The Parable of the Talents


 

For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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 did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? 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. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matthew 25: 14– 30)

It is not hard to imagine how much an American business -oriented Baptist pastor would love this parable: does it not confirm the parallel between religion and business, promoting in both the dynamic capitalist spirit of venture, circulation, risk, and expansion? Preachers who expound the word of God must act like businessmen expanding their business! However, is it not also possible to read the parable in the opposite way, especially if we bear in mind the alternative version in Luke 19: 11– 27: here the master is a nobleman who has to leave for “a distant country to receive for himself a kingdom,” although he is not wanted there ; the three men are not servants but (ten) slaves; the nobleman’s attendants protest at his decision to give the third man’s minas to the one who already has ten (“‘Sir, he has ten minas already!'”); and the parable concludes with a cruel order : “‘But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be their king, bring them here and slaughter them in front of me!'” Hardly a gesture worthy of a good man. Is it not much more appropriate to do as William Herzog proposed, and celebrate the third servant as a whistle-blower denouncing the exploitation of the poor? 47 In other words, what if we read the third man’s decision to hide the talent, withdrawing it from commercial circulation, as a gesture of subtraction from the field of (economic) power, as a refusal to participate in it? The master’s furious reaction is thus fully justified: what this servant did is much worse than stealing his money or hiding the profit— had he done that, the servant would still have participated in the business spirit of “reaping where I have not sowed.” But the servant went much further: he rejected the entire “spirit” of profit and exploitation and thus attacked the very foundations of the master’s existence—and was this not why Christianity had such problems coming to terms with collecting interest, which means precisely to “reap where I have not sowed”? The parable is definitely an exercise in weird humor, so John Caputo is right to refer to Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus who says that humor serves as the incognito of the religious— the problem resides in the precise determination of this humor, a humor inextricably mixed with horror.

Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 113-114). Norton. Kindle Edition.

 

While the interpretation Zizek ascribes to business minded pastors is obviously mistaken, the man who hides the talent is no more the hero than the others, in fact he is, as is said, the worst of the lot. In each case, in different ways, the men ascribe a meaning to a talent which, as pure measure, it cannot have. Whether one has one talent or one million, as measure of exchange it is just a number. It only acquires a partial and temporary meaning in the act of exchange insofar as it acts as a medium of exchange, and is thus always exchanged twice as the Janus-head of currency.

The talent is thus the epitome of the false god, something inherently arbitrary that meaning is ascribed to and idolized. Yet hiding it away goes against exchange itself, which is even more problematic than merely warping the notion of exchange via the profit or interest motive. Since life is exchange, the man who is afraid commits metaphorical suicide, “hiding his talent in the ground”.

The motive for exchange is itself interminably exchangeable for others, the unitary profit-motive fails to see that exchange can occur for any reason whatsoever, and that reason can itself be exchanged at any time for a different one.

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