The Parable of Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing in the corporate world, or in any organization, demands courage. The personal cost can be enormous.

Since loyalty is often the pre-eminent virtue in corporate and other institutions, the pressure to maintain silence is considerable.   People daring to break the code of secrecy and silence to reveal unethical behaviour are in danger of automatic expulsion from the group. It is rare indeed for a whistleblower to survive without significant personal cost to themselves. They may suffer severe consequences for their integrity.

The responsibility for exposing ethical cover-ups increases as one moves higher in the hierarchical structures of an organization. All ordinary avenues for dealing with unethical practices need to be followed before a person reveals them to outsiders. However,  whistleblowers may have no option but to go public, especially when they reasonably judge they will not be listened to by the appropriate internal authorities. This is especially a challenge when the whistleblower encounters a culture of corruption so that no one in the organization can be trusted.

Jesus sets the Scene

Jesus confronted the problem of whistleblowing in one of his parables, the parable usually referred to as ‘the parable of the talents.’ The parable begins simply with a nobleman about to leave for a distant country in order to be crowned king, despite the fact that  his citizens hate him so much that they do not want him back as their ruler (Luke 19: 14). So he calls three of his slaves and gives them each one pound (‘talent’) which in the currency of the day is a considerable amount, equal to one hundred days’ wages for a common labourer. They are commanded to invest this money: “Do business with these until I come back”(Luke 19: 12).

The central stage of the drama begins when the king returns. How will the king and the slaves react when summoned to give an account of their investments. And how will the king question them? Two of them have been very active and are extravagantly rewarded: the first has made ten pounds, so is given charge over ten cities;  the second made five pounds and is to govern five cities (Luke 19: 16-19).

But the third, who in fact is the whistleblower in the story, comes to the king and responds in vivid contrast to the previous slaves. He has buried the pound which evokes an incredibly harsh punishment from the angry king: “…you wicked slave! You knew…that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest” (Luke 19: 23). The pound was immediately taken from him and given to the one who had ten and he would have suffered the same fate as the enemies of the tyrannical: “as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and slaughter them in my presence” (Luke 19: 27).

The traditional understanding of this parable stresses the duty that everyone has to use to the fullest the gifts given us by God.

However, this interpretation has been seriously questioned in light of contemporary social science research.  Scripture scholar Luise Schottroff writes that to see the “third slave as the embodiment of people who reject God’s righteousness and God’s Torah is simply unbearable.” In Matthew’s text (Matt 25: 14-30) the parable is immediately followed by  the great vision of the Last Judgement. The ultimate test before the judgment seat of God will be whether or not we have fed the hungry and clothed the naked (Matt: 25: 31-46). The investments of the two first slaves result in exorbitant monetary returns. To have achieved this they would have had to exploit peasants by demanding increases in such things as rents over property. Or the peasants would have had to take out loans from banks at ridiculously excessive interest rates to save their crops or properties with the consequence of further enslaving them. It was normal to torture and imprison defaulting debtors (Luke 12: 58; Matt 18: 28-34).


But it is the third slave who refuses to collude in the financially corrupt behaviour of the king and the other two slaves. In other words, the third slave is a whistleblower and suffers the fate of one who refuses to participate in the economic oppression of the poor. The parable, therefore, is a scathing condemnation of contemporary free market economies where unrestrained greed for profits by investment bankers is considered an esteemed virtue.

Contemporary followers of Occupy Wall Street may well be reminding us of the incredible relevance of this parable of Jesus Christ, the Master ethicist (and whistleblower).


Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm, is the author of Violence, Society, and the Church (2004).

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