The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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A Talent Not Invested

September 6th, 2014 · No Comments · christianity, history

“This is a little off the subject but I was discussing prosperity theology and came across Luke 19 – a parable Jesus said told Zacchaeus the tax collector about 3 servants charged with making money work for a king in his absence. Long story short the servant who buried the money was called wicked because he didn’t deposit it and get interest so the king took the money away and gave it to the servant who’d actually made money. This is the point where Jesus says, “‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” and it left me wondering how the ban on usury even got started in the first place. I’m reading it as something we’re encouraged to do. Just curious what your take on it is.”  — Laura C.

This parable in Luke has a companion in Matthew that uses “talents” instead of “minas”, but it’s largely the same tale. I always liked the ending from Matthew: “And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This parable gives Sunday School teachers fits, and is usually left out of any lesson plans. Given the repeated warnings against usury in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and even Ezekiel, the bosses in these stories are very clearly immoral folks, who punish their servants for doing good in the face of evil. (Like in Dilbert.) Consequently, these are among the tales that are best discussed metaphorically.

The classic interpretation is that God, like the master in the tale, gives His gifts to each of us in our own measure, and He expects us to use them to do His will. Of course, another way to see it is that God is used to taking what isn’t his, like the immoral master in the story, and is incensed that his servant fails to fully impoverish his neighbors. Or at least that the servant who didn’t profit God was punished and the one who most profited him was rewarded.

This isn’t the only example of Jesus seeming to encourage rude behavior. A story in Luke 16 tells about a steward who, knowing they will soon be sacked contrives to reduce the debts from his master’s debtors so that he would be able to find favor (eg: another job) with them later. The guy stole from his first boss in order to gain a next boss. In the story, Jesus says, “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely”.  WTF?

Personally, if I told my lawyer or agent that they were about to be fired, and they go around telling all the people who owe me money that they only owe me half as much, I would be livid, not proud. There is a jarring sense of dismay when Jesus “Loves the Poor” Christ says things like: stick it to the poor. I don’t think this is a mistake. That situation would be jarring to nearly anyone who has ever had to manage money or consider justice, and it’s that way on purpose. When you read something like this that clearly doesn’t make any logical sense, the message is that you need to re-examine your assumptions.

If we consider the Gospels as a product of the late 1st Century Flavians as a humiliating joke on the Jews (a la Joseph Atwill), then this passage is mocking the hypocrisy of the Jewish merchant class. Such a notion becomes more reasonable with the reading of a similar story says he found in Hebrew sources, where the servant with five talents profligately wastes the wealth on wine and women, and is later cast out in humiliation. His found story is actually in line with the books of Moses, and I tend to believe this was the original form of the tale. Twisting it to make it a tale not praising restraint and discipline, but condemning honesty and fairness, as an “ancient Hebrew tale” is simply common demonization of wartime enemies.

Such an interpretation doesn’t fit in with a preconception of a hippie Christ, surrounded by playing children in a garden of light. It is, however, logically consistent and appropriate to the historical context.


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