Economics and the Parable of the Talents

As I continue to mull over the response to my reading of the parable of the tenants, I wanted to draw some attention to interpretive opponents for a moment. That is, when comments (both here and over social media) started coming in on the subject, the most common response was something along the lines of “This parable has nothing to do with economics, but rather faithfulness!” The implication being that to read the parable economically, either positively or negatively, is an unsound hermeneutical approach to the passage.

I would like to note at least seven major theologians within the Reformed tradition who read the parable in just the way my critics say “I don’t know anybody who reads the parable about the good of economic labor.”

1. David Hall and Matthew Burton, in their abysmal book Calvin and Commerce, take just this very approach to reading the passage – that it reveals God’s approval of the capitalist model for wealth growth (pp. 69-71).

2. Wayne Grudem also notes the parable’s implications for business growth in his equally misguided Business to the Glory of God (p. 51 and surrounding).

3. Calvin himself seems to have understood the parable as having economic implications for the growth of wealth in his comments on the parable in his Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels.

4. John Schneider also takes this interpretive approach to the parable in his equally problematic The Good of Affluence (pp. 186-192).

5. Jay Richards, in one of the worst and most misinformed books on the subject I’ve ever read (Money, Greed and God, pp. 155-156), also takes this approach to the parable.

6. Joel McDurmon also notes the economic elements of the parable and takes this same approach to reading the passage in his God vs. Socialism (pp. 138-141).

7. Gary North also takes this same approach to reading the passage (Priorities and Dominion, pp. 538-539 and surrounding).

All of these men have approached the parable in the same way, noting its clear economic implications. I still (strongly) maintain that they have gotten their interpretation of the parable 100% backwards, but they all utilize the very interpretation I have been critiquing and demonstrate that those responders who protested that “nobody” reads the parable in that way are dead wrong. Almost everyone they read and cite most often have taken precisely this approach to the parable.

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5 thoughts on “Economics and the Parable of the Talents

  1. I have read your assessment of the parable. The features of the parable such as analogy to the kingdom of heaven and the worthless servant being tossed into outer darkness are similar to other parables and suggest that the man is Jesus (or possibly the Father) and the servants godly (Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.). I disagree with interpretation (which needs fleshing out).

    That said, I don’t see the parable as addressing investment directly and although I think the capitalists are correct, I do not think this passage gives them support. I guess I am in the interesting position as supporting the economic policy of some of the authors you mention but disagreeing with their exegesis here. It seems that this is reading the analogy as the teaching whereas it is just descriptive of a situation to point to a different truth: faithfulness to Christ. Perhaps this is similar to Jesus’ story concerning the unjust steward which most do not think justifies theft.

    On a related issue, the question of usury is difficult. Ezra (?) condemns it at a level of 1%! My take on usury in money lent (to the poor) for basic necessities. If I have no money to buy food and am malnourished, then I borrow to survive, the last thing I need is to be trapped in the debt cycle with compound interest. But I would not apply this to business ventures. Such people have the choice to borrow or not depending on whether they see the price of money (interest) as less than potential gains. And they are not compulsed to borrow whereas the pauper is.

    1. I’m afraid it doesn’t seem like you read it very carefully, and did not read my expanded posts on the same subject. I have addressed all of these issues. The trouble with your approach is that it depends on ignoring the surface level of the parable for the sake of the deeper meaning. But there must be a unity between the surface and deeper levels. Jesus chose, after all, to speak about Israel and the Kingdom through a comparison to economic investment. The economic reading is vital to our understanding of what Jesus is doing, and a close reading of the details of the parable is necessary to figure out what Jesus is saying. Even on your own reading, Jesus is saying, “Faithfulness to the Kingdom of God is like economic investment.” Remove the economic investment level to the story and we lose the meaning along with it.

      My approach is to see this parable as how Israel expected God to judge the world. Those who worked the hardest and were most effective in Israel would be rewarded and the lazy and ineffective cast out. This is a judgment by utility. But Jesus’ whole point in the gospels is that He did not come to the well, but to the sick, to the poor and the ineffective and helpless. It is not enough to claim that usury only applies to the individualized poor but not to businesses. As I have pointed out, the usury laws are expanded by the prophets to include *all* forms of lending at interest. The bifurcation between personal and business did not exist at the time of Jesus and would not have made any sense to them; it is a modern invention.

      To me, then, to say that the investing servants are the faithful ones is to claim that Jesus is describing the Kingdom as a place where usury takes place. “The Kingdom of God is like a harsh, abusive man who beats his servants unless they commit usury for him.” Such does not sound at all like God to me. God is never described as being “hard” in the sense of being a harsh taskmaster. The Gospels bend over backwards to tell us the opposite: His yoke is light, but the burden of the Pharisees is heavy and difficult. The character of the harsh master grates completely with the picture of God we see everywhere else in the Gospels, and in the rest of the Bible, really.

  2. Adam, I did read your original post. I have re-read it and I have gone back and re-read the parable in Matthew along with the related one in Luke.

    I fail to see how your position comes from the text. The kingdom of heaven is like…. It seems that Jesus is describing the kingdom of heaven, the faithful are rewarded, the faithless is punished. In the parable of the minas which tells the same basic message Jesus contrasts the nobleman’s delay with the disciples expectation of an immediate kingdom of God. The implication that Jesus will go and return later which identifies Jesus even more closely with the nobleman.

    The passage in Luke also make it clearer that the accusation of being a hard man was the servant’s, not the assessment of the nobleman as the later says “I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow?” Elsewhere it is clear that the measure we use in judgment is what is used against us.

    You struggle to see Jesus beating or killing faithless servants? Yet we get this from several parables. In Luke 20 the parable of the wicked servants where the passage clearly means Jesus and the Father are the owner and the son. The scribes also knew this passage was told against them. The parable of the unforgiving servant is similar.

    So there does not appear to be a problem with Jesus punishing men, one needs to ask why in each parable. In the current parable Jesus is not punishing him for not practicing usury, he was not asked to do that, he was asked to engage in business (manage his money). He failed to do that, the comment about interest was that if the servant was going to do nothing (which he did) then banking the money would also cost him no effort but at least the nobleman would have made some profit. He wasn’t asked to bank it, he was asked to engage in business. (Not that I think it excessively relevant to the story but Jews were permitted to charge Gentiles interest; see Deuteronomy 23).

    But the main point is that I don’t think you need to read capitalism here. I have no problems with capitalism and if this is a secondary point of the parable then this causes me no difficulties. Even so, it is a parable. I don’t think that people should be dishonest like the dishonest manager. I don’t think that Jesus is teaching us how to sow seed in the parable of the wheat. I don’t think that Jesus says he steals when he likens himself to a thief. The message here is not about money, it is about faithfulness. Be at God’s work until he comes just like the faithful stewards were at their master’s work while he was away.

    1. The parables, like with all of Jesus’ ministry, is concerned with Israel and the end of the Old Covenant. Jesus is constantly critiquing Israel’s self-identity and her expectation about the Messiah. The parable of the talents is about the Kingdom of God, and the “master” is God. The ultimate question is faithfulness. We agree on all of these things. My point is simply that based upon a close reading of the text and comparison with the other parables and sayings of Jesus, this appears to be a presentation of the judgment Israel expected; this God is the God they think Yahweh is, and they expect themselves, the “faithful” to be vindicated while those who haven’t been faithful as they define the term will be punished. But the fact is that the master is presented as capricious and vindictive and harsh. This is qualitatively different than the presentation of God in the other parables you mention; even when God punishes those who are faithless he does so from a righteous place. It is not simply the servant who perceives the master this way; the master does not deny his impression and instead affirms it. The question is, would Jesus really present God as a harsh taskmaster that demands his servants break the Torah by committing usury and then taking all the money for himself? To ask the question is to have the answer. No, this is a presentation of how Israel expects the judgment to go; they are elevated and the wicked abased – but they’re confused about who is wicked and who is righteous. They have made evil good, and good into evil. The real judgment is presented in the next parable, when those who have fed the poor and clothed the naked and visited the widows and orphans are the ones who receive vindication. The demand of usury in the parable of the talents is directly connected to the true judgment, because usury is one of the specific things which Jesus accuses Israel of having done. They devour widows houses while keeping the rituals of the Torah and think that their ritual-keeping will save them. But it is not their sacrifices that God wanted. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” says Isaiah, which Jesus quotes to the Pharisees on several occasions.

      The central economic metaphor with which Jesus chose to present this parable cannot be gotten around. The root metaphor *must* cohere with the deeper meaning. The parable of the sower might not be about horticulture, but it does depend upon the planting metaphor being correct. “The Kingdom of God is like a man who scatters seeds” must be followed with correct information about what happens when a man does this. The deeper meaning depends upon the surface meaning. This is absolutely, 100% the case. That’s just how metaphors work, I’m afraid. You mention Jesus coming like a thief in the night but he is not a thief; but 1) this is not a parable, but rather a saying, and 2) Jesus does say he is a thief – he has come to bind the strong man (Satan), break into his house and carry off his treasures.

  3. Adam, this is one of the problems of internet dialogue, lack of real time interactive dialogue.

    I will add that my above comment lacks clarity. I agree with you that the underlying metaphor must be correct (reflect a possible reality). When I wrote “I don’t think you need to read capitalism here. I have no problems with capitalism and if this is a secondary point of the parable then this causes me no difficulties. Even so, it is a parable.” I meant

    I don’t think you need to read approval of capitalism by Jesus here. He is just using the analogy for the kingdom. Just like one does not need to read approval of dishonesty with the shrewd manager. I just think you need to see the managers as being faithful to the nobleman and thus we are to be faithful to God.

    I still disagree about this being a contrast with the true meaning of the kingdom, I think is does give a true insight into what the kingdom is like, faithfulness to God’s business while we await Jesus return; for reasons I have already stated.

    Cheers

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