We’re close to the end of our series on social justice. Thanks to all those who’ve stayed with it, as it’s taken quite a while. In this post I want to share some thoughts about the parable of the talents (minas).
Introducing the Parable of the Talents
One of the passages that is often brought into the discussion of the New Testament teaching about money and wealth (and so, poverty and justice) is Matt 25:14-30, the parable of the talents. The context of the parable is Jesus’ answer to the question “What will the kingdom of heaven be like.”
14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
The first thing that is transparent is that the master in the parable owns private property (v. 14) and that ownership is not condemned. The master is also apparently wealthy, since he had servants and had money to entrust to those servants. The master was therefore free to handle his affairs as he chose since the property was his. While the reach of the parable is limited, there is no hint that private property (and wealth) is inherently suspect in the eyes of a just God.
Second, the act of “trading” performed by the servants to increase the master’s wealth is viewed as a virtue. The word translated “trading” here is ἐργάζομαι (ergazomai). The word can speak of physical labor (see 1 Cor 4:12 where it is translated “working [with our own hands”; 1 Thess 4:11 – Paul commands believers to “work [with your own hands]”). In this parable the servant therefore is working with money (see “traded with them [the talents]” in v. 16). Consequently, the enterprise of handling money is not condemned, but endorsed.
Third, the effort described above on the part of the servants that produces more wealth is also viewed as a virtue. This means that making money with money is a virtue in the parable. The only way to do this (in both the ancient and modern world) would be to buy and sell things for profit and to lend and charge interest. That interest is involved with the virtuous activity of the servants in the parable is indicated by v. 27 (“you ought to have invested my money with the bankers”).
Charging interest is generally viewed negatively in the Old Testament, but is not condemned outright. There are two general limitations: charging interest of the poor and charging interest of fellow Israelites. The paragraph below summarizes the OT thought concisely:
OT laws seek to protect poor Israelites from economic exploitation ensuing from loans to them at interest (Ex 22:25 [MT 22:24]; Lev 25:35–38). Terms for interest are nešek, literally “bite,” perhaps referring to the interest paid up front to the lender at the beginning of a loan (like “points” on a house loan), and m/tarbît, literally “increase,” which may refer to interest paid subsequently. Another view is that the former is interest on money, the latter on produce (cf. Loewenstamm, 78–80). The Laws of Eshnunna §§18a–21 (c. 1800 b.c. Babylonia) limited interest rates to 20 percent for money and 33.3 percent for grain, exorbitant rates by modern standards that could easily lead to default, forfeiture and enslavement (Neh 5:3–5; 2 Kings 4:1).
Deuteronomy 23:19–20 appears to condemn interest taking altogether (except to foreigners), not just for the poor, a view put into practice by the medieval church. However, in view of Exodus 22:25 (MT 22:24) and Leviticus 25:35–38, which refer explicitly to the poor, the poor may also be in mind in Deuteronomy 23:19–20.
The parable of the talents does not explicitly tells who was charged interest. It’s positive portrayal of making money with money allows readers to presume that those charge were not poor (i.e., they had the ability to pay the interest – see the bankers in v. 27) and that fellow Israelites were not in view. Jesus’ own positive attitude toward upholding the law precludes an endorsement of charging fellow Israelites.
Fourth, the only person condemned in the parable is the one who was too stupid or lazy to invest the master’s money.
As I’ve said before in other contexts on this blog, Scripture does not endorse a single culture and believers (by divine design) are no longer living under laws pertaining to theocratic Israel. It may be that our culture — and perhaps even our church culture — could include charging interest. However, laws about the economic relationships between believers (and care for the poor) don’t seem to depend on theocratic structures. That is, they are “person to person” issues of just behavior, stewardship, and care for one’s fellow. If we argue that the State is not in view in OT law elsewhere (as we have), consistency requires the same affirmation here.
In view of all that, we can ask questions like, “Should Christian lenders charge interest of the poor?” This is a much more difficult question than you’d suppose. On one hand, the broad scriptural principle is clear – the poor are not to be abused, whether by charging interest or a host of other modes of potential exploitation. The interpretive problem is not the text. Rather, it’s how to define “poor.” What is the standard for determining whether someone is poor in today’s world. The extreme cases are obvious. I’m talking about people who own property and possess other luxury items (i.e., items not essential for food, clothing, shelter – life essentials). Many in our culture would claim to be poor while possessing many luxury items – a situation that would not have occurred in biblical times, where poverty was much more clearly definable and absolute. Consequently, we have an interpretive disconnect. One way of defining “poor” is “someone who does not have the ability to pay or repay.” Wisdom would be required on the part of both the lender and borrower (Should I lend? Should I borrow? Can I repay?). One question that seems appropriate to decision making would be something like, “If I don’t charge interest of this person will they be able to repay?”
The same sorts of questions can be asked in regard to fellow believers, and probably more so, given Scripture’s emphasis on special considerations to fellow believers. Note that this issue of interest is not isolated from giving – having all things in common. We’ve already seen that the latter is not a demand placed on believers. The point here is that giving may be an alternative to even asking about lending without interest.
One other consideration is the NT propensity to repeat OT principles or laws. There is no NT statement forbidding the charging of interest between Christians. This may be due to the fact that the Church is not Israelite – it is a “circumcision neutral” entity. But Christians ought to be sensitive to the special status of membership in the body of Christ. Fellow believers are not “just everybody” — they are rendered different by virtue of the common bond of Christian faith. That ought to at least stimulate the consideration of generosity in the direction of sharing resources as the early church did in the book of Acts.
One caveat – and this takes us to the next post: having all things in common and rendering special treatment to fellow believers is not designed by God or apostolic teaching as an endorsement of a refusal to work and provide for oneself and one’s family. That precise situation had to be confronted by Paul in the Thessalonian church (2 Thess 3:6-15). In essence, Paul’s theology endorses the necessity of work within an early church where “all things were had in common.” We’ll hit that next time.
Other Christian scholars whose focus and expertise is economics have commented on this parable elsewhere. I recommend that post to all Naked Bible readers.