Reading the Bible through the Eyes of the 99%


Like just about everyone else I watched in horror this past weekend as campus police mercilessly pepper-sprayed student protesters at UC Davis. Juxtaposed with that image of brutality was the comment made by Republican Presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, that Occupy Wall Street protesters should “go and get a job, right after you take a bath.”

What struck me about Gingrich’s comment was not that he made it in the first place–his moral illiteracy should surprise no one–but that the audience applauded the assertion that those who protest the rising income disparity in this country and the emboldened plutocracy that disparity makes possible are merely lazy whiners. The idea that those who speak out on behalf of some reasonable standard of political and economic justice are too lazy to go out and make their own fortunes seems to have taken hold among a significant portion of the body politic. That this applause, which signals the equating of the pursuit of fairness with whiny laziness, occurred at a gathering purporting to advance religious values, only serves to underline the moral confusion inherent in a system that rewards the “haves” and treats the “have-nots”with suspicion and disdain.

The Gospel of Matthew contains a well-known parable about a master who, in preparation for departure on a journey, turns over control of varying amounts of money to three slaves. The first two slaves, who’ve received the largest sums of money, invest what they’ve been given, while the last slave buries his money in the ground. When the master returns, he finds that the first two slaves have doubled their money, which, of course, pleases him. The last slave, however, turns over the original sum with a less than flattering explanation, which paints the master as an ancient Near Eastern Tony Soprano: “Master, I knew you were a hard man, taking what is not yours. So, I was scared, not wanting to risk coming back empty-handed” (Matt. 25:24). The master is furious. He takes the slave’s money and gives it to the one with the most money, and kicks the least productive slave out.

The “Parable of the Talents” has been viewed by some on the right as an endorsement of the kind of risk-taking speculation that animates capitalism. On this popular reading of the parable God is an impatient master who requires productivity, spurred by a bold investment of resources, and is intolerant of the lazy and unresourceful. Viewed this way, God sounds eerily like a Republican Presidential candidate, looking to establish Tea Party bona fides: “Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you’re not rich, and you don’t have a job, blame yourself.”

There is another way to interpret this parable, however, one that takes seriously the insights provided by a broad reading of critical theory, specifically that all texts are political. That is to say, texts are always situated in the midst of socio-ecomonic systems of organization where some have power, while most do not. On this account the master isn’t a stand-in for God, but the beneficiary of a system that rewards those in power by maintaining arbitrary and unjust socio-economic arrangements. The master in the parable, after all, is described as a crook–a designation it is difficult to see Matthew applying to God.

Moreover, the last slave who buried his money, rather than lazy and unresourceful, is viewed as the bold subversive who opts out of a game rigged against those at the bottom of the economic food-chain. In other words, it’s possible to read Jesus here, not as offering implicit approbation to investment capitalism, but as condemning a system that punishes people at the bottom, a system that believes the “have-nots” to be lazy whiners. In the Parable of the Talents Jesus offers up a vision of what it might look like to live as his follower in a system designed to reward those who already have wealth and power, while keeping in place those who have little of either.

One of the complaints I hear most often about Christianity centers on its failure to produce Christians who actually look like Jesus. Christians, this argument goes, are merely shills for a political and economic system that seeks to protect the rich and keep the poor docile by distracting everyone with grave sounding discourse about the moral threat of gay marriage and teenagers’ access to contraception. The Parable of the Talents, the Urtext of “Christian capitalists,” has been one of the passages used to underwrite this narrative.

But if Christians are ever going to establish credibility with anyone besides themselves, they’re going to have to start reading the bible through the same eyes as the people with whom Jesus spent most of his time. The Gospels refer to them as the poor, the sick, as prostitutes, tax collectors, and slaves. Some quarters of the Republican party refer to them as “lazy whiners.”

I like to think of them as the 99%.

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11 thoughts on “Reading the Bible through the Eyes of the 99%

  1. I’m glad you chose to tackle this text. I preached on it 2(?) weeks ago and found myself absolutely refusing to equate God with the master. I started writing a post about it but it only made it into the draft pile when I couldn’t find all the words I wanted. Thank you for eloquently doing it here!

    Check out: “Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed” by William Herzog. He calls the third servant the “whistle blower.” A very interesting read.

  2. Hey dude – I love your take on this…this is the route I took when it came up a few weeks ago in the lectionary. I posted the manuscript to my blog if you want to use it as a follow up on dmergent or something (www.philsnider.net)

  3. I re-read that parable after reading this article. Since Matthew 25 starts out by saying this and the previous parable are likened unto “the kingdom of Heaven”, I see no other way to understand the parable of the talents except as an illustration of God…which, I am sure, is part of the reason I am agnostic, instead of remaining Christian, as I was raised.

  4. Ched Myers, in his small book, “The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics,” offers another, quite similar, interpretation of this parable, using his knowledge of early first century life. He especially speaks to the notion that 100% returns on investment would have been utterly unheard of, in that time, apart from thievery, manipulation, etc.

  5. Thank you for your stimulating piece. Very interesting, but I believe flawed.

    Jesus is, in his second sermon on the mount, addressing his disciples who have come to ask him what will be the sign of his coming and the end of age. So I think the identities of the man (master, property owner) going on the journey and to return after a long time and of his servants to whom he entrusts his property according to each one’s ability is clear to his listening audience.

    I think the problem we have is that we link the risk-taking, profit-seeking investment of resources with modern capitalism. The capitalism that you refer to has lost track of any sense that the original resources were entrusted by a master who is off on a temporary journey, and that these original resources together with acquired assets actually remain the property of the master.

    In the parable all the servants, even the hole dipper, recognise the master’s ownership and come with a true accounting of what transpired in his absence. This is why we must not confuse what Jesus is talking about with what is now called capitalism, where those who make the profit regard themselves as masters of the way the assets are used.

    And to understand what the master intends his true and resourceful servants to do with the assets …. all we need to do is listen to the rest of the message, which again, as you have so eloquently illustrated, flies directly in the face of modern capitalism. It is only the pearl merchant with Jesus’ eye who recognises the pearl of great price in the least of these brothers of his. I think there is a connection between the parties here like the one between Melchizedek, Abraham and Levi.

    Let’s give no more credence to any idea that Jesus of Nazareth is a promoter of the capitalism that treats gains as personal possessions to be used at the discretion of the one who makes them. As for the hole digger, well just maybe we’ll be free to dig holes when there are no more hungry or thirsty or strangers or naked or sick or imprisoned.

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