Money and the Misuse of Scripture
Revisiting the Stewardship Parables
Finding Life in Jesus’ Hard Teachings on Money (Part 2)
In 2000 Brian Houston, pastor of Hillsong Church, published a book entitled You Need More Money. In the introduction to his book he quotes a text from Ecclesiastes – ‘A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes merry; but money answers everything’ (10:19) – and then observes: ‘If that’s a shock to see a statement like that in the Bible—check it out for yourself. That is exactly what it says: MONEY ANSWERS EVERYTHING!’ For Houston, this obscure text from one of the more difficult Old Testament books (which also contains multiple texts in contradiction of this sentiment) somehow becomes the basis for an entire Christian theology of money. (Houston has since publicly regretted publishing this book, but not necessarily its underlying ideas.)
Brian Houston is something of an easy target for people who are outraged by misuses of the Bible, but the more uncomfortable truth is that his ability to screen out almost everything that Jesus teaches about money is fairly widespread across the Christian church. Since the time of the Protestant Reformation (but not really before) there have consistently been those who have somehow seen in Christianity a justification for the pursuit of wealth. How can this be?
In the previous issue of Manna Matters I began the process of exploring Jesus’ controversial teachings on money. I argued that Jesus’ teaching about money as mammon (Matt 6:24, Lk 16:13) acts as something of a key to understanding all his other teachings. At its heart is the revelation that money is in fact a spiritual force in human affairs – both personally and corporately – which has an immensely powerful tendency towards idolatry. That is, money is something which promises life but ultimately leads us away from life. I suggested that while many of Jesus’ teachings on money may seem difficult, their deeper aim is to break the spiritual power of mammon and so lead us towards real fullness of life.
But before we can really unpack this ultimately positive message we need to deal with some of the most common mis-readings of the gospels on the matter of money, and foremost among these is the way in which we have mis-read and misused the ‘Stewardship’ Parables, by which I mean the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30) and the Parable of the Minas (or Pounds, depending on your translation) (Luke 19:11-27).
The Stewardship Parables are amongst the more well-known of Jesus’ parables, and they are one of the few of Jesus’ teachings on money that are likely to be regularly preached from the pulpit, especially on ‘Stewardship Sunday’. The basic story, common to both, seems simple enough: a rich nobleman goes away on a journey and entrusts a sum of money to three servants. Two of the servants gainfully invest the money, making a profit for their employer, and for this they are duly rewarded when he returns. The third does nothing with the money and cops it.
There are generally two variants of interpretation of this parable:
- We should use our ‘talents’ (that is, the gifts and abilities we have been endowed with) to serve God as best we can;
- We should invest our money so that it is continually making a return. This is prudent ‘stewardship’ of the financial resources God has entrusted us with. Many have even gone so far as to argue that this teaching provides a Christian justification of capitalism.
Often these two interpretations come packaged together, and in both interpretations, the rich nobleman is Jesus, and we are the servants. Seems pretty straightforward doesn’t it?
Most Christians implicitly accept these readings without question – the interpretation of the text has almost become as much an article of faith as the text itself. Nevertheless, in my experience, when paying proper attention to the text, many people are also vaguely uncomfortable about the whole thing. Something doesn’t sit quite right. How is it that the Jesus who earlier denounced Mammon is now telling us to make lots of money? And if the nobleman is Jesus, how do we square his brutality with the picture of Jesus we get in the rest of the gospels? If only we paid more attention to these vaguely articulated discomforts when we read the Bible …
Actually there is an entirely different way of reading this story that sits much more comfortably and consistently within the teachings of Jesus and the gospel narrative as a whole. But to get a clearer sense of this, we need to pay closer attention to the fact that there are indeed two stories, one in Matthew and one in Luke, and while they are basically the same they also hold some subtle but important differences. One of the main differences is the denominations of money entrusted to the slaves: in Matthew the first slave is given 5 talents (2 to the second, and one to the last), which is a ludicrously exorbitant amount of money equivalent to 75 years wages for a day labourer. In Luke’s account he gives the servants 10 minas (‘pounds’ in many translations), equivalent to 2½ year’s wages.
For some reason, Matthew’s Parable of the Talents is by far the most well known – perhaps because it contains the word ‘talents’, even though it actually has nothing to do with our English word referring to gifts or abilities. A ‘talent’ here is merely the proper name for a coinage. However, although it is rarely acknowledged, in many ways Matthew’s story is a more difficult and enigmatic story. Matthew has his story set amidst the judgements parables of chapter 25 (following the Ten Bridesmaids and preceding the Sheep and the Goats) and how these influence the reading of the Parable of the Talents is by no means a straightforward matter. Perhaps because of this difficult and enigmatic character, people have tended to suppress their questions about how it is to be interpreted.
But why haven’t we noticed that none of these difficulties apply to Luke’s story of the minas? Once we pay attention to it, everything about Luke’s telling of the story and its placement within the overall gospel narrative makes it blindingly obvious that the dominant interpretation, so widely accepted, cannot possibly apply.
Luke’s story of the minas is introduced with a very particular context which Luke wants us to keep in mind: ‘he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately’ (19:11). They are getting close to the place where Jesus will be killed by the authorities, and Jesus is painfully aware that his disciples have completely false expectations about what is going to happen there. As Cleopas later confesses on the road to Emmaus, ‘we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ (24:21), by which he means that they thought Jesus would liberate them from the Romans and restore the Davidic kingship.
Very importantly, Luke does not begin the story with ‘The kingdom of God is like …’. This is not one Jesus’ famous kingdom parables, it is a story about something else. We have become accustomed to reading all parables through one interpretive lens, when they actually are a quite diverse collection of teachings. As William Herzog has pointed out, rather than being ‘earthly stories with heavenly meanings’, they are often ‘earthy stories with heavy meanings’.
So Jesus tells them a story about ‘A nobleman [who] went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return’ (19:12). He also pointedly lets us know that ‘the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’’(19:14). Here we should be alerted that this is not a heavenly story. As Jesus listeners were well aware, this was precisely how Herod the Great rose to become king of Judaea by appealing to Rome, against the opposition of his countrymen. Herod was remembered, not just in the gospel accounts, as a notoriously brutal and unpopular king.
This unpopular nobleman appoints ten slaves (many translations have ‘servants’, but ‘slaves’ is more accurate) and divides ten minas among them, instructing them ‘to do business with it’ until his return. Upon his triumphal return, now as a king, he summons the slaves back to give an account of their dealings. The first reports that his investment of the mina has earned the king another ten minas, a fantastical return on investment of 1000 per cent, while the second reports a 500 per cent rate of return! These two ‘good slaves’ are rewarded by being given rule over a number cities commensurate with their financial success.
The third slave comes forward (for some reason we don’t hear about the remaining seven) and returns the mina to the king, reporting that he did nothing with it but ‘wrapped it up in a piece of cloth’. In the usual interpretation of this parable we are accustomed to seeing the third slave as lazy, apathetic, or unwilling to take risks. However, the reason he actually gives for his inaction is electrifying, and something that should make us sit up and take notice: ‘I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow’ (19:21). This slave shines light on the fact that this new king’s wealth (and presumably the incredible profits of the other two slaves) has been built upon dispossessing others. Despite acknowledging his fear of the king, he has named him to his face!
The king is outraged at this insolence, but curiously entirely accepts the third slave’s description of him: ‘You wicked slave! You knew, did you, 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’ (19:22-23).
Bank? Which bank? There is no such thing as a bank in the ancient world, and won’t be for over a thousand years. This is a trick of the translation into English. The actual word used (trapeza) refers to the table of the money changers. It is the same tables that Jesus will go and overturn in the Temple at the end of this very same chapter!
Collected interest? The charging of interest from a countryman is one of the most repugnant acts forbidden in the Hebrew Torah (see Exodus 22:25, Lev 25:35-37 and Deut 23:19-20). It was seen as a primary driver of dispossession, poverty and bondage, and thus understood as quintessentially oppressive and exploitative. And indeed, the time of Jesus was precisely a time of growing landlessness among the poor and huge consolidations of land by the wealthy elite, all driven by debt. Earlier in Luke, Jesus has instructed his followers to go further than loaning without interest and to lend without expecting repayment! (Lk 6:33-35)
The king then goes on to fully confirm the third slave’s assessment of him: ‘Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’ (And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten pounds!’) ‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – and bring them here and slaughter them in my presence’ (19:24-27).
By this point we should be seriously wondering how it is that we have interpreted this as an allegory in which Jesus is the king. In telling this story, Jesus has piled up negative signals, each the exact opposite of the kingdom he has been proclaiming throughout the gospel. This is not a story of the kingdom of God but of the kingdoms of the world and how they really work. We have taken the verse – ‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’ – and we have entirely spiritualised it to somehow extract a positive theological message, without noticing that this is what has been happening in the world throughout history: the poor are disposed of what they have and the wealthy get wealthier. It was one of the major social phenomena of the time of Jesus, it is something I have witnessed time over in the Mekong region, and it is what Thomas Piketty confirmed through his enormous assemblage of economic data in Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
When viewed from this perspective, we begin to see the third slave in a new light. He is the one who spoke truth to power and paid the price for it. Remember that this story is introduced by telling us Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, the place where he knew he would be executed by the powers. And remember that he told this story to his disciples because ‘they supposed the kingdom of God was to appear immediately’ when he got to Jerusalem. If Jesus is anyone in this story, he is the third slave. He has spoken the truth and he will pay the price.
Finally, and most exasperatingly, to be able to somehow interpret this parable as a teaching in which Jesus is commending lucrative financial investments, we have to pretend that the rest of the Gospel of Luke does not exist. Of all the gospels, this is the one that most strongly and consistently sounds a strong warning against the dangers of accumulating wealth. This is such an important point it is worth a brief recap of what Jesus has already said concerning money in Luke (see table below).
As a whole, Luke’s Gospel presents a consistently devastating critique of money and wealth, and especially the chapters directly preceding the Parable of the Minas. Let me stress: this is not a simple and straight forward subject. How we, the products of a vastly wealthy consumer society, practically make sense of such teachings, is an enormously difficult task that requires great intellectual and spiritual wrestling, and the slow unravelling of layers of complexity. All that is certain is that we cannot extract quick and easy answers to our questions. (At least, I know that I don’t have such ‘answers’.) Beginning to wrestle with this subject will be the subject for coming articles; for now, the simple point I want to make is that it is entirely inconceivable that following all of what has preceded in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus could here suddenly be advocating the accumulation of wealth as responsible discipleship, what we have often euphemistically meant by the term ‘stewardship’. Jesus is categorically not saying, ‘You need more money’. The fact that this parable has indeed been interpreted in this way should give us serious pause about the ways in which we have read and used the Bible.
But what about Matthew’s Parable of the Talents? Although Matthew places the story quite differently in the overall gospel narrative, most of the negative signals in Luke’s account also apply in Matthew’s. With these more clearly noticed, the judgement parables surrounding the story (especially the sheep and the goats) tend to strengthen the reading I have advanced. Moreover, we cannot forget that Matthew’s gospel contains all the same central teachings about money as Luke’s, even if not presented quite so forcefully. And finally, if we believe there is an underlying unity to the New Testament (as I do), the clarity of Luke’s story must have some bearing on the interpretation of Matthew’s.
Where does this leave us then? What should be clear so far, I hope, is that Jesus’ teaching on money and wealth was profoundly counter-cultural and found difficult by most people. The shock of the disciples is palpable when Jesus says, ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’. ‘Who then can be saved?’, they ask (Lk 18:26). What I hope will become clearer in the following articles, is that the difficulty of this teaching is not because Jesus wants us to prove our faith by heroic efforts, but because his central purpose is to save us from a powerful life-destroying force. The subject of money is but one subset of the greater subject of where true life can be found: ‘For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it’ (Matt 7:14).
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