Biblical Economics: the Parable of the Talents

Keith Rankin, 5 May 1998


As a schoolboy, I was always disgusted by the biblical story, the Parable of the Talents [Matthew 25:14-30], in which three men were apportioned money in the proportions 10 to 5 to 1. After some time, the man given 10 talents had doubled his money, as had the man given 5. But the man given 1 buried his money; he saved it for a "rainy day" rather than investing it. As punishment, his talent was confiscated, and given to the man who started with 10.

Interestingly, while sympathetic to the poor man, my greater sympathy went to the man with five, who, if anyone, most deserved the extra talent.

The poor man was risk averse. He had no space to creatively invest his money without risking catastrophic loss. He represented the class of peasant cultivators, a conservative and risk-averse social group throughout recorded history.

The man with five talents represents the merchant class. In traditional Confucian and European thought, merchants represented a dangerously powerful class that was conferred low status as a means to keep them in their place. The first economists - the French Physiocrats - called merchants and manufacturers "sterile", saving most of their distaste for those who exchanged things rather than those who made things. Thus, pre-industrial merchants could never gain social standing as merchants; being a merchant was a way of buying one's way out of being a merchant.

The man with 10 talents represents the proprietorial class; the owners of land in its private and public forms; the nobility and the sovereign. The man in the parable given 10 talents should be understood as an aristocrat; a member of the class for whom the economic surplus was morally destined (whereas the merchants were upstarts who amorally acquired part of the surplus).

The moral of this story is in fact a progressive one. It is saying that a socially responsible nobleman should invest in his lands, thereby creating a bigger economic surplus. An expanding economic surplus, although allocated in principle only to the proprietorial classes, was the basis of civilisation. This story, as I am telling it, is progressive in that it places the merchants (the proto-capitalists) as an important ingredient of the growth story. As merchants, however, they remain undeserving of any public reward. They represent the private sector, as we understand it today.

The peasant remains a peasant, so long as he remains risk-averse. As such, he just survives, while being exploited by the aristocrats in particular. The message to peasants, to defy common sense and take risks, was not entirely a recipe for a socially cohesive economic civilisation. It was a way of asking peasants to risk their only asset, their land. This message became one means by which peasants would become landless; by which they eventually became a labouring class, a class with nothing but their labour to sell.

The Parable of the Talents represents a cynical message through which social class was reinforced, and through which those with least were encouraged to produce more for those who already had most.


© 1998

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