Subverting Empire’s claims to say wealth should be rewarded
St Matthew 25: 14 – 30
‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The economy of Empire privileges capital over the needs of people. Current economic wisdom is austerity: cutting taxes, benefits and regulation will result in profit. In such a system account only needs to be made to the shareholder, all of whom are equally invested in a model which believes only in capital profit.
This is a parable about the profit incentive and the prioritising of capital. It is a disturbing parable about Capitalism in our times, which has resulted in the most astonishing wealth inequalities, an economy in which the poor are forcibly exploited and discarded. Resist the temptation to read the text in an Imperial way, in which God must be the master. The Master is one of the Robber Barons of an economic system which places 50% of the world’s wealth in the hands of 1% of the world’s population. Read Jesus as the servant who was of no use to this Master, the one who exposes the master’s ethics who gathers where he does not sow, (sounds like thievery to me). Matthew places this text on the eve of Holy Week, when Jesus will indeed be found to useless to Empire and will be thrown out of the city and wail while he is crucified.
Jesus, our rather useless servant, does not cooperate with the economic system dictated to him. He is not afraid to speak truth to power. The rather useless servant is not useful to the Master unlike his more compliant colleagues who are well socialised to this meritocratic system of achievement and profit. It is clear that Jesus was not useful to Pilate or to Caiaphas, both systems would have worked with him if he had worked with them. But Jesus’s contrary attitudes to economy, wealth, tax and power and to worship, discipleship, God and power could not be co-opted to an Imperial model until it was domesticated by a more compliant Church.
Rise up Jesus. Rise up in power to inspire and lead us. Reveal in our midst the world you are creating. May your ‘last will be first’ Spirit move us to do and believe your word: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Peter Cruchley is the Mission Secretary for Mission Development for Council for World Mission and a minister of the URC.