The Parable of the Talents

There are a few errors commonly made when people speak about the Parable of the Talents. The Parable naturally lends itself to misinterpretation in terms of quantitative comparison. The first man is given 5 talents, the second man 2 talents, and the third man 1 talent. We are thus tempted to evaluate the talents according to a universal yardstick. What is the common measure? A talent. How do we rank order the men in terms of worth? 5 > 2 > 1. Hence, the first man > second man > third man.

From this evaluation, it follows that the first man is better off than the second man who is better off than the third. It also follows that God, in distributing goods unevenly, has designed the world unjustly. (For how could a perfectly just world permit of one man, no different in any discernible respects from another, having 5 while another man only has 1? The concept of “just desserts” would not allow us to solve this problem because the Parable says nothing about the worth or achievements of the different men.)

The error lies with following the temptation to “compare incomparables.” The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas saw that comparing one person’s suffering with another’s was a way of avoiding the first man’s suffering and of explaining it away. Take the expression, “Well, you think you’ve got a bad shake, but at least you’re not working in a coal mine.” Or another: “You might not like Brussels sprouts, but do you know what a starving person in Africa would give for your plate of nutritious vegetables?” I don’t doubt that, in some contexts, we can put our suffering in perspective by expanding our consciousness from a first-person perspective (my suffering here and now) to a third-person perspective (my suffering over and against world suffering). Gratitude can spring from a change of outlook. However, I would invite you to consider whether these expressions aren’t used, more often than not, as means of turning away from the suppliant who stands before us in need.

It might appear that we’ve traveled off the beaten track in this talk of “comparing incomparables,” but I don’t think so. In the Parable of the Talents, we should regard the notion of “talents” as an open concept rather than a concept that admits of common measure. From this vantage point, the first man’s 5 talents do not admit of comparison with the third man’s 1 talent. It is as if one were to compare playing jazz (“5 talents”) with raising a child (“1 talent”). If we overcome this temptation, then we can begin to analyze each man’s talents in their own terms and assess whether each man has used or failed to use them according to his nature.

Once we’ve changed our outlook on the talents, it seems as though we’re left with “differences talk.” Yet we’ll discover that “differences talk” is the name for the second temptation. Thus we hear, “It’s not that John is better than Jane at such-and-such. It’s that John and Jane are just different.” I’m not too keen on relativism, and I’m not especially keen on this ridiculous form of pedagogy. I remember smiling while reading the sign posted in the front of Willy Street Food Coop in Madison, Wisconsin. “This parking spot is reserved for the differently abled.” Nonsense!, I thought. Utter nonsense! Disabled!

In this case, we’ve made a key category mistake. In order to right a historical wrong (namely, rejecting the false belief that a woman in a wheel chair is good-for-nothing), we’ve run together “worthless” with “not functional in respect of X.” John’s being in a wheel chair does not make him bad full stop or his life unworthwhile. On the other hand, he is not as functional as someone who is ambulatory in respect of the category of locomotion. In my view, we need to be able to compare things that are sufficiently similar in kind, and we can do so without guilt or second thoughts by tacking on “in respect of X” and by adding conjuncts, where applicable. John is better than Jane in respect of singing baritone AND worse than Jane in respect of loving kindness AND better than Tom in respect of

The second temptation, in short, is to throw our faculty of judment out the window and replace it with “namby pambyism.” “Everyone’s different and wonderful!” Not so. Not all wines are equally palatable. Not all humans are equally compassionate.

So, if it is an error to compare the first man’s “5 talents” with the third man’s “1 talent” (the first temptation), it is also an error to conclude that the first man is simply different full stop from the third man (the second temptation).

The best interpretation, then, will seek to answer 2 questions:

  1. How can the first man best actualize his capacities for, say, swimming? And how can the third man best actualize his capacities for, e.g., painting? (The epistemic question concerning how we know what each man’s talents truly are falls outside the scope of the Parable of the Talents. We are led to believe that God has seen to each man’s having the talents he needs and that he knows how to use them. The third man simply chooses not to, and that is his sin. More about nihilism below.)
  2. How we can evaluate each man’s progress in actualizing his nature according to an objective measure of functionality? A morbidly obese man is not a flourishing man insofar as he is not functional in certain respects. Notice that a man with 1 talent can be evaluated according to our shared understanding of what it means, say, to become a more competent writer (or not).

In sum, the beauty of the Parable of the Talents lies in its giving us a proper understanding of actualizing our potentialities, an understanding that frees us to think seriously and tranquilly about what we shall make of our lives. The limitation of the Parable of the Talents is that it cannot answer–but then neither does it have any interest in answering–the nihilistic charge that none of the men may discover any good reason for using his talents in the first place. To the question, “What is my talent anyway, and why should I bother using it?” the Parable remains silent unless there is heard, somewhere off in the distance, the ululation “Because God said so…” That answer may not prove satisfying.