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?

11 thoughts on “Political Parables – Free Market Economics

  1. Politically Andy, I couldn’t agree more. But it’s a depressing thought – 2000 years on and we don’t seem to be any better off. I can’t see how powerful vested interests can be toppled. I’m reading a fascinating book about insects, the last part of which is about conservation and how the UK, scandalously, failed to vote for an end to the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, essentially nerve agents. The rigorous evidence suggests that these kill bees and other important pollinators, without which ultimately life can’t be sustained on the earth. It seems to me that continuing to use them is literally insane, and yet we do because that’s what the Agrichemical industry wants. I’m back with, who was it? Podomos? I can see what the problem is, but the solution completely evades me.

    • Wow Mark! I love the way you think and I completely agree with you. It is hard to find hope over our cynicism that anything can actually change and solutions are very evasive! I have only two brief thoughts: 1) yes we’ve had 2000 years (and more), but for me the testimony of Jesus is still alive and well…. That life poured out in love, a rhythm of subversion of the system and submission back into it, can change the world and death is not the end….. But also this current economic system has only really been at its worst since 1971 – not even 50 years old….. And therefore 2) surely we can imagine something else….. Maybe we can’t implement it, but implementation too soon is going to land us back in the same mess. We have a lot of unlearning to do…. I want our imaginations to allowed to run wild and free! The more we can imagine the more likely we are to see the change we want…. At least I hope so….

      • “Scratch the surface of most cynics and you find a frustrated idealist ”
        Gets attributed to different people that one. I thought it was Ambrose Bierce but apparently not. This one seems apposite today of all days:
        “If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.”
        Terry Pratchett
        I would love to think that there is a solution of some sorts just around the corner. Why 1971? I was also recently reading about the 19th Century industry in Cheshire – hard to believe now but apparently rural Cheshire was foul – smoke everywhere, lots of subsidence with houses regularly collapsing, all the trees felled for fuel to evaporate brine. The justification used – trickle down economics. The businesses responsible claimed that they didn’t need to compensate those affected because they had already benefited from the economic benefits brought to Cheshire by the salt industry.
        Sound like the argument for fracking?

  2. Hmmmmm. Well what if cynicism stirred to revolution? Surely the Podomos movement in Spain has touched many of the cynics. In their last march in Madrid, a massive proportion of the crowd was over 50. In the UK, if we could change our cynicism for passion we might actually have a revolution. What say you, Mark?! Shall we launch Podomos here, in Silverdale?! Actually, I genuinely think the Green Party could have the ability to do something similar to Podomos. But my fear for any political party is that in the end they just become puppets of the same old machine. I’d rather dismantle the machine and build something fresh, together. It concerns me greatly that so many people seem to think of UKIP as the real alternative…..what?

    Why 1971? I think that’s when to a far more obvious extent an economic war was aged on an international scale in order to protect the economic systems of the West. So, the loss of the gold standard (to protect the dollar) launched the various global financial bodies to become the world economic police, who maintain the system of injustice on a far greater scale than ever before. I may be naive (understatement) in my understanding, but prior to 1971, I don’t think the global implications were as severe or as wide reaching (that’s not say they weren’t there before through the effects of the British Empire, just not to the same extent). So my point is a) that it’s more complex than it used to be but b) this current system of the free market isn’t as old as we think. There was life before it and I hope we can begin to imagine life after it, because it is beginning to crumble.

  3. Thank you, Andy. Always read this as God being angry at the one who was afraid, and as someone who struggles with fear (of the future? of brokenness (personal or systematic)? of God???) seeing the third person, starting from the bottom with less, the idea that he refuses to play the empire game, and that God isn’t the CEO of this party, is helpful.Lee

  4. I’m on dodgy ground here, for me (lack of theological knowledge) but the more conventional reading always seemed to me to point back to a more ‘Old Testament’ style version of God and not the vision more usually presented in the Gospels. (I do have a church background – like a lot of ‘lefties’ I’m from Methodist stock,)
    I think you’re right Andy in many ways – most of us old cynics really want to be idealists. I have often voted Green in the past, but in our first past the post system it often feels like an empty gesture. A ‘democracy’ in which you get a chance to vote once every five years is hardly participatory anyway. My brother lives in Switzerland where decisions, both at local and national level are made by referendum all the time. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but it does seem to encourage people to be engaged.

  5. “Shall we launch Podomos here, in Silverdale?” – Parish Council is electing new officers tomorrow night…….’Think globally, act locally’.
    Shall we through up the barricades on Park Road?

      • Ha! Imagine it! Silverdale Parish Council! And so the revolution begins!

        As a P.S. I hear your struggle over the apparent dichotomy of the ‘God of the Old Testament’ and Jesus. But I believe if you start with Jesus and read the bible backwards as it were, through him as a lens and who he reveals God to be, then the Old Testament reads differently to how it is traditionally read with a prefixed imperial, European/western mindset…. If God is like Jesus and not an angry emperor like Constantine then maybe we can read it differently…. I know there are some problem passages, but I’d rather wrestle with them and not know everything than the alternative which I find contradictory….

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