Edited by D. G. Smith and Andrew S. Gold
Chapter 5: The parable of the talents
On its surface, Jesus’ Parable of the Talents is a simple story with four key plot elements: (1) a master is leaving on a long trip and entrusts substantial assets to three servants to manage during his absence; (2) two of the servants invested the assets profitably, earning substantial returns, but a third servant—frightened of his master’s reputation as a hard taskmaster—put the money away for safekeeping and failed even to earn interest on it; (3) the master returns and demands an accounting from the servants; (4) the two servants who invested wisely were rewarded, but the servant who failed to do so is punished. Neither the master nor any of the servants make any appeal to legal standards, but it seems improbable that there was no background set of rules against which the story played out. To the legal mind, the parable thus raises some interesting questions: what was the relationship between the master and the servant? what were the servants’ duties? how do the likely answers to those questions map to modern relations, such as those of principal and agent? Curiously, however, there are almost no detailed analyses of these questions in Anglo-American legal scholarship. This chapter seeks to fill that gap.
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