The parable of the talents tells a tale of three servants who are entrusted with funds in varying quantities in proportion to their abilities—five, two, and one. The first servant invested everything to yield another five. The one with two talents doubled the sum. A third, given one talent, dug a hole and buried it. When the master returned, he rewarded those who doubled their resources, commending their trustworthiness: “Come, share your master's joy.”
But the servant who buried the talent gave a different report of stewardship: “I know you are a hard man, so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here is your money back.”
For this he is called a worthless, lazy lout. “You should have banked it and got interest.” After the sum is given to the others, and just before the laggard is thrown out into the dark to grind his teeth, the master says, “Those who have will get more until they grow rich, while those who have not will lose even the little they have.”
It is no shock that the parable of the talents is often taken as a recommendation of usury and capitalism. Even the Jerome Biblical Commentary seems to suggest as much. In the 1980s, as if in response to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral on the economy, the Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy wrote a “letter” of its own, which featured the parable.
This document noted that while the parable of the wise and foolish virgins shows that “good intentions are not enough,” and the last judgment story reminds us to care for the poor and needy, this parable of the talents describes the “terrible punishments which lie in store for those who do not produce new wealth from the talents God has placed in their stewardship.” The parable of talents, we are told, helps us understand the “moral élan” of the U.S. economy.
While the commission's letter is a thoughtful effort at integrating capitalism with the demands of the gospel, I think the parable of the talents has as little to do with capitalism as it does with slavery or absolute control over the destiny of the servants who appear as characters in the story.
The three parables in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew are about the end times, the end of the world, the end (intent, purpose, and upshot) of our lives. Whatever is given to us—money, talent, opportunity—is meant to bear fruit for the kingdom, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
As the parable immediately following the one about the talents makes clear, the entire judgment of history and of each individual is based upon our service to the least of our brothers and sisters.
In its most fundamental sense, the image of the talent represents the bounty of life itself, as well as the preeminent gift of faith. If we are among those fortunate enough to reach the maturity required for personal responsibility and to have the opportunity to use the talents of life and faith, it is incumbent upon us to invest our gifts, not hide them out of fear or laziness.
The parable is not about the stock market or entrepreneurship, commendable as those activities might be. It is about what we do with our gifts, financial or otherwise.
If anyone thinks that amassing wealth is somehow a good in itself (and I do not believe the writers of the Lay Commission's letter do), that person is seriously mistaken. Do not take it from me, but from the twelfth chapter of Luke: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in abundance of possessions.”
After Jesus issues this warning, he tells another story of a rich man whose land produced abundantly. What he did was to build larger storehouses for his goods, saying to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” God calls such people fools, since they store up treasures for themselves but are not rich in the sight of God.
I do not think that one can find either a recommendation or a rejection of capitalism in the gospels, although it is quite clear that the amassing of money for oneself is considered not only foolish, but evil. There are more warnings in the gospels about the dangers of money than about any other earthly good, so a successful Catholic capitalist is well advised to be most vigilant in stewardship.
The goods of the world and the wealth derived from our labor must be used for God's glory and human assistance. What is more, if a Christian would defend the benefits of capitalism, it ought to be based on the argument that capitalism is most effective in the service of God and ministry to the poor, homeless, and hungry.
The trustworthiness of the profitable servants ensures their share in the “joy of the Lord.” This is not because money is made. It is, rather, because the wealth of life and talent given them had been invested to bear fruit in labors of faith, hope, and charity.
Whether we are millionaires or paupers, it is upon this criterion that we will be judged.