What is Jesus referring to as trading in the parable of the talents?
First of all, what is a “talent”? The English Standard Version Study Bible notes say that in Old Testament times a talent was a unit of weight equalling about 75 pounds (34 kg.).
In New Testament times, it [a talent] was a unit of monetary reckoning (though not an actual coin), valued at about 6,000 drachmas, the equivalent of about 20 years’ wages for a labourer.
In the parable of the talents, the master of the house is clearly entrusting money to his servants. The New Living Translation says the master of the house “gave five bags of silver to one, two bags of silver to another, and one bag of silver to the last” (Matthew 25:15). If each bag (or talent) weighed 75 pounds (34 kg.) and contained silver coinage, then the value of each talent would have been considerable.
When used as a measure of money, it refers to a talent-weight of gold or of silver. In June, 2018, the international price of gold was about US$41,155.69 per kilogram. One gram costs about $38. At this price, a talent (33 kg) would be worth about $1,400,116.57. Similarly, in February 2016, the price of silver was about $15 per troy ounce or about 50 cents per gram, so a 33 kg silver talent would be worth about $16,500... The talent as a unit of coinage is mentioned in the New Testament in Jesus' parable of the talents. One talent was an incredible amount of money. Source: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talent_(weight)
Whatever each talent was worth, the master of the house, who was going away on a journey of indeterminate time, expected his servants to put this money to good use. Upon his return, the servant who took his single talent and buried it in the ground was severely reprimanded by his master:
“You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.” (Matthew 25:27, New International Version)
The Greek word for bankers comes from trapeza (table), a word seen on the front of banks in Greece today. Bankers sat at small tables and changed money. (Source: New International Version Study Bible notes on Matthew 25:27) The English Standard Version Study Bible notes makes this comment regarding Matthew 25:27:
“In the O.T. Israelites were forbidden from charging interest to other Israelites, but it was permissible to charge interest on money loaned to Gentiles (Deut. 23:20).”
This is confirmed in this Wiki article on banking: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_banking#Judaism
The same Wiki article comments that “in ancient Greece and during the Roman Empire, lenders based in temples made loans, while accepting deposits and performing the change of money.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_banking
It would therefore seem likely that the master of the house expected his servants to put his money to work by depositing it with the bankers so that it would earn interest while the master was away.
A "talent" in this passage refers to a large amount of money.
Being money, it was probably traded in the finance and investment sector, used to pay wages, or used for purchasing goods in the market. But, it is not a single denomination of currency, it is an amount of money.
To be very, very slang—yet also make the point to the audience—one could VERY loosely translate it as "a suitcase of money". What can you trade with a "suitcase of money"?—a lot! (Of course, a 'talent' is more specific than just a 'bag full' or a 'suitcase full', but it was probably delivered in a bag, or something similar, since it was so much money.)
Consider this Wikipedia article...
Assuming it was the "Attic talent", one talent would have been worth about nine years of manual labor. If the "Homeric talent", it would have been only worth an ox. Most Bible teachers would lean toward the larger amount. But, either way, it was worth a substantial amount of money.
The term "talent" as a kind of natural knack for gaining a skill is not what is meant here. Some argue that using the word "talent" to refer to a skill aptitude was an application from this passage, but that would have been after the fact, applying the Bible figuratively. It is not unusual for the Bible to influence language.
Usury (ie: charging interest) was forbidden among Jews but it was permitted, or possibly required for Jews to charge interest when lending to gentiles.
However this is not a loan situation, per se but rather a situation where a man's slave was being employed as his money manager (οἰκονόμος). He neither would lend nor give the money to his slave but instead committed it to him for his (the master's) purposes:
1Co 4:1-2 KJV - 1 Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers [IE: "servants"] of Christ, and stewards (οἰκονόμοις) of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful.
To "redeem" time is to leverage time for profit. Again, a very capitalist idea. Paul is saying that time spent without profit is "un-redeemed". Paul is saying to "do not waste your time but rather invest it" by putting your gifts to work in serving others:
1Pe 4:10 NIV Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.
It was his duty to put the money to work to gain more money. This is essentially the capitalist paradigm. People invest in a corporation for entirely selfish ends. The corporation then uses the money to make more money and return a dividend to the investor. If the corporation does not create more wealth for the investor then the investor takes the money he invested and invests it into a different corporation. And so on. This is a ruthless, greed driven enterprise, and in no way a charity.
The slave that buried the money blames his failure to profit on his master. Fear of his master's ruthless craving for profit motivates the servant to hide the money. However, the master is not pleased because he has no profit and correctly points out that he could have made a profit with no risk (or at least without taking a risk for which he would have been censured if the bank failed). Banks take money from risk averse investors and then turn around and invest it in riskier ventures at higher profit. Then they pay out at a lower rate.
Now, the slaves that returned a high profit to their master evidently took calculated risks by researching the market well and making informed investments. The risks reaped large rewards. The master took his investment from the one who was both risk averse and delinquent and invested it with the servant who took the greatest risk and reaped the greatest reward. The capitalist master wanted to hit it big on the latest dot com, not just get a 1% bank interest.
The reward to the master was only on paper. His money remained in the market. The reward to the profitable servant was not in money (since neither the seed money nor the profit belonged to him) but in the approval of his master and the ever increasing responsibility.
What is absent from the parable is a slave who took risk and lost the seed money. One can only speculate how the master might react which would depend on his character.
So what the slave was saying is this:
"[The reason I didn't make any profit for you is that I knew that] you are very demanding, expecting your money to bring you profits you didn't work for. [So I didn't take any chances and I protected your investment]".
The master responded "You knew I demanded a profit I didn't work for [which isn't an impossible demand in that] you could have at least put my money in the bank and I would have gotten my seed money back with interest. ["So the fault is not mine for demanding a return I didn't work for but yours for being too lazy and irresponsible to invest the money I entrusted to your management into a bank."]
God wants profitable servants, not excuses. And God's servants are given risk-free opportunities for investment. The bank here seems to be connected with the following section and so means that the lord's servant should, with the resources he has been entrusted, invest in the poor. Money invested in the poor is like money in the bank. At the lord's coming he will be found a faithful and gratifying servant to his master.
You want to know how Jewish people traded during the time of Jesus so here is another answer that deals specifically with the economy and trade in Palestine when it was a Roman Province circa 10 B.C.
During the lifetime of Jesus the local economy depended on producing wheat in the valleys north of Jerusalem and producing barley in the south of the Province. Sheep and cattle (from the hill country) produced meat, milk, cheese, wool and leather. Vines, olives and dates were grown on the hillsides. Fish was also a staple part of the diet.
There were many trade centres where foreign goods were imported: Gaza, Joppa, Tyre, Samaria and Damascus, to name but five. Here are some of the goods that flowed into the Province:
Elath (north end of the Red Sea) for silk from China and India; Petra (north of the Red Sea) for incense and myrrh from south Arabia; From Greece – herbs and spices; From Crete – apples; From Rhodes – wine; From Egypt – baskets and slaves; From Mesopotamia – spices
Exports included salt from the Dead Sea, metalwork in copper and iron from Galilee and Judaea, pottery and purple dye from Tyre and Sidon.
Records from Jerusalem list 118 luxury goods (such as jewellery and silk cloth). There was a well-established system of banking and the exchange of foreign currencies for the shekel. Source: Atlas of the Bible and Christianity, published 1999 by Candle Books, page 54 – The Economy of Palestine circa 10 B.C.E.
Bear in mind, however, that in the parable of the talents, the servants in the household of the wealthy master (who was himself involved in trade), still remained servants. Nothing is said of them having either the time or the ability to start buying and selling goods or going abroad to trade. The point of the parable is to illustrate the principle of serving the Lord with all we have, to spread the good news of the Gospel and to give of our time and our ability to serve Him.
This parable of the talents is about faith….and about the works in our lives that display or compete that faith (or in this case, the not working of faith).
To every person who God has called does He apportion a measure of faith (the differing talents to each servant). Each member of the body is given different measures of faith…and not all have the same “office”.
Romans 12:3-4 KJV (3) For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (4) For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office:
He gave five talents (a measure of faith) to one and to another he gave another two (a measure of faith) and to the last man one talent (measure of faith). God calls us and gives us our measure of faith to work. To “trade” is to “toil” or work it.
Matthew 25:14-18 KJV (14) For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.
Again, to “trade” means to “toil” or work the talents…that is, trade/toil our measure of faith.
Good works (according to our ability) completes our faith. The guy with the 5 talents traded (worked) and made 5 more. His working of the measure of the faith given to him was completed (5 for 5) by his good works. The other that was given 2 made 2 more. He completes (fullness) his faith….2 for 2.
(15) And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. (16) Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. (17) And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.
But the man that received the one went and dug in the earth and his lord’s money. He hid his faith within him and did not manifest it outwardly through his works. He did nothing with the measure of faith that was given him.
(18) But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money.
What profit is there when a person says they have faith but does not have the works?
There is none. Faith alone cannot save us. The man with the one talent did not have works to complete it and so was not saved as the “unprofitable” servant was cast out into outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.
James 2:14 KJV (14) What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
Works (trading of talents) makes our faith complete. The first 2 men complete their faith (5 for 5 and 2 for 2) while the last man that was given one talent did nothing but hide it in the earth (within the heart).
James 2:21-22 KJV (21) Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? (22) Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
Faith, if it has no works, is dead, being alone. We must add to our faith good things:
James 2:17-18 KJV (17) Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. (18) Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
The Son of God comes to give us an understanding so that we may know Him that is true. He opens up the Scriptures to our hearing ears and we are to show our faith in this Day of Judgment. We show that we know Him.
1 John 5:20 KJV (20) And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.
This is what is meant when the Lord comes to “reckon” with them. He comes to give us an understanding and we show that we know Him by our good works according to the faith He has given us. His reward is according to our works.
Matthew 25: (19) After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.
The first 2 readily show their faith (that they are working already) towards the hearing of His voice in the Day of reckoning...the Day of Judgment.
They hear the Lord and show forth their measure of faith and are able to enter in to the “joy of the Lord”. They hear His interpretation of the Scriptures (the knowledge of our Lord) and are able to rejoice in what they hear. They are rewarded according to their works.
(20) And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. (21) His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. (22) He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. (23) His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
Not so with the last guy as he does not display his measure of faith whatsoever. He does not show anything but only fears. He hid his faith within himself and did not display it.
The “fearful” have their part in outer darkness as they will not be able to hear His opening up of the Scriptures and rejoice. The wicked and slothful servant will not enter in to know the mysteries of the kingdom.
(24) Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: (25) And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. (26) His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: (27) Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. (28) Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. (29) For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
Instead of entering in to His knowledge (receiving it in joy), the unprofitable servant is cast into outer darkness….not entering in to know the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven.
Instead of joy at the hearing of His interpretation of the Scriptures, he will gnash his teeth in rage towards what he hears and will speak evil of it. But his own evil tongue is a fire that will bring his own evil upon himself.
(30) And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We obtain “precious faith” and we are to “add to our faith” virtue. Virtue = “manliness”…bravery. We don’t add to faith FEAR but bravery. Then add to virtue knowledge then to knowledge temperance….etc.
2 Peter 1:1-11 KJV (1) Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ: (2) Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord, (3) According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: (4) Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (5) And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; (6) And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; (7) And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.
If these things be in us and abound outwardly in our lives, they shall make you neither barren nor unfruitful toward the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ who comes to give us an understanding by the opening up of the Scriptures to our hearing ears.
(8) For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (9) But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. (10) Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall:
We shall then be able to enter in to the “joy of the Lord” when we do these things.
(11) For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.