For our third and final trajectory we decided to compile receptions from our fellow students at Oxford College. The goal of this aggregation was to see how a modern and perhaps unknowledgeable reader would receive these parables. We collected a representative sample of different students at Oxford and asked them a few questions about each of our parables after they read them. The questions included:
- What is your religious background and affiliation?
- What do you think the core message of this parable is?
- In what ways do you think this parable could be applied to your own life?
- Can you think of any artistic renderings that could have been inspired or influenced by this parable?
My particular parable, The Parable of the Talents, drew a multitude of different interpretations and conclusions. A large number of students had never heard of or read this parable so the majority of the responses were blind and documented just a few minutes after their first reading of it. I believe that conclusions can definitely be drawn from this type of ignorant respondent questioning because their opinions are not influenced by previous teachings or interpretations.
As previously stated, the responses I received for the first question ranged widely along the religious spectrum. The most popular responses were Christian and Atheist but one man was Sikh. Interestingly, religion did not appear to have as great of an impact on how the student interpreted the parable. A Christian upbringing made the respondent more likely to have heard of or previously read the parable but there was no consistent interpretation for Christian respondents.
Question 2 regarding the core message of the parable drew a surprisingly wide range of responses. A few respondents took the most common interpretation that the Talents in the parable literally translate to talents as in gifts bestowed by God. This is a common reading of the parable to first time readers for the simple reason that Talent and talent read as the same word. A reader unversed in ancient history would have no idea that a Talent was a unit of financial measurement equaling fifteen years of laborer’s wages. I also believe that this is a common modern reception because it fits nicely into the modern belief that God allocates talents to be used to glorify him and to be used for the betterment of self and society. It is a common teaching of modern Christianity that individuals should “let their light shine” and take full advantage of the talents God gave them, unlike the wicked slave who did nothing with his Talents.
The expression of talents interpretation brings us to the second most common interpretation that the Talents in the parable were a metaphor for God’s word. As Christians, we are obligated to spread God’s word around and not simply keep it for ourselves and not do anything with it like the wicked servant did. A few respondents believed that it was their duty as Christians to spread the word of God like the first two servants did and not save it away for themselves like the third servant. The religious implication of this would be that if we do not spread the word of God like the wicked servant we too will be cast out of his kingdom.
Three answers that I received had absolutely nothing to do with religion. The first of these responses came from the Sikh respondent. He believed that this was actually a metaphor for personal application to life. He said that we only get out of life what we put in. In the context of the parable, the first two slaves are analogous to people who invest in their lives and work hard to excel in what they do. The third slave is someone who does not work hard or strive to accomplish anything. The master’s rewarding of the first two slaves means that if we work hard and invest ourselves like the slaves invested their Talents, we will be rewarded. The third slave getting his Talent taken away shows that if we do not put in hard work and perseverance we will not get anything out. Still another respondent thought the parable was actually a metaphor for the dangers of blindly following leadership. By proving to be a harsh and punishing master by the end of the parable, the text was actually arguing that allowing yourself to follow someone in a place of subservience is not shrewd.
The answers to Question 3 was predicated largely on their response to Question 2. The individuals who felt that the Parable was a call to spread God’s word said that they needed to go out into the community and spread the Gospel instead of just keeping the word to themselves. Those that felt that the Talents in the parable literally translated to talents said that this parable tells them to go out and accomplish things with their God given talent. They believed that actually having talents was meaningless if they were not being used or utilized to their full potential. The Sikh respondent said that to him, this parable told him he should continue to study hard and prepare well for his tests because only then would he be rewarded like the first two servants only in his case he would be rewarded with a good job and salary. The gentleman who believed the parable was actually a warning for those who are not mindful of their finances. He said that there are a lot of people trying to take your money so this parable shows that shrewd finances and financial savvy are our best way to not be taken advantage of.
Not a single one of the respondents were able to come up with an artistic rendering of the Parable of the Talents or a piece of popular culture that could have been influenced by it. I found this incredibly surprising. Personally, I believe that while few new artistic renderings of the parables may be taking place in popular culture, almost all pieces of pop culture contain values that have been referenced by a parable. In the context of the Parable of the Talents, any work of art that portrays someone hearing but not spreading the message of God can be traced back to this parable. Similarly, if one was going off the most popular interpretation of the parable, if one was not fully utilizing the talents they were given and instead wasting them or using them for selfish ends, that could be considered a reception of this parable. I believe a disconnect between modern society as a whole and critical reception of the parables in art is being created because people don’t look for recurring motifs in art that can be traced back to the parables. While fewer artists may be representing the parables directly now than a few hundred years ago, that does not mean the ideas represented in them are any less pertinent, inspiring, or referenced.
In conclusion, the respondents of my questions about the Parable of the Talents returned with a varying array of backgrounds and responses. The Christian interviewees believed that the parable was telling them to go out and spread the word of God instead of keeping it only for themselves. Many others believed the parable meant to tell us to not waste our talents or gifts that we have been given. Instead, we should work hard to utilize our gifts for the betterment not just of ourselves but of society. Finally others believed it was an analogy for the dangers of blindly following bad leadership or not being wary of those trying to take your money. The wide array of responses shows that reception of Jesus’ parable still has vitality. While it might not be as overt in art forms, people are still interpreting and being inspired by Jesus’ parables, including the Parable of the Talents.