JESUS AND THE G20
For many people the Parable of the Talents is a puzzling one and sounds like a lesson in venture capitalism – the gospel according to Hockey so to speak. It is about using someone else’s money (what we call credit), investing it and reaping the reward. So uncomfortable do we feel with this parable that many have adopted the fanciful interpretation of the talent representing our natural abilities and asserting that we should invest them in the name of God. As admirable as this may be, this parable has nothing to do with our personal talent. A talent was simply a large unit of money and had nothing to do with inherited abilities and gifts. A more accurate name for this parable would be: “The Parable of Invested Money”.
The other problem with the parable is the identifying of God with the venture capitalist providing the money. Why people do this is completely beyond me! It completely distorts our understanding of God. God is not some harsh, grasping capitalist who rewards those who make him rich and casts aside the rest. God is the energy of life inviting us to fullness of life, a life that is typified by what we call love. To see God as a capitalist who is more concerned about his profit and loss account than anything else is a disaster! It is a disaster because the image of God we hold in our mind is one of the most important things in determining our relationship with God. To see God saying “those who have much will have more, and those who have nothing will have even less” is not the kind of God I want anything to do with.
How then are we to understand this parable? Once again it is a case of “No text without a context”. What were the social and economic circumstances when the parable was spoken? Then, as today, there was at the top of the social structure a wealthy elite, an entrepreneurial class that provided high interest loans to the peasant in times of drought – and took the plot of land when the peasant farmer was unable to repay the debt. Sixty five percent of the wealth and control of society was in the hands of about two percent of the population. Below the wealthy elite was a class of bureaucrats. They represented about five percent of the population. Society in those days (as indeed today) was organized around serving the needs of the wealthy. This was the Kingdom of Herod with which Jesus contrasted the Kingdom of God. Jesus was a peasant among peasants and spent his days promoting the cause of the poor, opposing the rich, and dying without a penny to his name. The point is, both here and in the rest of the Gospel, Jesus was counter cultural. As Keith Rowe says, “The more I read, study and meditate on the parables the more I become aware of the radical nature of the way of Jesus.”
Where then is the “arrow to the heart”, the “sting in the tail”, the thing that makes this parable unforgettable? It is that the hero here is the third bureaucrat, the one who exposes the unjust system which serves the privileged few at the cost of the many. William Hertzog refers to him as “the whistle blower who refuses to play the game” and who incurs the consequences of so doing. Parables are about the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God is present when injustice is named and when courageous people turn whistleblower.
Let me conclude by referring to last week’s Financial Review. The journos were commenting on the cessation of Quantitative Easing, which is just another name for the printing of money. They were saying that the benefits of the four trillion dollars printed went to the wealthy. Surprise! Surprise! This is the damning indictment of capitalism: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. As the capitalist in the parable says “to everyone who has, more will be given, and to everyone who has nothing even that will be taken away. The poor can go to hell!” Reference is sometimes made to the trickle down theory of capitalism. The best description I have heard of this is that it is the rich pissing on the poor.
The economic society we have today is not that much different to that of two thousand years ago. The percentages may have improved a little, but we still have a long way to go. The point being made in this parable is that the gospel of G20 is simply not good enough, and the world needs a lot more whistleblowers.
Incidentally, if you want a perceptive assessment of capitalism have a read of “Sapiens” the international best seller by the historian Yoval Harari. He maintains that capitalism is founded on an imaginary future and that “credit enables us to build the present at the cost of the future”. He sees the recent printing of money as “pumping cheap money and hoping something big will come up before the bubble bursts”. He regards capitalism as “our new religion” with its encompassing ethic being “economic growth as the supreme good”. He maintains that ”We are more powerful than ever before but have little idea what to do with all that power. Seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement yet never finding satisfaction, we remain unsure of our goals.” His last chapter is entitled “The Animal that became a God” and the final sentence of the book contains some of the most chilling words I have heard in years: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible Gods who don’t know what they want?”
As Tim Costello and his mates say of the G20 “Aiming for growth is not enough. What we need is inclusive growth, growth which includes the poor.” I wish them well, but I am not holding my breath. Our cigar smoking financial gurus and their money laundering accountancy mates are preaching a very different gospel.
Neville’s Sermon – Wembley Downs Uniting Church 16/11/ 2014