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In both Matthew and Luke’s gospels we read:
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. . . . After a long time, the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.’” (Matthew 25:14-15, 19-29)
“He said: ‘A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. “Put this money to work,” he said, “until I come back.” . . . He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it. The first one came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned ten more.” “Well done, my good servant!” his master replied. “Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.” The second came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned five more.” His master answered, “You take charge of five cities.” Then another servant came and said, “Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.” His master replied, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?” Then he said to those standing by, “Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.” . . . He replied, “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”’” (Luke 19:12-13, 15-24, 26)
Sometimes I have trouble with the stories Jesus chose to use, and I don’t like the story in this week’s saying. Scholars tell us that Jesus chose the stories that would have been familiar to his audience. Our society today is two millennia removed from that world today and sometimes Jesus’s stories seem problematic to us. Before I explain that, let me share an experience I had recently that relates to this week’s saying.
I was listening to an interview with a college economics professor who was critiquing the contradiction at the heart of capitalism. At the core of capitalism is the drive to produce more capital or profit from a product or service. One of the many ways owners can achieve this profit is keeping their expenses as low as possible. “Expenses” include the cost of labor, the wages owners pay their employees. The less workers are paid, the more profit one has left in the end.
But here is the contradiction: The wages being kept low are the same funds that most workers will need to buy the product or service they produce. So if wages are too low, no one can afford to buy and owners won’t make any profit at all.
So this contradiction morphs into a balancing act between too much profit for the 1% and not enough money for the masses to survive or not enough profit to keep the 1% happy and more surplus among the masses than the 1% feel they should have. It’s a tug-o-war between the wealthy’s desire to profit and the masses’ desire to survive with a good quality of life.
In our system here in the U.S., this balance is achieved through government regulations and taxes. Theoretically, as the masses gain too much surplus, those who have profit to lose call for less business regulation and less taxation of their corporations, or more profit. On the flip side, when corporations and the 1% are gaining too much profit, the masses begin to call for the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes, to redistribute wealth or regulate earnings another way (raising the minimum wage for example) so that the masses aren’t crushed by the drive to produce a profit.
Wagers are kept low enough to produce profit AND people need higher wages to purchase products and services that also produce this profit. Capitalism never will escape this contradiction and the cycle of the struggle between the workers and those who profit from their labor and thus this tug-of-war it produces. In the 1960-70s we saw capitalists feeling like society was moving too far toward favoring workers. And they went to work! They wanted more profit and with it the exclusion of people of color from public services. Since Nixon and Regan, we’ve seen a steady move toward benefits for wall street and the 1% in our society and now we are experiencing reawakening toward concern for the working class, again.
And this cycle will repeat over and over and over. Many believe there has to be another alternative that produces a safe, more just, more compassionate society for everyone.
As I was listening, the interviewer asked the professor, “How does capitalism exploit workers or employees?” “It’s quite simple,” he responded. “Let’s say an employer agrees to pay a worker $20 an hour. For that employer to be willing to pay that $20 an hour, they have to believe that that person’s labor will actually be worth more than $20 an hour. Once all business expenses have been paid, there has to be a profit to it. The labor which costs $20 has to produce a value that will cover the expenses of the business plus a profit on top. Unless it is an employee-owned business, the worker never receives the value of their labor but only a portion of it. This, by definition, is what those opposed to capitalism have called ‘the exploitation of the laborers.’ Workers never receive the full value of their labor.”
Again, Jesus sometimes uses stories familiar to his audience, stories that are horrendous when compared to today’s ethical standards.
One example is the story of the righteous rich man and Lazarus the poor sinner found in Luke’s gospel. Postmortem, the expected roles are reversed. The rich man ends up in eternal, flaming, torment while Lazarus resides in Abraham’s bosom. But let it register. Although the story truth is relevant, using the image of eternal torment in the flames of the afterlife is a horrible choice. Only a few sectors of evangelical Christianity even subscribe to a belief in eternal torment today because of the pure inhumanity of it. Torment is not reconcilable with Jesus’ new vision for humanity, and so many within Christianity today see this story as teaching an economic truth rather than literally explaining what happens in the afterlife.
Luke 16:22-24: “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’”
Another terrible story is that of the manager who falsified customers’ bills behind the back of the business owner, making customers owe significantly less and hoping to gain favor with these costumers. I don’t see anyone recommending this story today as a way for managers to manage the businesses they work for. The story is problematic, but it was a familiar story to Jesus’ audience and therefore he used it to make a point about “the kingdom.”
Luke 16:3-6: “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg—I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’”
Another problem in the stories Jesus told is the repeated references to slavery. Before the US Civil War, these references were used by Christians in the South to say that Jesus actually approved of slavery.
I would argue that elsewhere Jesus taught a gospel of debts being forgiven and slaves being set free. But that fact that Jesus used stories that on the surface seem to say that slavery was a part of his vision for human society is deeply problematic. One must look deeper at the story truths of these familiar stories to arrive at a different conclusion.
I share all of this to illustrate that Jesus’ stories are at times problematic while the truths they teach can be timeless. Our saying this week is one of those stories.
What is the horrendous backdrop of this story?
As I shared in the above interview with the professor, it’s the exploitation of labor through slavery. Here a master leaves money with ten slaves for them to labor to earn more profit for the master. I often hear from those who oppose social safety nets in society saying, “Those who don’t work shouldn’t eat.” This was a slogan not only in the New Testament, and some hyper capitalists today but also of Lenin. Lenin saw wealthy capitalists who’d invested their money to have other peopel’s labor earn the investor’s profits yet be tagged with those who “aren’t working.” This is the kind of master we find in this week’s story:
“You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow?”
Karl Marx critiqued taking out what someone does not put in and reaping where they have not sown:
“The directing motive, the end and aim of capitalist production, is to extract the greatest possible amount of surplus value, and consequently to exploit labor-power to the greatest possible extent.” (Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. I, Ch. 13, pg. 363)
For both Lenin and Marx, “those who don’t work” would be the rich capitalists who exploit other people’s labor.
If one uses this story to say that Jesus approved of capitalism’s exploitation of labor it would be almost irreconcilable with Jesus’ other teachings that teach a preferential option for the poor and exploited laborers.
So what was the point Jesus was trying to make?
As we’ll see in our next passage, with the promise of Jesus’s followers receiving stewardship or governing roles over a liberated and restored “twelve tribes of Israel.” Those who demonstrated they understood and practiced what Jesus’ “kingdom of God” was all about would theoretically receive larger roles in that new humanity.
Is there any application in this saying for us today?
Just as each slave was left with funds that they were expected to use to create more, so too each of us today is called to take whatever we have and invest it in transforming our world into a safe, just, more compassionate home for everyone. But there are significant differences between the story and the world Jesus envisioned.
In the story, this king’s passion was profit. The God Jesus described at the heart of the kingdom was passionate about people, not profit. Jesus’ “kingdom of God” was a community where people were valued over profit, property, power, and privilege. Debts were canceled, slaves were set free, prisons were abolished, and wealth was redistributed more justly: no one had too much while others didn’t have enough to even survive. Jesus’ vision was a vision for a human community of connectedness, cooperation, compassion, and distributive justice.
We are called to invest our lives (including our money) in the survival, liberation, reparation, and transformation of people’s lives. We invest our own lives in liberating human lives and reclaiming our own humanity by working with those who daily face some form of oppression and suffering. Jesus’ vision is of a world where the hungry are fed, those who weep now laugh, and the poor receive it all (see Luke 6:20-26) It’s a world whose coming into being is good news to the poor, the imprisoned, the exploited, and the oppressed (see Luke 4:18-19). In Jesus’ world view you could not serve both God (taking care of people) and money (see Luke 16:13).
Jesus’ “reign of God” was about people, not money. It was about life for every person, not the exploitation of the masses for the benefit of the few.
We’re called to use what we have been given to create a world of life.