Political Parables – Free Market Economics

Unknown First of all, I listened to an awesome radio 4 show this week, which is part of a brilliant series called “Promises, promises: A History of Debt”. This week’s short program was entitled: “The International Politics of Debt” and serves as a good backdrop to challenge some of our world-view before embarking on this next parable, which to be honest, interpreted through the lens of Freire and Herzog, blew my mind! Have a listen: http://bbc.in/18eAr6m The parable in question is that of  “The Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27)

Matthew 25:14-30 English Standard Version (ESV)

The Parable of the Talents

14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants[a] and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents,[b] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.[c] You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘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.’ 24 He also who had received the imagesone talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Footnotes:

  1. Matthew 25:14 Greek bondservants; also verse 19
  2. Matthew 25:15 talent was a monetary unit worth about twenty years’ wages for a laborer
  3. Matthew 25:21 Greek bondservant; also verses 232630
English Standard Version (ESV)The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. I have sat in so many different church contexts over the years and heard this parable taught the same way. “Use your talents/gifts/money for God, because God doesn’t want you to waste what He’s given you. You are supposed to multiply it and increase it and use it for His glory/for good/to show others His blessing…..” But, hang on a minute. What if we turn this parable on its head? What if Jesus is not casting God as the master, but he is again directly speaking into the societal set up of the day? What if this master is in fact a ruler in an agrarian society, with a governing class beneath him, a section of merchants, retainers and priests with a few artisans thrown in underneath that and a bunch of unclean/degraded/expendables at the bottom of the pile? If this is so, (and I’m not sure the master fits the bill in terms of who Jesus is revealing the Father to be), then what might the parable mean? Is it possible that the radical person is not the one who doubles the money of the “unjust ruler”, who reaps where he doesn’t sow etc etc? Rather, could Jesus be highlighting the one who choses to challenge this way of life, that in effect keeps the ruler rich and powerful, or gives increase to the ones who are willing to increase their wealth through defunct systems of usury, to be the real radical/irritant/one of another kind of Kingdom? It’s not to say that God doesn’t want us to use gifts he’s given us for the benefit of others…..but maybe that’s just not what this parable is about. Too often, the parables of Jesus are used to uphold and justify a certain way of doing economics and perhaps we don’t want to engage with the hard-hitting realities of what he might really be saying…. If we assume that this master does not represent God, then what might a modern-day reading of it be (also given the context of international debt)? Maybe something like this: For it will be like the CEO of a big chocolate company, who went to the Ivory Coast to ensure a good flow of chocolate into the West and ever expand his chocolate empire. He called three of his most entrusted leaders to himself, and asked them to ensure more chocolate at a lower price. He set one of them, with the most experience over 5 factories, the next one over 3 factories and the last one over 1 factory. The first two set to work, thinking about how they could make more chocolate for less money in order to keep their boss happy and the business functioning well. They knew if they did well, they would secure their own future in the company and good income for their families. Understanding capitalism, they came up with a cunning plan. They decided the best way would be to get cheap or even free images-2labour. So, they enslaved children from the surrounding area and nations with families who were too poor to keep them, and put them to work in the fields, picking the cocoa, or in the factories at the grinding machines, under terrible and dangerous conditions, in which many of the children died or were abused by hard task masters. images-1The last of the workers, saw what the other two were up to and it made him sick to the stomach. He refused to enslave children in this way and couldn’t understand the motivation of the CEO. He chose to pay people a fair wage, keep their working conditions good and have strong morale amongst his team. The CEO returned. He was willing to turn a blind eye to the methods and was full of praise for the ‘business acumen’ of the first two. He paid them well, ensuring his ‘fair trade’ logo and set them up over even more projects to continue achieving brilliant results. The other guy was out on his ear, sacked from the company with no right of appeal. Confused and dismayed, what was he to do? End his life? Beg for his job back and act the same way as the others? No, he continued Unknown-1to try to live a life that restored people’s humanity and hoped for “the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible”. So, who is the radical carrier of the Kingdom of God here?

Political Parables – Can Systems Change?

In this mini-series, I am not going to look at all of the parables that Herzog covers in his aforementioned book “Parables as Subversive Speech” – it is a meaty and in depth study and is packed full of punches. Rather, I will focus on the ones which impacted me the most, which caused me to sit up and take notice and forced me to re-examine how I had read it up to this point. I love it when an author/teacher does that – forces you to see something you have never seen before….it’s so good! I hope that whatever your faith background there is some stuff to really engage with here……

As a backdrop, it is important to make three brief statements:

Firstly, Herzog does an incredible job in the early part of his book in peeling back the layers to reveal what was the sociological context of the parables. If we do not understand the nature of the oppressive systems both of the temple and of Rome, then we will miss what Jesus is addressing. Herzog calls this ‘codifying’, a term also credited to Freire in his work with the ‘peasant’ classes in Brasil. These are not twee stories to make us think about cute scenarios. These are hard hitting metaphors which strike at the heart of society and call it to account. Jesus wasn’t crucified because he simply decided to hand himself in, as if all along this was his plan. He was crucified because he challenged the powers head on and there was nowhere else for them to go but to kill him (more on this another time).

Secondly, Herzog asks us to really get to the issue that Jesus was speaking to, not how we choose to clumsily interpret it today nor even how Matthew or Luke emphasised a parable one way or another. He asks us to be faithful to the text by being faithful to the speaker…..

Thirdly, any interpretation of scripture, from my point of view, must begin with Jesus, it is what is called a Jesus hermeneutic. If one starts anywhere else, it is possible to end up with a very different version of God than the One Jesus reveals the Trinity to be. Therefore, when characters are given the role of ‘God’ in these stories, we must ask ourselves if this really represents a true understanding of what Jesus is telling us that God is like i.e. exactly like him.

So, here is the parable of the Unmerciful Servant:

Matthew 18:21-35English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.[a]

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.[b] 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.[c] 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant[d] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii,[e] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,[f]until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Footnotes:

  1. Matthew 18:22 Or seventy-seven times
  2. Matthew 18:23 Greek bondservants; also verses 2831
  3. Matthew 18:24 talent was a monetary unit worth about twenty years’ wages for a labourer
  4. Matthew 18:26 Greek bondservant; also verses 2728293233
  5. Matthew 18:28 denarius was a day’s wage for a labourer
  6. Matthew 18:34 Greek torturers
English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

For a far better and in depth study and exegesis, you really are going to have to read the book! But here is my clumsy attempt to pull out some of the key challenges as I see them.

If it is true (and I believe it is) that Jesus is constantly speaking ‘good news for the poor’, causing people to see things they had not seen before and setting people free in the process, then we must ask what he is hitting on here.

The suggestion is this. The ‘ruler/king’ is not initially to be understood as God, but as representing the royal court of the day, which was hugely harsh on its ‘lords/managers’ and expected them to do exactly as ordered in dealing with the peasant classes so as to maintain the status quo. The first servant, who represents a manager type role has somehow got himself into a bit of a pickle and is unable to pay his debts. Jesus then invites the listeners to imagine the unimaginable. Imagine that instead of the usual, same old story of dismissing this servant, the ruler chooses to be unbelievably kind, cancel the servant’s debts and forgive him! WHAT? Totally unthinkable. That would NEVER happen in a Royal Court. There are so many others vying for the position of that manager. He would be out on his ear and the position filled by someone else who would be a more efficient bully (I wonder how many instances we find, of this latter more likely situation, in the NHS/education/MOD/businesses of various sorts….?).

Then, this same manager who receives a ‘get out of jail free’ card, goes out and finds someone who owes him a whole bunch less of a debt than he has just been forgiven. And instead of passing on the same grace and enacting a new way of being, he goes back to the same old bullying culture he has always known and been schooled in and kicks the guy whilst he is down to ensure he doesn’t lose face and his department can keep running smoothly.

The thing is, the manager is only acting in the way that he has always been taught. Top down, top dog-style leadership, running a tight ship, not taking any nonsense etc etc.

Jesus is hitting two things very hard. The first is a reality check. He is saying that it would be entirely possible for the Messiah/God himself to come and enact a whole new way of being, a modus operandi of forgiveness and mercy and for nothing to change, because we have grown so comfortable with the ways that things are that we don’t really want to change or know how to. 

Walter Brueggemann highlights something similar in his comparison of Moses and Solomon. Moses hits at and critiques the entire world system of the Pharaoh, challenging head on the numbing effects of Empire. But by the time we reach Solomon in Jerusalem, Pharaoh is back on the throne in a different guise. Solomon has become the antithesis of all that Moses was about. And so, when Jesus comes to challenge the perceived ‘wisdom of empire’ by revealing an entirely different kind of king and kingdom, the previous system is so well rehearsed and imbibed hook, line and sinker that it is highly possible nothing will change……..unless…….

Secondly, I believe Jesus is revealing the very reason why he didn’t come as the ‘Emperor of Rome’ or a ‘King of Judea’. Perhaps it is nigh on impossible to undo a system from the top down……unless…….

Political Parables – The ‘Other’

I recently participated in an extremely enjoyable conversation about ‘The Parable of the Good Samaritan’ and how we read it/it reads us today. (Read or watch below).

Luke 10:25-37 English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.”28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

Footnotes:

  1. Luke 10:35 denarius was a day’s wage for a labourer

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Or Watch it here:

UnknownIt’s a parable so well-known now, it is easy to let its impact completely wash over us. For me, it and the preceding dialogue poses 3 hugely political issues (by that I
mean how we live alongside our fellow humans) rather than party politics, which I consider to be an utterly defunct system which will not deliver to us the future we are calling for. (Having said that I recognise some people feel called to change it from within, and I am particularly excited to soon embark on the wonderful Caroline Lucas’ new book, ‘Honourable Friends?’)…….

The 3 issues are as follows:

1) With whom does your allegiance lie? Jesus’ challenge is straight – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength i.e. are you about loving God and walking in the ways of love or are you about serving Caesar or religion or an oppressive regime or a particular leader or a nation-state or flag?

2) Who is my neighbour? Who is there around me that I could be helping, but am not? Who am I too busy or too important to help, to stoop down to, to embrace? Who might inconvenience my schedule or delay my journey? Who might infect me or make me feel ‘dirty’? Who am I struggling to spend myself on behalf of? And yet, who is the unexpected person doing that for me?

images3) Who is the ‘other’ that offends me? I was watching one of my favourite TV shows the other week – gogglebox – absolute genius television! One of the reasons I love it is that it gives me hope that TV, rather than simply nullify our pain, numb us to the real issues, pacify and hypnotize us to carry on business as usual, can actually inspire some conversation, cause to engage with the ‘other’ and maybe even challenge and change our perspectives! One of the shows the goggleboxers were watching, was one about a man I have in all honesty had quite a low opinion of – Nigel Farage. It was a show about him as a person, rather than his (odorous) policies. It challenged me deeply. Nearly all of the people watching him, started out with quite a low opinion of him, but came out the other side seeing him much more as a human being. It is so easy to dehumanize the ‘other’, to ridicule those we don’t agree with and create the great ‘us and them’ divide. But the challenge of Jesus is so stark in this parable. Who is the one you despise? See, they are a human being like you, and maybe not so awful as you might think. (Not an excuse to not debate awful ideas btw!).

I wonder, as we look to the future across Europe, how helpful the vilification of individuals and people groups is? Will it give us a new, love based politics? When we really allow ourselves to imagine the future, I mean really imagine it, does it involve more separation and division?

I wonder, if Jesus told this parable in the UK today who he would cast as the ‘Good Samaritan’? Maybe a male taxi driver of Pakistani origin from Rochdale? Or a school girl from London who has some sympathies for some of the ideas of IS? Perhaps a member of the EDL? PLEASE don’t mishear me. I am not for one minute suggesting that those who did the despicable acts in Rochdale, or those carrying out heinous and barbaric crimes in the middle east, be that IS (or the nation-states bombing the middle east) are “good samaritans”. But if we are not careful it is possible we tar too many people with the same brush. Interestingly, we wouldn’t have an NHS without the 11% of all our staff and 26% of the doctors who come from overseas. Maybe we (who is the ‘we’ – the UK? Europe? Humanity?) are richer together and if we allow ourselves to discover interdependence, we will find some love from very unexpected places and find ourselves embracing those we once thought “beyond the pale” (originally a phrase meaning those in Ireland who lived outside the British boundaries…..)?

Be a Bee Keeper

Sorry – a slight interjection into the series!

I have to be honest – I don’t yet keep bees – I feel a bit scared of getting stung!
But I have just discovered (and forgive me if you already know this and I’m just a bit slow on the uptake) these AMAZING dudes in Australia who have revolutionised Bee Keeping and have made it so easy!

See this link, and let’s seriously change the future of the world together through bee keeping!

https://www.indiegogo.com/project/flow-hive-honey-on-tap-directly-from-your-beehive/embedded

Political Parables – Education as a Revolution

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Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire was an educational revolutionary who saw that the poor, marginalised and oppressed in Brasil, took on the world view (or “social construct of reality”) of those who were their oppressors. More than this he described how the educational system was used like a “banking system” to deposit the world view of the dominant class, (with their wealth, power and privilege), into the hearts and minds of the lower social classes, therefore maintaining the status quo.

He spent loads of time with the “peasant classes”, (after a financial crisis in his own family left them very poor) and learnt that they were certainly not unintelligent and although illiterate, had an incredible language of their own. He went on to devise an educational program which enabled these “peasants” to learn rather than to be taught and in so doing released them to begin a revolution in which the powers were challenged, the presumed ‘ways of being’ were shaken and new freedom was found. Unfortunately, this was crushed by the military coup of 1964, but it left Freire never again to “underestimate the vested interest of political powers in controlling the production and distribution of knowledge through their system of schooling” (see amazing work on his by William R. Herzog II in Parables as Subversive Speech).

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William R. Herzog II

Herzog goes on to draw some extraordinary parallels between Paulo Freire and Jesus Christ, whom he asserts both hugely confront the power paradigms of the day and in so doing bring good news to the poor, freedom for those held captive to oppressive systems, sight for those who had been blinded by the worldview of the ‘mighty’ and light for those living in darkness.

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann

Mitchell, in his book, “Church, Gospel and Empire’ demonstrates how Jesus directly challenges the Imperial System of Rome. Brueggemann (in “The Prophetic Imagination”) contends that Jesus (as a prophet and much more than just a prophet) is fulfilling the prophetic tradition of those who have gone before, criticising the oppressive systems and energising a fresh imagination of how radically different a future built on the foundations of (God’s) love could be.

I wonder how many teachers these days see it as their role to teach and train their pupils in the ‘national curriculum’ and the ‘social constructs of reality’ to which we all subscribe? And how many see their role as revolutionaries who dare to allow our children to believe that the world we live in can be radically different in the future; where instead of an economics of affluence, we have an economics of equity, instead of a politics of oppression, we have one of justice and compassion, and instead of a religion of immanence and law, we have one of true freedom (again, see Brueggemann) – I don’t know, but if you’re out there – please keep going!

Political Parables – A Mini Series

UnknownI love reading. For lent this year, my wife and I have switched off the TV and are giving our noses some more book time. There are two books I’ve read this past 12 months which have impacted me deeply: “Parables as Subversive Speech – Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed” by William R. Herzog II and “The Prophetic Imagination” by  Walter Brueggemann. I would seriously recommend them to you, whatever your faith or political background – they are challenging to the core. I want to blog a mini series on lUnknown-1essons I have learnt and thoughts that have provoked me as I have read.

One of the people whom I hugely admire is Mehdi Hassan. I admire his courage to speak his mind, to be unashamed about what he believes as a Muslim and his passion in debate. I have felt challenged by the way he puts his faith front and centre whilst engaging deeply in the political issues of our day. I make no secret of the fact that I am a man who loves and follows Jesus (not very good at it, but hey-ho!). The more I have discovered about Jesus, especially over the last few years, the more I have found I love him. My world view is shaped by his radical love for ‘the other’ and for ‘the enemy’, his prioritisation of women, children, the poor, the sick, the prisoner and those generally hated or ostracised by society. There is no-one in history who has ever brought such a sharp critique of Imperial Systems that commodify human life like fodder to feed an economic machine or challenged the status quo mindsets to the extent that he did. Nor did anyone else release such deep hope of a reimagined future.

And yet, those of us who claim to follow him have so often utterly missed his point and have been more caught up in creating a religion around him that he never intended anyone to build, partnering with empire in the process rather than criticising it and bringing transforming love and economic justice to all of the creation.

I hope this mini-series inspires some good conversation, either online or around some dinner tables about the world we live in and how we engage with it. For me, the parables of Jesus have as much dynamic power to shock us today as they did for his first listeners. Put aside any hang ups about ‘christianity’ or ‘politics’ and let the subversive stories make you think.