19
Nov
11

Occupy the Bible

I am often motivated by scripture readings in Sunday service to write about them from a different perspective than is customary. Recently, the Gospel Reading in our little ELCA Lutheran Church was the parable in Matthew 25:14-30. Christian commentaries and sermons on this parable typically describe it in terms of judgement (especially of the unsaved, who are “servants” (sometimes translated ‘slaves’) – entrusted with the monetary denomination “talent” representing God’s blessings to which we are to be faithful) :

14 For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country,
who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.
15 And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man
according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.
16 Then he that had received the five talents went and traded
with the same, and made them other five talents.
17 And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.
18 But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.
19 After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.
20 And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord,
thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.
21 His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over
a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
22 He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst
unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.
23 His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over
a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
24 Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an
hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:
25 And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.
26 His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest
that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:
27 Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers,
and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.
28 Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.
29 For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance:
but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
30 And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness:
there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

My prior use of the term ‘perspective’ applies also to commenters other than me. Scriptures have been massaged, twisted, and misrepresented continually and forever. This parable (and its fraternal twin in Luke 19) is perfectly suitable to such misapplication. A natural example is found in American politics. Conservatives have, in this parable, the exemplification of some of their most persistant themes: the wealthy have earned more than folks like me because they have worked harder ; it takes money to make money ; it is the wealthy who make it possible for us to earn the right to continue working ; those who do not make the wealthy yet more wealthy are lazy and condemnable.

These are plausibly, if superficially, supported by the parable. Perhaps it is the reluctance of politicians to be specific about religion that has kept this connection from being exploited. Even so, there are many who bend Christianity to their secular purposes. Either I am oblivious, or they haven’t yet focused upon this parable.

It is (I think) not too late to preempt such arguments.

The parable begins “For the kingdom of heaven is as …”, which explicitly announces that it is a spiritual lesson, not a management or financial seminar. Even so, it is odd that the kingdom of heaven might be compared to anything involving such a nasty person as the master (“Lord”). Be careful to note that the master did not gift the money to the servants – it, and all profits derived from it, belonged to the master.

The servant element might explain why this parable has not been appropriated by conservatives. Folks who aren’t wealthy will probably relate to the servants. That makes a rather strong statement about the distribution of money and influence in America. Conservatives appeal for support of the wealthy, which is not an original attitude – even for slaves.

The master did not participate in the investment activity. He was a ‘passive’ investor who did not even provide guidance before he “straightway took his journey” and returned “after a long time”. This is our current situation. It is only the wealthy who have spare cash and the capacity to risk it on investments which require no work. Rather than being people who work 50? 100? times harder than their employees, they must acknowledge that “I reap where I sowed not”. That is, they purchase seed which they do not even plant, then take the profits of the work of others.

My co-workers & I work plenty hard. Someone would have to work 24/7 to work merely 4 times harder than we do. The wealthy aren’t especially smarter than anyone else, either. The stock market has been shown to have fractal price behavior over time. It is a chaotic system, perfectly unpredictable. Those who ‘make a killing in the market’ are seldom geniuses. They also are not idiots. They are lucky. I am not referring to the fictitious ‘you make your own luck’. This is true chance, unaffected by merit or unworth.

The servants had no money of their own to risk. They risked something less tangible. The wicked servant might have paid for his poor choice by being sold to a less forgiving master. What might have happened if, as in real life, one of the servants had LOST money? People who are not wealthy understand the harsh reality of such risks – loss of job, health insurance, or savings.

For those who want to have reality-based opinions on this subject {WARNING – some math ahead}, here are a few references: ‘Pareto Distributions in Economic Growth Models‘ describes how “the concentration of the wealth can be interpreted as the result of the extraordinary concentration of risk bearings.” ; ‘Market Efficiency, the Pareto Wealth Distribution, and the Lévy Distribution of Stock Returns‘ finds specifically “chance, rather than differential investment ability, is the main source of inequality at the high-wealth range.” ; ‘Why it is hard to share the wealth‘ provides a brief commentary on structural forces in wealth inequality – without the gnarly math of the first two references.

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6 Responses to “Occupy the Bible”


  1. December 3, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Well hello,

    This blog was recommended to me by Caddo Veil first and then by Carroll Boswell in a comment on my blog.

    I agree that it is in the best interest of the wealthy to have the income disparity smaller than it is now. The last time we had income disparity like this, it was 1929 and we all know how that turned out. For the wealthy and large corporations to continue to profit, they need to have consumers. People without money cannot buy goods and services. At some point the economy will collapse.

    Not to mention it is economic patriotism as well to help the country that gave them so much and they extracted so much from.

    Greed makes a person blind and short-sighted apparently.

  2. November 21, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    I had intended to label this post Categories as ‘Politics & Opinion’ and ‘Religion & Society’. ‘Random & Miscellaneous’ was inadvertent. ‘Inadvertent’ occurs rather often in my life now! I think that I have never labeled a post as only ‘Religion & Society’. Our lives should be an integrated whole. My political and religious attitudes are not different things. This post and your comments, are really about the dichotomy that is hurting many societies. Many others who claim that integration are oblivious to the contradictions.

    Discourse is never in vain with those who are self-aware and questioning of their sufficiency for others.

    Peace be with you.

  3. November 21, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    @Carol Boswell,

    I was most pleased when you said,

    I regard it as a moral principle that human necessities should not be permitted to be exploited for profit. Neither hunger nor shelter nor clothing nor medical care should be matters for profitability: people who are desperate for real necessities are vulnerable to exploitation. I don’t care if capitalists make inordinate profits from Doritos or hamburgers, but they should not be given control of the protein supply or vitamins or any real necessity. The same must be true of medicine.

    I believe you are making the case for either the Public Option or a single-payer system, and I agree. The profit motive has exploded costs and is killing the country. The irony of it is that our social programs have enabled their ability to do it.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Carol, as always. You give me hope that online discourse is not all in vain.

  4. November 21, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Perhaps it is true that we did embark on Social Security, Medicare etc out of socialist piety, but not whole-heartedly. It was a mixed bag, socialist in some degree but administered and controlled and ultimately ruined by capitalists. The hospitals, the doctors, the pharmaceutical companies, and the insurance companies, by skimming off inordinate profits from everyone, but especially the poor and the government, have made it close to collapse. I regard it as a moral principle that human necessities should not be permitted to be exploited for profit. Neither hunger nor shelter nor clothing nor medical care should be matters for profitability: people who are desperate for real necessities are vulnerable to exploitation. I don’t care if capitalists make inordinate profits from Doritos or hamburgers, but they should not be given control of the protein supply or vitamins or any real necessity. The same must be true of medicine. Let frivolous medicine make a “killing” but not the ones who supply the drugs for diabetics, or cancer patients, or the transplants. If it is an inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” how can it not be an inalienable right to the things that make such rights possible. If I have an inalienable right to life, but no right at all to food or medicine then the right to life is not worth much.

    I must say that you make good points about how the parable can be, and probably is, being massaged, twisted, and misrepresented. On the face of it, without looking too hard, the servants did not represent the unsaved: the parable is about the Kingdom of God, and presumable doesn’t deal with those outside of it. It is a parable about us, the believers. But the misappropriation of Scripture by the fundamentalists is only one of the two evil things they have done and not the worse one. Not only to they justify evil by using the Bible, they derail the entire discussion of the Bible by defining the terms and setting the agenda for the discussion. Then we refute their misuse but stay on their turf and reject the Bible along with their misuse of it. The Bible must be understood on its own terms if it is to be understood at all, and the fundamentalists have taken our attention away from what the Bible’s own terms are. Their first sin is a human one, making the Bible say what we want it to say, but the second sin prevents everyone else from seeing or thinking as well.

    When you write about the creationist misuse of science, don’t you have to always approach it from two angles? On the one hand is the unscientific things they say. But even more serious is the way they redefine and derail the pursuit of science to suit their own ends. Refuting what they say is good, but if the principles and terms of science continue to remain distorted then science is destroyed completely anyway. There are people who just give up on science after they listen to creationists. It is the same with the Bible. “Occupy the Bible” is a good slogan, especially if we are determined to occupy it and not just evict its current tenants.

    So I will stop spouting off and “return control of your television set to you”. You do a good job here. I always look forward to reading what you say, though some catalyze me to ranting more than others.

  5. November 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Yeah, good points. The real world refuses to comport with simplistic approaches. Even my sacred cows are not absolute and perfect.

    For folks (me!) who don’t recognize the acronym ‘EMTALA‘ {link}.

  6. November 20, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Excellent post, Jim, and for sure a topic of current interest.

    The first thing that strikes me about the biblical parable of the talents is how odd it is. Why would a rich man resort to using his servants, a.k.a. slaves, as investment vehicles? Odd. “Take this money and get me a good return, or it’s off to Siberia with you!” Can you imagine a Southern plantation owner tasking his cotton-pickers like that? Me neither, so apparently the “servant” context has changed in those 2,000 years. (And yet, preachers all across the bible belt offer these stories as paradigms for our modern lives.)

    You offer an interesting list of “persistent themes” about wealth used by conservatives”

    ” . . . the wealthy have earned more than folks like me because they have worked harder ; it takes money to make money ; it is the wealthy who make it possible for us to earn the right to continue working ; those who do not make the wealthy yet more wealthy are lazy and condemnable.”

    I have long mused that gaining wealth through saving and investment, while open to anyone, might be less moral than mere labor. I just read about one of the people now living in FEMA town south of the airport. He and his wife are living on disability and charity. He is looking forward to resuming his job as a restaurant dishwasher, at which time he will be commuting to work 10 miles each way, daily, on a bicycle. Washing dishes 8 hours a day is no doubt hard work in a noisy, chaotic, unpleasant environment. Compare that to investing money in mutual funds, stocks and bonds, and watching the income accumulate. Am I the only one who wonders about this in a moral context? I find it a little odd that capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than simple earned income, don’t you?

    And yet, I am unsure what to do about it. The Bible appears to accept such conditions as inevitable. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s . . . ” (In fact, the Bible appears to accept the institution of slavery too.) That said, it occurs to me that it is in the best interest of the wealthy to see that income disparity not become too large, otherwise they might go to a restaurant only to find that the dishwasher didn’t show up because his bicycle broke. There is a certain maximum disparity of income, in other words, beyond which the quality of a society declines so as to affect even the wealthy.

    There is an interesting website about international income disparity, sortable by column depending on the measure of disparity you choose.

    Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality

    The U.S. is far from the worst in this regard, but I find it also interesting that nations like Cuba have some of the most-equal income equality, a situation redolent of a famous quotation by one of Britain’s ruling class.

    “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” – Winston Churchill

    However, I submit that this is yet another simplicity which often obscures economic truth. Massive economic operations like healthcare can be undermined by complexities, as ours has been. The U.S. embarked on Social Security, Medicare (and Medicaid) out of socialist piety, and that was successful in lifting millions of dishwashers out of poverty in their sickness and old age. But then, once so embarked, government found itself forced to enact EMTALA, lest poor people perish in the gutter when sick, so it now extorts hospitals to care for them lest government money be withheld. Was the wild west frontier a better way? I fear the system is failing. The wealthy should be worried. Very worried.


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