If you didn’t know it—you do now—Jesus was a capitalist. So says Bryan Fischer from the American Family Association. Jesus isn’t just a capitalist, though. According to Fischer he’s “a capitalist’s capitalist” and he can prove it, by reciting one of Jesus’ stories that we call “The Parable of the Talents.”
In the parable of the talents, Jesus refers to a man who called his servants together and “entrusted to them his property.” Hold it right there! It was his own property! He owned the means of production—it did not belong to the community at large! The capital used in economic exchange was in private hands! And what he does with his wealth is clearly nobody’s business but his own.
It’s certainly true that there were rich people in Palestine during Jesus’ life, but they didn’t get there by being capitalists—by working themselves up from nothing to become rich. In short, there was no “something from nothing” American dream in this society. The upper class was made up of aristocracy and temple priests. Yes, they were rich, but they were not capitalists.
Fischer is not deterred, however, showing that Jesus operates on a meritocracy, and not by some quota system:
Further, the businessman distributed the talents “to each according to his ability.” Sin number two. According to Wallis, Jesus should have had this man distribute his resources “to each according to his need.” He should not be entrusting money to people based on ability, but rather should be extracting it from them based on ability. After all, in Wallis’ world it is “from each according to his ability.” Jesus turns that completely on its head by giving “to each according to his ability.” Perhaps Rev. Wallis needs a remedial grammar lesson on prepositions.
Perhaps Fischer needs to review his context. Again, we’re talking about an aristocrat here, not someone who gained their wealth by engaging in a capitalistic economy. Who else will an aristocrat trust with his money but those with “abilities”—or as the Greek word used here means “the power and influence which belong to riches and wealth.” In short, he gave his money to people who already had money. He didn’t give it to the poor because, as an aristocrat, such a thing would never occur to him to do. Again, this is not an example of capitalism, but of aristocracy.
Fischer ends his “greed is good” diatribe with a stinging indictment of the “nanny state” he seems to think all liberals pine for:
And last but not least, when the master returns and finds that one of his servants has buried the money in his back yard rather than investing it, he calls him “wicked and slothful.” And rather than taking money from the productive workers and giving it out of compassion to this man in the form of welfare, he takes the one talent he buried and awarded it to the most productive member of his team.
Jesus’ businessman had no intention of rewarding or subsidizing irresponsibility. The lazy servant had no right to anything he wasn’t willing to work for.
Fischer, apparently, isn’t aware that there is more than one way to read the Bible and interpret the stories found within its pages. The parable of the talents has been debated probably from the moment it was written as to what Jesus really meant to say. Read one way, it can appear that Jesus is, indeed, advocating a meritocracy where those who don’t work and make money for their master are “wicked and slothful.” However, when read another way, this parable can empower those who believe economic systems—whatever they are called—should favor fairness over greed.
William Herzog, in his 1994 book, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as the Pedagogue of the Oppressed, sees this parable differently. We’re never told, for instance, that the master is someone we should emulate or admire. In fact, the “wicked and slothful” servant calls him a “hard man, reaping where you have not sown.”
Instead of condemning the last servant as slothful, Herzog proposes that this servant is a “whistle blower”—someone who will not participate in creating wealth “at the costs of the poor,” and refuses to break the Hebrew laws against “usury” or charging interest (Leviticus 25:36-37 is one example).
Instead of a parable about the blessings of capitalism, this is a parable about the wickedness of greed:
According to Herzog’s reading, the point of the parable is to show how much it can cost for an underling to expose the truth about injustice in society. Indeed, this parable is the last Jesus delivers before his crucifixion, the ultimate consequence of his own speaking of truth to worldly power.
In addition, just after this parable, Jesus says those who inherit the kingdom are not those with the most wealth, but those who serve “the least of these” by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
If Fischer wants another parable to chew on, he should visit Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the landowner who hires people to work in his field throughout the day and pays the same wage to those who worked eight hours or one hour. When the workers complained, the landowner (who is supposed to be God in this story) tells them, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” In this parable, how much work one did was not a factor in how much reward they received—God chose to bless everyone, the hard worker and the slothful alike. Our answer to his question in our capitalist society is, “Yes, we are envious because you are generous. You’ll be hearing from our attorney.”
And Jesus’ answer is even harder for a capitalist to swallow: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
In the end, though, it’s silly for anyone to argue that Jesus supported an economic system that he had never heard of or encountered—whether it’s capitalism or socialism. What Jesus did encounter was an economic society with a large gap between the rich and the poor, and at every turn he advocated one thing—that we care for the needs of others as much as we care for our own needs. Now, that’s a revolutionary economic theory.