I once heard a talk on the underlying value of a society, and how it unconsciously affects how that society lives. Some societies are ruled by the state: Much of Eastern Europe was once under this cloud. Today, North Korea is one of the few remaining countries with this ideology. Fear predominates, suspicion is rampant, and dissension is silenced, ensuring conformity.
Religion is another; Saudi Arabia is an example of this, where women are still not allowed to vote, drive or marry whom they choose, or travel without permission of a man. Morality becomes a very public matter, showing virtue to others as social capital.
A third is the community, common in indigenous cultures. This is arguably the healthiest of values, for it ensures that everyone is cared for and everyone takes responsibility for their actions. However, there is also a loss of individuality and often an inability to think critically about life.
A fourth value, now ubiquitous in the West, is money. It breeds hoarding, survival of the fittest (richest), isolation and rampant individualism. Communities that share all possessions in common are considered foolish and restrictive to personal freedom. Charging interest is not only acceptable but essential to good business. The word “socialism” is akin to “evil.” In 1987, the character Gordon Gecko proclaimed that “greed is good” and we shuddered. Today, it seems we cheer.
Jesus went to great odds to confront money as a basis for society, saying that love of it is at the root of all kinds of evil. The community that formed as followers of Jesus made sharing all their possessions a priority. Jesus’ paradoxical “the last shall be first” – acted out through washing his disciples’ feet – gave birth to what were termed “agape feasts” where rich businessmen would wash poor slave girls’s feet and fund lavish dinners where all could dine. The playing field was levelled. Something more valuable than monetary wealth was on show, and the weary, rich and poor alike, joined in droves.
There’s a parable of Jesus that is a ‘darling’ of sermons in churches everywhere, that is so poorly interpreted because of the unconscious elevation of wealth as a virtue that its original meaning is inverted. It’s the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 (also minas in Luke 19). Talents are not abilities, but a term of financial currency. A master puts three slaves in charge of his business, giving one five talents, another two, and a third only one. The first two make a several fold return on the money given them, whereas the last buries (or wraps in cloth) his money. Those who get a return are rewarded, the third is punished severely.
The context of the parables is in warnings about the future (Matthew) and on the eve of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where he would be crucified (Luke). Luke also places it as Jesus meets Zaccheus, someone the crowd would have identified as a slave (tax collector) to an evil master (Rome) who demands a return (from poor people).
As this is usually told, the master is usually considered to represent God and the slaves are humanity. However, this is problematic. It was forbidden to charge usury, yet the master chastises the third slave for not at least getting interest on the money given him. Further, Jesus’ audience would never have seen the first two slaves as acting with integrity. Richard Rohrbaugh, Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, observed that ancient Mediterranean cultures considered seeking ‘more’ as morally wrong. Resources were limited; to want more was to take from someone else, who would then get less. It was inconceivable to want to end up with more than you started with. This echoes Jesus’ parable of a man who built bigger and bigger barns.
Masters (or in Luke, kings) who expected such things typically employed slaves to do their bidding, so they did not carry the shame of acting this way, and slaves had no expectation of honour as they had no standing in society (and no choice about what work they did or who they did it for). Such masters who did not get their return were merciless, and this master fits the bill. In Matthew, the master says he “reaps where he did not sow” (that is called stealing) and the parable ends with the master’s words: 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.” We call that the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. In Luke, the master says “as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.” This is not the God Jesus calls Abba, but the anti-Christ image, the cruelty that wealth and power extolled as virtues can create. If we cannot see this, we do Jesus’ teaching a very dangerous disservice. We make the villain the hero and the hero the villain. We will build aspirational communities that lack social justice, compassion and awareness of our own greed.
It is the one who had only one talent – who was so severely beaten (or slaughtered) that Jesus went looking for – and calls us to. The one who cowered with fear because of the oppressive regime of his master is the bruised reed Isaiah said the Messiah would not break.
The Jewish historian Josephus helps us understand that Jesus was talking about a historical figure. As Herod Archelaus was travelling to Rome to be appointed by Ceasar Augustus as king of Israel, the Jews sent an group of their leaders to Augustus, telling him they did not want Archelaus as their king. Upon returning to Jerusalem, Archelaus slaughtered 3,000 Jews at the temple. Every listener to this parable would have immediately attributed the king to Archelaus.
Resources are limited, especially if I take what is not mine, or gain advantage because of what is mine. But resources are far less limited if I share what is mine with others.
In the United States, 51% of all wealth is held by 10% of the population. More alarmingly, 42% of the wealth is held by 1% of the nation, and 22% by 0.1% – one in a thousand people. The last time it was like this? That was the late 1920s. The inverse is even more stark: 50% of the population hold just 1% of the wealth. That is what empire does. My own nation aspires to follow suit, it seems.
In their book “Spirit Level.” authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett persuasively argued that nations that share wealth more equally have better quality of life – for everyone. Indices such as social relations, mental health, drug use, life expectancy, obesity, educational performance, violence and rates of incarceration lowered quality of life for everyone in nations where there was a greater disparity between the rich and the poor.
I would like to think that this is part because engagement with all walks of life enriches my own. It informs me of the struggles of others. It removes the need for gated communities if I share my world with others and everyone has a fair go. There’s no place for fear or division or separation. We all belong. Terrorism, ignorance, prejudice cannot breed in the broad open field of equality.
I’m not advocating a common purse. I wish I had the courage to do that. I am too wealthy, sadly. But I am advocating sharing what I have, and for many of us, our most precious commodity is not money, it is time. To serve voluntarily is to see beyond our own borders and want the cross pollination that we need to prevent becoming the grotesque result of cultural inbreeding. This at least can help safeguard us from the emptiness of aspirational theology and its narcissistic fruit, to free us from the empire’s lonely temptations of endless gain and bigger barns.