the extent to which they have openly and publicly declared their loyalty to him during his absence.

On his return he wishes to check the extent of their willingness to risk public exposure as his servants. Examining the account books will, at a glance, give him that information. A full ledger will tell him that the entire community knew the servant in question was his master’s man. An empty account book will witness to the servant’s fear of showing public loyalty to him. Has our capitalism influenced the way we have translated and understood this parable? Is the question discussed in the story one of profits, or faithfulness in a hostile environment?

As noted, the first servant is commended for his faithfulness. The last was afraid. Of what? He claims to have been afraid of his master. But was he more likely afraid lest the master not return and he have no choice but to deal with his master’s enemies? When caught flat-footed how does he try to defend himself?

It is impossible to imagine that when the servant fails his master’s test of faithfulness that he then deliberately insults him. The intention of his speech must be to compliment his master. How so? He says (in effect), “I see you as a thief.” How can this be a compliment?

If the master is a Bedouin raider chieftain, such a speech is indeed a compliment. But if he is a nobleman in a settled agricultural community it’s an insult. Clearly, the unfaithful servant has critically misjudged his master. The faithful servant had no difficulty understanding his master’s true nature. Rather, it was the unfaithful slave who completely misunderstood the big man, and in trying to compliment him actually insulted him. What is the master’s response?

The master observes, “You knew me (i.e., you experienced me) as a hard man . . . .” He is not admitting that he is a hard man, but instead is saying, “I understand that you experienced me as a hard man.” The judgment he then passes on this unfaithful servant is that this servant is to be left with his misunderstanding of the master; a misunderstanding produced by the servant’s unfaithfulness. The servant looks at the master through blue sunglasses. His unfaithfulness placed the blue glasses on his face. Looking through these glasses, the master (to him), appears blue.

The master says, “My judgment against you is this: I will leave the blue sunglasses on your face. I will leave you with your self-created, distorted perceptions of my nature.” What then does this parable say about faithfulness and unfaithfulness in our troubled society? What distortions of our Master’s true nature has unfaithfulness created in our culture?

A British journalist once asked Mother Teresa how she keep going, knowing that she could never meet the needs of all the dying people in the streets of Calcutta. She replied, “I am not called to be successful; I’m called to be faithful.” (Very bad capitalism! Don’t invest in her company!)

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Kenneth E. Bailey is an author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament studies living in New Wilmington, Pa.

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