Personal Responsibility and the Parable of the Talents

Yesterday’s Gospel was the Parable of the Talents, as described in the Book of Matthew. For those unfamiliar with the story, it begins with a master who entrusts his servants with his property before embarking on a long journey. To the first servant he gives five talents, roughly equivalent to twenty years’ wages. To the second he gives two, and to the third only one.

The first two laborers invested their talents, doubling their value. When the master returned, he was very pleased with them, declaring to each: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

But the third servant buried his talent in the ground. When his turn came, he said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’

The master is unsparing in his reply:

‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.  So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Matthew 25: 26 – 30

First, a word about the context of this parable. The disciples have just asked Jesus for signs of the End Times. Jesus begins by warning them against false prophets and complacency. He explains that there will be signs of the Second Coming, just as a fig tree produces signs of its coming fruit. Yet He cautions them that no one but the Father knows the day or the hour, thus the need for vigilance.

The Parable of the Talents is followed by a reminder to love our neighbor, lest Christ on the last day declare: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me (Matthew 25: 41-43).”

This sermon seems to contain two contradictory messages. On the one hand, we are called to make use of the talents God has given us, a teaching which emphasizes personal responsibility. Yet we are also called to feed, clothe, and minister to the least among us, a teaching of social responsibility. We are reminded that failing to care for our neighbors is no less serious than failing to do so for Jesus.

The obvious answer to this dilemma is that we are both responsible for ourselves and for others. At times we need more reminding of the former, at others the latter. We should always strive to see Jesus in the face of every friend, every stranger, every person in need. But the Parable of the Talents serves as a timely reminder that we must also take responsibility for our own lives, for the gifts we have been given.

The first question a modern critic is likely to ask in reviewing the Parable of the Talents is: why were the servants given different amounts in the first place? Eight talents were distributed to three servants. Instead of a 5-2-1 breakdown, why not give each servant two and two-thirds?

The master in the parable gives his servants different amounts based on their different abilities. While this seems unfair at first glance, we can find plenty of similar examples in the modern day. Lebron James averaged over 34 minutes per game in the 2020 season, while Alex Caruso averaged 18.4. James was given more opportunities to contribute to the team’s success, and thus more was expected of him. However, Alex Caruso was still required to do his part. At the end of the season, head coach Frank Vogel could look at both players and say “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

In almost every workplace, those with greater skills and/or experience are given greater responsibilities. Writer Nassim Taleb references the Parable of the Talents repeatedly in his book The Black Swan. He notes that certain fields are dominated by a few high-achieving individuals at the top: book sales, record labels, and professional sports to name just a few. Others, like dentistry, are more evenly distributed.

Yet there are certain fields where results are not so easily measured in dollars and cents, wins and losses. In these settings, a lack of “skin in the game” can lead to a mismatch between one’s skills and one’s responsibilities, most notably government bureaucracies and academia. In these situations, it really is unfair that certain people are given more than their abilities would otherwise dictate.

Putting these exceptions aside, however, we can generalize the following: “People vary greatly in their abilities. To whom much is given, so too much is expected,” with the caveat that: “Everyone is given something, and thus something is expected of everyone.”

The third servant is particularly instructive on this last point. A Marxist would advise him to overthrow the other two, and the master; then redistribute all the talents throughout the land so that everyone could be equal. But one does not have to be a Marxist to get this parable wrong.

Millions of Americans today believe themselves to be the victims of an unfair system, for no other reason than their race, sex, or sexual orientation. They see that they have not been given as much as others have, others whom left-wing critics denounce as “privileged.”

Yet simply living in the United States of America entails a certain level of opportunity, the chance to make the most of the talents one has been given. How can someone demand more from society in good conscience when he won’t take advantage of the opportunities he already has?

In the parable, the third servant claims he was too afraid to lose what he had been given, too afraid to take the risk. But risk-taking is necessary in any profession, as it is necessary in all of our lives. He who would enjoy the rewards must take the risks.

Fear is no excuse for failing to utilize one’s talents, and neither is inequality, or perceived victimhood. One could imagine the third servant today whining that he had been given less than the other two. I expect the master’s fury would have been even greater in this instance.

Everyone has talent, though our talents differ in degree and in kind. If your talent is business, invest your money wisely and honestly so that others might be employed. If your talent is to sing, then sing loudly from the rooftops, and let your voice always glorify the Lord. Don’t bury your talents in the sand for fear of failure; this sort of behavior is not pleasing to God. Even those at the bottom have a responsibility to put their gifts to use, lest they be judged harshly.

Social and economic hierarchies have always existed, and will continue to exist to some degree as a result of naturally-occurring variation. We should strive to create a system not where everyone is equal in terms of “having the same,” but rather one in which everyone has the chance to more fully develop their talents and utilize them for the common good.

As the broader context of this reading suggests, we must put our talents to use not simply for our own advancement, but for the benefit of God, our heavenly Master, who cares for the poor and the sick. There are people in this world living in such dire circumstances that they must be fed, clothed, and sheltered before they can better develop their own gifts. But there are others who would benefit much more from a sharp kick to the rear than another handout or excuse.

Viewing the COVID-19 Pandemic through the Lens of Fragility

I recently read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s four-book Incerto collection.

In the first book, Fooled by Randomness, Taleb posits that we know much less about the world than we think. Published just months before 9/11, he infamously floated the scenario of terrorists flying planes into the Twin Towers.

In the second book, The Black Swan, Taleb discusses low-probability, high-impact events like the 9/11 attacks and explains how our current models (investment, economic, political) fail to account for them. Published a few months before the Great Recession, Taleb confidently asserts that the financial system of the United States will to crash, as it has simply built up too many risky bets.

The third book, and I would argue Taleb’s best, is Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. While the first two books mainly describe the world we live in – a world dominated by uncertainty and subject to Black Swan events – Antifragile lays out concrete tips for how to survive and thrive in the face of this uncertainty.

Incidentally, in Taleb’s fourth book, Skin in the Game (published in 2015), Taleb asserts matter-of-factly that the world will experience a global pandemic in the coming years. The current COVID-19 pandemic is thus not a “Black Swan” event, but rather something that anyone paying attention could have seen coming.

While Taleb has gained fame for his predictions, he cautions that the key is not to predict the future, but rather to structure our lives in such a way as to best handle the inevitable uncertainty and randomness of life.

According to Taleb, everything can be divided into one of three categories: fragile, robust, and antifragile. Fragile things, like teacups, break under stress and uncertainty. Robust things, like rubber balls, can withstand stress and uncertainty. Antifragile things, like human muscles, actually get stronger when subjected to stress and uncertainty (but only up to a point).

To use some examples from mythology, fragility is the sword of Damocles – hanging over our necks, just waiting to hurt us. Robustness is the phoenix, rising from the ashes. But antifragility is the hydra, growing back two heads for every one that is severed.

Common sense dictates that we arrange our lives, our societies, and our world in such a way as to at the very least minimize fragility and maximize robustness, with the added goal of antifragility. However, many of the things we are currently doing actually “fragilize” the system. The natural world understands robustness and antifragility, and the complex workings of many moving parts. The modern, man-made, globalized world oversimplifies things into models or theories that then break when subjected to stress.

Corporations prefer optimization to redundancy. In the words of Apple CEO Tim Cook, “Inventory is evil.” Well, maybe — when things are going according to plan. But in the face of a pandemic, when supply chains are disrupted, inventory is a blessing; its lack a curse that costs lives.

Here are some additional takeaways from Antifragile that we can apply to the current coronavirus pandemic:

  1. Don’t interfere with things you don’t understand.

Our first instinct is often to intervene in a crisis. However, certain interventions actually do more damage than the situation they are trying to address. Examples of this phenomena include unnecessary surgeries, micromanaging forest fires, urban planning, and overprotective parenting.

Often it is better to leave the system alone and let nature run its course. Let your body heal itself, let smaller forest fires occur, and let your kids make some mistakes every now and then.

Now, in the current crisis it would appear that non-intervention is actually riskier than intervention at the macro-level. However, at the individual level, most people who contract COVID-19 will be perfectly capable of fighting it off without needing to visit the hospital at the risk of spreading the infection.

Furthermore, we should seriously weigh the costs and benefits of any major interventions to our economic and political systems, carefully considering the downstream effects.

  1. Embrace Stoicism.

Stoicism has often been described as indifference to fate. However, Taleb views it more as antifragility to fate. Success brings fragility, as a successful person has more to lose than to gain from the unknown. This fact is compounded by the negativity bias, whereby we feel losses more deeply than gains. Many of us feel we have much to lose from the current crisis.

To counteract this predicament, Taleb directs us to Seneca, the famous Roman philosopher and statesman, who advised mentally writing off one’s possessions in advance. This way, if we indeed lose them in real life, it hurts less. In other words, assume the worst, and be happy when the actual result is better.

Many people are financially stressed by the recent blow to their stock portfolios, or just depressed at the cancellation of sporting events and concerts. But as long as we have our basic needs met, we should view surplus income and recreation as icing on the cake.

Don’t take anything for granted.

  1. Adopt a “barbell strategy.”

Taleb uses the metaphor of the barbell as an antidote to bell curve thinking. Barbells take the extremes into account, while bell curves largely ignore them.

How does one survive in an uncertain world?

First, decrease your downside by lowering your exposure to negative events. Second, increase your upside by making some limited, high-risk bets. Taleb advises putting 90% of your money in boring, safe investments like bonds, while investing the other 10% in high-risk, high-reward options. His own options-heavy portfolio is structured so as to benefit from volatility. Banking on this strategy, he was one of the few winners in 2008.

Taleb illustrates the concept of optionality using the example of Thales of Miletus. Tired of being derided as a do-nothing philosopher, Thales put a down payment on the seasonal use of every olive press in the region, thus taking on a small risk. When the olive harvest turned out to be extremely bountiful, he released the owners of the olive presses on his own terms, earning himself a large reward.

Barbell-style investors like Taleb are probably doing just fine during this crisis, while the bell-curvers are suffering.

  1. Embrace trial and error.

Historically-speaking, more innovations have come from tinkering than from formal research. According to Taleb, “America’s asset is, simply, risk taking and the use of optionality, this remarkable ability to engage in rational forms of trial and error, with no comparative shame in failing, starting again, and repeating failure.”

This latest coronavirus outbreak was not the first, and will not be the last. We have to be prepared to learn from our mistakes. If history is any guide, we will not be saved by central planning, but by grassroots trial and error.

  1. Understand that fragility is nonlinear.

In other words, negative effects increase not arithmetically, but rather exponentially. Much like infection rates from COVID-19, they compound over time. Anyone who has ever sat through a traffic jam understands this.

We should identify the potential traffic jams in our supply chains and act accordingly. Resisting globalization might cost more in the short-term and/or when things are running smoothly, but localism is a more robust long-term strategy.

  1. Follow the Via Negativa, or addition by subtraction.

Let’s say you have a problem: you are overweight. It is both cheaper and more effective to eliminate the unhealthy things from your life – junk food, smoking, drinking – than to add in healthy options – expensive gym memberships, diet plans, etc.

Simpler is better.

Less is more.

Increasing complexity also increases fragility. Hopefully the coronavirus pandemic will help teach us to simplify our lives where we can by showing us all the things we really can live without.

  1. Avoid neomania; opt instead for what has stood the test of time.

Taleb defines neomania as being too quick to embrace the latest (often-untested) thing. For example, books have been around for a long time, e-readers much less so. While the e-reader user might seem smarter in some situations (consider how many books you can fit on one device!), the traditional book-reader does better in the event of a power outage.

  1. If something is too big to fail, it should be too big to allow.

Taleb notes that large corporations and nations are actually weakened by their alleged advantage – their size – as they are more subject to Black Swan events. Smaller entities like city-states and small businesses are often more robust in a crisis. We should remember this during normal times, when people start advocating mergers, acquisitions, and various other economies of scale. It is easier to turn a small ship than a large one.

(Anecdotally, I can attest that smaller school systems have responded better to the coronavirus pandemic than larger ones. Likewise, larger businesses will likely have to lay off workers first.)

  1. The need for skin in the game.

Heroes take on the downsides of others, putting themselves at risk for the greater good. Charlatans and frauds keep the upside for themselves while passing on the risk to some larger group. Ethically speaking, we should not allow any entity to privatize its profits while socializing its losses.


This is not a pointless philosophical exercise. All of this matters; it matters a lot. According to Taleb:

Black Swan effects are necessarily increasing, as a result of complexity, interdependence between parts, globalization, and the beastly thing called “efficiency” that makes people sail too close to the wind… The world is getting less and less predictable, and we rely more and more on technologies that have errors and interactions that are harder to estimate, let alone predict.

We must consider – individually, communally, and globally – how best to navigate an increasingly unpredictable world. We can take steps to increase our resilience, and even antifragility, but this will likely necessitate certain sacrifices that seem unnecessary or even detrimental in the short-term.

At the micro-level, relying on the medical system makes us fragile. Learning basic first aid makes us more robust. Improving our body’s health through exercise utilizes our natural antifragility.

At the macro-level, there is a natural inclination to prop up the existing system. But perhaps we should utilize this crisis to build in various redundancies and fail-safes. This way, when the next crisis comes rolling inevitably along, we will all be better prepared to manage it. Instead of trembling in anxiety at the fragilities inherent in our daily lives, we can draw strength from traditional sources of wisdom and comfort – our communities, our families, and our faiths.


Featured Image Credit: DonSpencer1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,