From Parable to Pretzel: Bible Abuse by the Religious Right

Tony Perkins, president of the religious-right Family Research Council in Washington, wrote a piece that appears in the CNN blog site, condemning the Occupy movement .   He cites the parable of the ten pounds in Luke 19, in which a master gave money to his slaves to invest until his return from a journey.  “He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Do business with these until I come back.’ ” (New Revised Standard Version) In the King James version, which Perkins uses, “do business” is rendered as “occupy”.

“But just what does Jesus’ order to occupy mean?” asks Perkins.  “Does it mean take over and trash public property, as the Occupy movement has? Does it mean engage in antisocial behavior while denouncing a political and economic system that grants one the right and luxury to choose to be unproductive?  No, the Greek term behind the old English translation literally means ‘be occupied with business.’ As with all parables, Jesus uses a common activity such as fishing or farming to provide a word picture with a deeper spiritual meaning.”

The title for Perkins’ article:  “Jesus was a free marketeer.”

But there is no evidence for this assertion in this story or anywhere else in the New Testament.  In the parable, the master was based on a real character, Archelaus, son of Herod, who went away to Rome to be appointed the successor to his father’s unpopular, tyrannical reign over Judea.  Jesus made it very clear to his audience that the master was a bad guy.  The people he entrusted with the money were slaves.  There was nothing “free” about the market economics in this story.  Hence the entirely rational fear of the slave who didn’t invest the money.  The master said to him: “You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow?”

A vicious tyrant who enslaves people -  is this the kind of capitalist that Tony Perkins offers as a model for Americans today?  Jesus was not on his side.  Jesus stood with the 99%, in this parable and in all his others.  Perkins is of touch with economic reality, both in the biblical and the present era.

Tony Perkins takes a Bible story, ties it into the shape of a pretzel, and returns it to us as evidence from scripture that God has ordained an economic system in which 84% of the nation’s net personal assets are held by 20% of its people.

But Jesus’ parable reminds his listeners of what they already knew:  the political and economic system of their country was utterly corrupt.  His parable was a powerful statement against capitalism, at least of the kind practiced at the time.  But the punch-line of his parable wasn’t about economics at all.  It appears to be much more enigmatic and mystical.  “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.” (Luke 19:26)  It resonates with the message of his mustard seed parable: even a little bit of faith is enough to grow our lives, but without it, we are spiritually bankrupt.  Indeed, in tough times like these, we need to invest wisely the bit of faith that we have, so that it will grow to give us strength to change the world for the better.

By Rev. Jim Burklo

About Jim Burklo

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. An ordained United Church of Christ pastor, he is the author of three books in print, OPEN CHRISTIANITY (2000), BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS (2008), and HITCH-HIKING TO ALASKA: THE WAY OF SOULFUL SERVICE (2013). See more about him at jimburklo.com .

  • Jonathan Vitale

    I am having real difficulty seeing how this parable is not intended to represent Jesus as the Master. In all of the other parables I’ve ever read the master refers to Jesus or the Father – or at least that is how they have always been explained. Why would Jesus tell a parable that so clearly deviates from this pattern? It seems more likely to me that Jesus is talking about doing good works for God. Those who take what God has given them, and waste them away are sinning; while those that do what is in them to promote good works are behaving righteously. In that sense Perkins is wrong to take a literal interpretation of profit, but you would also be wrong to take the complete opposite view. I would further extend this third view to support OWS by saying that by taking what God has given, such as the insight to see economic oppression and the means to address those inequalities, the protesters are producing their profit. I think Perkins is wrong, but I think our views here are incompatible (at least in terms of the biblical interpretation) as well.

    • Eric

      @ Jonathan:

      I can derive that right from the quote in the article:
      “The master said to him: “You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow?””

      That doesn’t sound very Jesus-y to me.

  • Jonathan Vitale

    No, you are right – it doesn’t sound very Jesus-y to me either. But then again, the whole idea of having a parable that is about a master whom is not God doesn’t sound Jesus-y either. Are there other clear examples of when Jesus does this?


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