Friday, March 17, 2006

Limited Good, and the Parable of the Talents

Nathan's post on Tall Poppies reminded me of quite an important cultural difference between us and New Testament times, which I didn't mention in my recent post.

Ancient people very firmly believed that there was a finite amount of wealth/goods/honour in the world. Thus, if someone got rich, they always got rich at the expense of someone else who was made poorer. (I would assume that this view came about because in small communities the amount of material possessions and money was quite obviously limited and it was quite obvious that someone becoming richer made others poorer.) Sociologists title this view "a perception of limited good" - there's only so much stuff to go around, so the more you have the less I have. As a result in these societies, the desire for material gain is considered bad - it's effectively trying to take stuff off your neighbours and as such is not viewed as a positive social value (basically it's on par with stealing).

Today we have a different view - that there is infinite wealth to go around - that the rich are not making other people poor by virtue of being rich. Our economic system works in such a complicated fashion that it's not clear that our own gain results in anybody else's loss. Our culture thus assumes that there are infinite goods to go around - we can all strive for riches and one person's gain isn't another man's loss. It would be quite interesting to know if this is actually true - does our economic system provide for infinite goods? Do we actually cause loss to others by our own gain? I don't actually know.

Anyway, this difference in view has some important effects in bible interpretation. Perhaps the single most misunderstood parable in the Bible (that I am aware of anyway) is the parable of the Talents / Three Servants (Lk 19:11-27). A man entrusts his money to his slaves and they make different amounts of money from it, and he rewards/punishes them as a result.

According the perception of limited good mentioned above, the slaves' duty was to look after it and neither gain more money (which would cause others to lose money) or to lose money (which would cause loss to the master). One slave does the honourable thing of preserving the precise amount and the greedy master punishes him for it. Other slaves do the dishonourable thing of expanding their master's riches (at the expense of others) and the greedy master rewards them for it. Thus the people in the parable complaining about how the master is evil and they don't want him as a ruler are clearly justified - and the wicked master kills them for it.

How do Christians typically interpret that parable? Well, the Master is God, and we are his servants, and if we don't serve him well by earning money we will be punished. (In our society of infinite goods, earning money is a good, and is what servants ought to be doing for their masters.) The people complaining against the rule of the master are those in this world who refuse to submit to God's rule. We see the master as acting rightly, the earning servants as acting rightly. We see the servant who earns nothing as acting wrongly as are the whiners in the parable who don't want God to be king of them. But in fact to Jesus' hearers the situation was precisely opposite as to which characters were good and bad.

Jesus conclusion is "I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." To his hearers that would be a terrible thing. Jesus' followers were by and large the poor and outcasts and here he is saying "The rich will get richer and the poor will lose what little they have". That is not a positive moral, it's very very bad.

So what is Jesus saying and why is he saying it? The people he is speaking to are hoping that the "Kingdom of God" would come soon. This was the Jewish revolutionary slogan - these people were hoping that soon the Jews would overthrow the Roman occupation and establish national sovereignty. Jesus responds with this parable explaining that such a revolution will be bad for his hearers not good for them. He is trying to scare them away from supporting national revolution: Do they really think that those greedy for royal power are going to be good masters?

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