Is this capitalism? – Matthew in Advent day 19

Last Saturday (it will be linked at the end of this post) I wrote of the traditional interpretation and why I have always felt wary of it, because the traditional reading takes takes the Greek talenta, a large sum of money, translated traditionally as talent but in the NIV as bag of gold, and makes it the equivalent of the English word talent. Something I have never understood. It has been taken as evidence that banking is a biblical principle, but is there really be a biblical principle for capitalism, of for socialism and other modern political ideals?

I also said there was something more worrying about the traditional understanding, and I would cover it in this post. So here it is: When missionaries have told the parable of the talents/bags of gold to people who have never heard the Gospel and then asked them, “Who in this story do you relate to?” the answer comes back, “The third man.” So what if we were supposed to relate to the third man and the man going on the journey is not God? Have we got the point of the story upside down? Try when reading the passage below to make the third servant the hero of the story.

The Gospel of Matthew is written as a series of six narrative sections, telling the story of Jesus’ life, interspersed with five sections of teaching. The beginning of the Gospel links back into the past of the Old Testament. This, the last of the teaching sections, links forward to the future. Advent is a time when we look forward to the return of Christ.

The parable of the talents, part 2 – A radical view

‘Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag,[a] each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 ‘After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.”

21 ‘His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

22 ‘The man with two bags of gold also came. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with two bags of gold: see, I have gained two more.”

23 ‘His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

24 ‘Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. “Master,” he said, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.”

26 ‘His master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

28 ‘“So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew 25:14-30 NIV UK

Have you put the third servant as the hero of the story? What have you found? God’s servant is treated appallingly and yet still speaks truth to power said Isaiah (Isaiah 52 and 53). Here we have a direct parallel with the treatment of the third servant, in this parable spoken by Jesus just before his crucifixion. It is how Jesus himself will be treated.

Luke’s version, The parable of the pounds, (Luke 19:11-27) finishes with the enemies of the man who distributed the money being killed in front of him. Are we to equate God with this action? Read the traditional way it makes God very harsh and uncaring, read this other way it tells of persecution of the church.

Here are some problems I have with ths traditional understanding:

It contradicts the parable of the prodigal son

The prodigal son story is about a son who asks his father for his inheritance, goes away and wastes it and when he has nothing left his father welcomes him and despite his wasteful ways puts on a party for his return. How is that consistent with a man who will act cruelly to a servant who has kept his property safe?

It recommends usury

The master says, “Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.” (verse 27.) Would a Jewish rabbi like Jesus have had God recommending that practice? Bankers charging or giving interest was seen by the Jews as an unrighteoud form of money making.

It identifies God with the powerful

Jesus often sided with the poor and marginalised. He extended his love to all and made clear that repentance for the rich meant a change in the way they used their money. Remember that this is Matthew, the former tax collector who changed his ways and followed Jesus who is reporting this.

Luke’s version is even more severe, yet it is Luke who records that greatest Advent hymn of all time, Mary’s song that is called the Magnificat. Mary said:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.

Luke 1:51-53

Or as has been said more recently, this Christmas verse:

Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!
Nowell, sing we loud.
God to-day hath poor folks raised
And cast a-down the proud.

William Morris.

I am not saying that a parable cannot have two meanings. If Jesus had only wanted one meaning he could have said it plainly, but I find the traditional interpretation to be harmful.

However all I ask is for you to read it through and make up your mind for yourself.


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