At first sight the parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30 seems to contradict the Old and New Testament Jubilee principles of fairness. But many of the parables were intended to carry hidden meanings. On the surface it tells us to use the skills and resources which we have. I believe that a more complete understanding of its meaning seen in the light of related Bible passages will help us see the way of our world more clearly, resulting in our taking steps which will enable God to build his Kingdom more completely through more fruitful Christian lives and joyful expressions of community.
Leviticus 25:13 states that "In this year of Jubilee everyone is to return to his own property." This involved restoring the freedom of slaves and returning land lost in the previous 49 years through poverty according to the principle of fair shares by which the promised land was originally divided. This condition was to be restored every 50 years. Paul also writes in 2 Corinthians 8:13 "Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little."
The Jubilee was central to Jesus' public ministry which was launched
on this theme of bringing good news to the poor by proclaiming the year
of the Lord's favour (Luke 4:18-19). But the parable of the talents may
seem to sound a different note in Matthew 25:29: "for everyone who has
will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have,
even what he has will be taken from him." Are these scriptures talking
about different principles operating in different situations or are they
somehow revealing the same loving heart of Jesus towards the poor, broken
hearted and estranged ?
A talent was a weight of 75 pounds and the original text says this was of silver, representing a very large sum of money. To understand this parable we must observe that Jewish law operative at the time of Jesus' ministry made it a crime for Jews to lend money at interest to fellow Jews. Leviticus 25:36 states: "Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you." To help us weigh the character of the master in the parable Jesus says that the slave with the least business ability (sufficient to be trusted with "only" 75 pounds of silver) says "Master, 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 talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you."
What sort of man harvests where he has not sown and demands more than what belongs to him ? Those who demand interest from poor farmers often take their land together with harvests which the moneylender did not himself sow. This goes on today as it has for thousands of years. The more we look at him the more we realise that Jesus is describing a very different kind of master compared to some other parables involving masters and servants. Interestingly enough the original Greek text of this parable describes them as slaves not servants. Here we have a master who expects 100% interest on his money as the normal going rate going on to incite what under Jewish law was a criminal offence amongst Jews: "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."
Consider also the slave's actions and explanation. It would have been
easy for him to have deposited the money at the bank unless he was responding
to a higher law than the word of a such a master to his slaves. Letting
the banker make money on his behalf would not have required more business
acumen than he must have had to have been entrusted with so much money.
This would have involved no more effort than burying it so we don't have
to accept theaccusation that he buried it out of laziness. But he knew
very well the character of the master who loaned him the talent. This implies
that he was more afraid of breaking God's law against usury than of antagonising
this hard and rapacious master.
Why would this slave have been so afraid to give an inch more than what belonged to this master that he chose economic destitution instead unless Jesus is telling us this story of a loan shark to represent Satan clothed as Mammon ? And what are the consequences of Mammon's method of doing business ? As Matthew 25:29-30 states it is to make the rich richer and evict the weakest members of society into homelessness. This is clearly the precise opposite of God's economic plan of providing enough for everyone as described in Leviticus 25 and 2 Corinthians 8 and implied by Jesus' mission to bring good news to the poor. Have you ever heard people complain that bankers only lend money to those who already have more than they need ? The translation "slave" rather than servant resonates with how little chance we have of a home or a job which is not somehow financed in a manner which involves the ruinous machinations of Mammon's diabolical money-system which Jesus here exposes.
There is likely to have been some controversy over the legal position concerning usury at the time when Jesus taught the parable given that Israel was subject to Roman law which permitted the lending of money at interest. If so, Jesus got to the heart of this issue in his unique style. There is also good reason to conclude that those conducting the business of banking in Palestine at the time of the Roman occupation would have been Gentiles for the same reason that Jews practised this business amongst Christians in Shakespeare's time: i.e. it got round the restriction in Leviticus 25:36. But while the use of a foreign banker as an intermediary in the business of lending at interest from one Jew to another would have technically circumvented the Levitical restriction against usury, exploiting this loophole must be seen as subverting God's purposes behind the Jubilee.
Would any of those to whom Jesus wanted to reveal this deeper meaning
have had any doubt about whose side he was on ? If any of them did he then
made his position clear by telling them the parable of the sheep and the
goats (Matthew 25:31-46). In this story giving or denying food, drink,
clothing, shelter and comfort to the poor, hungry, sick, imprisoned and
estranged is described as the equivalent of giving or denying service to
God, based on which we will be chosen for everlasting life or eternal punishment.
Nehemiah 5 also clearly identifies lending money at interest as the cause of loss of land and children into slavery. Verses 10-11 states: "I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them - the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil." Nehemiah explicitly defines an interest rate of even 1% as usury while lending money at no interest is acceptable. His endorsement of zero-interest credit is also similar to the fair transfer of abundances described in 2 Corinthians 8.
Changes in our laws over the last 3 centuries have by stages made our
courts of law regard the lending of money at interest as legitimate, and
have now finally removed any legislated limits on interest rates which
may be charged the poor which are higher than 1000% in some cases. If my
reading of this parable is correct this contravenes our unwritten common
law which inspires all other law by forbidding the causing of harm to others
except as may be required to prevent the occurrence of greater harm. Examples
where the courts still enforce this unwritten common law include cases
of theft and murder - there are no identifiable acts of parliament making
criminal such actions which have always been crimes.
Satan's strategy is to confuse, deceive and corrupt by denying us clear language with which to consider and describe righteous and wrongful business practices. The fact that dictionaries have redefined usury as "excessive" interest shows the extent of his subversion of modern economic thought. According to this form of the religion of the money-god Mammon, market decisions are always right(eous) and must take precedence over all other considerations so within this context the idea of "excessive" interest is made meaningless.
Usury as defined in Nehemiah 5 to mean any interest on money is now at the heart and soul of a global money-system which is forcing billions into unemployment, insecurity and hunger, tens of millions into starvation and unknown numbers into various kinds of slavery. Jesus' prophecy in the parable of the rich getting richer and the poor being cast out into the alley now involves the 450 richest people in the world having as much wealth as the poorest half of the world's population.
Does this reality match the diabolical world system called "Babylon"
described in Revelation 18, whose total destruction
we can expect to take place in the spaceof an hour ? Some bankers and economists
now believe that fear of the consequences is the only factor which has
prevented a global financial crash which would match this description from
having already happened. If we believe the Bible to be God's word the question
is not whether the global system described in Revelation as Babylon will
at some time crash but how much longer it can be allowed to continue.
So much for the bad news - what about the good news ? I don't believe God wants many of us to follow the example of the heroic slave by distancing ourselves from what goes on in an evil world to the point of losing everything, though a few whose riches get in the way of following Jesus may need to do so (see Matthew 19:16-24). Neither do I take the meaning of Isaiah 55 1-2 to be only spiritual: "come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat ! Come buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy ? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare." Here I believe God is expressing his purposes for all of us.
So how can we "buy without money" ? In a practical sense where people are willing to do this in community with each other this is now as easy as riding a bicycle if you know how and as easy as learning to if you don't ! Whether or not we have any money we can create our own when buying and selling from each other. Whether we are able to do this much or just a little, now that the Church is focusing on the Jubilee in preparation for Jesus' 2000th birthday, the time to start is now. Around the world many hundreds of communities have done just this and millions of pounds in value of a great range of useful goods and services are exchanged regularly between tens of thousands of people using hundreds of interest-free community currencies created from nothing other than people's confidence in and willingness to serve each other.
The kind of community money known as LETS starts with everyone having
none with an account starting at zero. All that is needed is information
about wants and offers, for value provided to be acknowledged by the person
receiving it and for accounts to be kept. What effect does keeping these
have ? It makes us accountable to each other as members of communities
large and small more openly and fairly than we have been before. It releases
resources which would otherwise remain unused to satisfy needs which would
otherwise be unfulfilled.
Copyleft Richard Kay <Rich@driveout.demon.co.uk> 1997