Upside down interpretation of the Parable of the Kingdom

A few months ago, Andrew posted at City of God a few question, one of which was:

  • Does Jesus’ logic in the parable of the talents support the concept that, all other things being equal, it is more rational that people invest money than hoard it in the ground?
  • I responded as follows: In my view yes. Jesus is teaching from the known to the unknown; from everyday experience, in this case investing, to the unknown characteristics of the kingdom of God. Thus, Jesus is not teaching that investing money is better than burying money, but using that very assumption to point out something about the Kingdom of God.

    Then a certain Brandon responded (Brandon is a missionary in South Africa and if you would like to give some of your ill-gotten filthy usuary to him, you can link to this giving page here):

    1. March 6, 2010 1:48 pm

      Why do we always assume the parable of the talents is a glorification of free market principles?

      As he is much more eloquent than me, I’ll let the words of Ched Myers speak:

      This parable reads much more coherently as a cautionary tale about the world controlled by great householders (this is even clearer in Luke’s version of the story, Luke 19:11-27). Jesus may even have been spinning a thinly-veiled autobiographical tale here—for he, too, will shortly stand before the powers, speak the truth, and take the consequences. To read in it a divine endorsement of mercenary economics and the inevitable polarization of wealth is to miss the point completely—and to perpetuate both dysfunctional theology and complicit economics in our churches.
      The consequence of the third slave’s noncooperation is banishment to the “outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30). We have presumed this to be “hell,” and so perhaps it is—that is, the hell on earth experienced by those rejected by the dominant culture: in the shadows where the light of the royal courts never shine, on the mean streets outside the great households, the dwelling place of the outcast poor like Lazarus (Luke 16:19-21). But the story that immediately follows this tragic conclusion—the famous last-judgment parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46) may illuminate the nature of the dissident slave’s exile. This singular judgment story in the Gospels suggests that we meet Christ mysteriously by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned (Matt. 25:25-40). In other words, we meet Christ in places of pain and marginality; the “outer darkness.” The whistle-blower’s punishment kicks him out of the rich man’s system, but brings him closer to the true Lord, who dwells with the poor and oppressed.

      From here


    To this I wrote:

    Brandon, the parable doesn’t glorify free market principles. It uses an investment as an means of illustrating the nature of the Kingdom. Thus, the parable makes certain assumptions. Evidently, in Jesus’ day, no one would ever think it proper to bury a couple hundred thousand US dollars in the ground (on this understanding of how much is a talent, see Is Debt Sin ).

    The article Brandon cites starts out:

    Even more problematic than our sentimentalizing of kingdom parables is the way we misread Jesus’ parables about the world, reading them as if they were kingdom parables—with disastrous consequences. The most notorious case is the infamous parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30).”

    Matt 25.1, which is the near context says: “Then the Kingdom of heaven shall be compared to … ” (Τότε ὁμοιωθήσεται ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν). Then vs. 14 (῞Ωσπερ γὰρ ), “For it will be as when …”(RSV); “Again it will be like” (NIV). BDAG suggest the meaning of ῞Ωσπερ γὰρ is “for it is just like” — i.e., we are not dealing with parable of the world as the authors suggest but with another parable of the kingdom. Their position is a severe violation of context.

    The article goes down hill from this statement to other false assumptions. One of which is the time period of the journey:

    In the 1st Century AD, without the availability of today’s electronic financial instruments, securities exchanges and stock markets, hedge funds, arbitrage, trading on margin, etc., to double such a vast fortune in currency within a journey’s time was unthinkable, and impossible through honest “work”. We today have difficulty hearing the story as those first listening to Jesus heard it, because in our day and age we are utterly habituated to dubious investment schemes, unlike the poor in Jesus’ audience.

    The period of time is unspecified. I always thought of it as about 10 years (“now after a long time”; μετὰ δὲ πολὺν χρόνον), perhaps because of the Odyssey, where the warriors were all gone 10 years, and the Odysseus himself was lost another 10 years. But in any case, the period time is a long time, not a short time, which the exegesis of Myers and Debode requires to be coherent. Brandon, I was able to quintuple one of my RRSPs (like an IRA) in 22 months. Does that make me a faithful servant or a dishonest investor, using the evil capitalist system make more myself “dubious” gain?

    Thanks for referring to this article. It will be easy to retort such tendentious “exegesis” in a future blog post at the Righteous Investor. Cheers.

    Then the following discussion ensued:

    1. March 6, 2010 4:28 pm

      Brandon, I was able to quintuple one of my RRSPs (like an IRA) in 22 months. Does that make me a faithful servant or a dishonest investor, using the evil capitalist system make more myself “dubious” gain?

      I don’t know. Did you sell all you have and give it to the poor?

      • Andrew
        March 6, 2010 5:10 pm

        Why would he need to do that?

      • March 6, 2010 5:22 pm

        The biblical notion of private property allows me to be steward over any number of resources for the short period of time which is my life. Having received no direct verbal instruction from the Lord to sell all I have, I have tried to increase it using legitimate and ethical investments, and have had a modest amount of success at it, at least until the next market crash. Peter said to Ananias:

        Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.

        Peter is saying that Ananias would not have sinned had he not sold the field; nor would he have sinned if he had kept all or a part of the money for himself. He only sinned because he pretend to be like Barnabas (Acts 4.36) making people think that he was more generous than he was.

      • March 6, 2010 5:37 pm

        Why? He’s obviously got a lot of pride in his ability to make quadruple his investment in the market system and it reminded me of the rich young ruler. Why the need to brag about investments and such to a lowly soul such as myself who frankly doesn’t give a hoot? But as I said in the last comment — I don’t know. Jesus is the judge of the heart, not I.

        It’s funny though that we take this and read it from our context, delighting in the usury it promotes whilst ignoring the surrounding context (particularly textual — it’s sandwiching between the parable of staying alert and the least of these as well as the greater context of scripture, such as that in Ex 16, Lev 25) and it’s decisively negative view of God (if He is in fact the owner).

        But carry on — It’s obvious I’m in the minority here and that I am OK with.

        And feel free to take the last word — I’m not likely to respond as it is bedtime and tomorrow I will be busy with other things that will keep me from the computer.

      • March 6, 2010 6:37 pm

        Well, since I didn’t tell you how much it was, I didn’t really view it as boastful. It could have been $100 dollars now turned into $500 for all you know–if it was 5 billion, well you’d be reading about me in the Wall Street Journal. Besides, as the body of Christ, can’t we not rejoice with one another when one of us does well? So my success is your success in a spiritual sense (cf. 1 Cor 12.26; Luke 15.9). Also, I find it helpful when those who are successful share their know-how with others, and I try to do the same on my investment blog. But you seem to consider it an evil thing to have and invest money.

        I wanted to see how far you would take the interpretation: are you really so disdainful of people who can make successful investments? The article you cited portrays investors as the worst sort of evil sinners and extortionists. Ouch! It is really sad. Plus, I have a retirement account partly because I am much older than you, old enough even to be your dad. Would it bother you if your parents were to have investments in order that they can take care of themselves in their old age? I see that you are a missionary in South Africa. Do you have supporters? How do they make their money? Do any of them have retirement accounts? I hope, for your sake, that none of them maintain bank accounts in which they accept usury. Would you tell one of your supporters that he was full of pride if he said to you, Brandon, “I am going to give you $1000 per month, because God has been good to me, and I was able to quintuple my investments”?

        Your understanding of interest is quite a narrow interpretation. Perhaps you know that Jewish people, even though they take very seriously the words of the Torah, have often been moneylenders, because in their view it is not a sin to accept interest from a non-Jew; and they were able to take advantage of many centuries when Christians were not permitted to charge interest to other Christians. But I wonder to what degree the Torah applies to Christians in this case. I hardly think it is a sin to put my money in a interest bearing savings account. Where do you put your money, under your mattress? Oh, I forgot, you said you didn’t have any.

        Also, very few of my investments actually involve the charging of “usury”. They are mostly in the resource sector. At the low interest rates of today, “usury” is, as in the parable, the last thing I would choose to invest in. Are you also against any kind of business in which a profit is made?

        Don’t worry about being a minority. You probably have a lot sympathizers here. They just haven’t jumped into the conversation yet. Bonne nuit! Take care.

      • Andrew
        March 6, 2010 11:18 pm


        I side with Calvin on the issue of usury: the kind of usury prohibited in scripture is that on loans to the destitute poor for the sake of helping them out of poverty. Not interest on normal business investments.

        I don’t see how the context undermines my fairly minor point. I wasn’t saying the point of Jesus’ parable was to teach us about economics; just that he presupposes an economic law in his parable as being true. I also don’t see how this parable presents a negative view of God; what makes you think that it does? Is it just that God is angry?

        Feel free to continue commenting. I for one appreciate the free exchange of different views. I hope you don’t take offense at my not agreeing with your comments.

      • March 6, 2010 11:48 pm

        That is an interesting point about Calvin. Would that explain Dutch banking? Or more generally the shift in Europe to allowing Christian moneylenders ?

        The article that Brandon cited made the suggestion that the parable, if understood to be a parable of the Kingdom and not of the world, would have given a terrible image of God, as terrible and harsh master–who receives money from other people’s labor, who expects unreasonable rate of return on his investment, and who punishes a “whistle blower”.

      • Andrew
        March 6, 2010 11:54 pm

        Peter: I’m not up on my post-Reformation history enough, but I don’t doubt Calvin’s thinking was somewhat significant on the shift towards permitting allowing interest.

        I think the whole point of the Master’s anger is that the servant should have known better: the master is not unreasonable, but is mad that the servant has maligned his character in suggesting that he is (and acting accordingly). That’s how I’ve always read it.

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