Perceiving Justice through the Ears and Eyes of Others by Tom Billard
Tom Billard is the Minister, Kirkwall Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, Ontario
After taking a course in seminary on “The Politics of Jesus”, I found the common way we interpret the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) to be troubling. I believe we hear it through the ears of people who privilege the voices of those who know how to make money. We readily accept the interpretation that God has given people gifts and abilities to be used for the work of the kingdom and they will answer on judgement day regarding the fruit of their work; those who fail to perform will be thrown out into a dark place where there will be great weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But there are other ears through which we can hear this story; the ears of the average people of Jesus’ day who were invariably exploited by the rich elites of their society. In first century Palestine, the political-economic system was set up for the benefit of the occupying Roman Empire and the Jewish elites that got rich serving the Empire. The elites were given the power of collecting regressive taxes and they were able to keep a portion for themselves. Everything was taxed at high rates so if your farming enterprise had too many bad years, you had to borrow money to pay your taxes. If you continued to have poor harvests then eventually you had to sell your land and belongings to cover your debts. Many people ended up being landless peasants desperate for work providing a cheap source of labour for the rich. So the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Those who had much, received more and those who had little, received even less.
Now imagine yourself as one of these poor labourers listening to Jesus telling “The Parable of the Talents”. What would your reaction be to the rich man who probably got wealthy by unfairly exploiting others while serving the Roman occupiers? In the parable, we heard how the master reaped from where he did not sow and gathered from where he did not scatter seed. I doubt you would have had a favourable opinion of him. And what would you think of the two servants that went out and made money for their master no doubt by exploiting others as their master did?
An average person of Jesus’ day probably would have identified with the third servant who didn’t buy into the master’s way of exploiting others to make money. He wouldn’t have invested the money with bankers because it was against Jewish law to lend out money for interest. He might have buried the money because he wasn’t willing to do business as his master did.
As one of the poor people of Jesus’ day, how would you have felt as Jesus described how the master rewarded the two servants who made money and punished the servant who didn’t? Might you have concluded that the story was a pretty good description of what happened to the poor of your day?
If we let this story speak into our present culture where the rich are getting richer as the poor get poorer, what can we learn from it apart from the traditional interpretation of the parable? As middle-class Christians, do we only hear the story from the perspective of the elites who consider making money to be such an honourable enterprise even if the poor are exploited? Do we ignore the perspective of the poor who wonder why making money at their expense is highly praised? As we consider questions of fairness and justice in our society, whose perspectives do we privilege, the elites or the poor?
I believe that Christians who are benefitting well from our political-economic system need to not only hear the voices of the poor and oppressed but also try to consider what they have to say from their point of view. We need to reflect on the message we hear from those who are affected by factors such as taxes on consumption, decreasing service coverage by Medicare, decreasing residential and hospital beds for the mentally ill, unfair wage and workplace practices, insufficient support for affordable housing and daycare, damage to the environment, discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. After trying to understand the challenges of the economically oppressed, we need to ask ourselves, “What is Jesus calling us to do?”
Looking ahead to the next passage, “The Parable of Judgment”, we can see what Jesus is calling us to do, to stand with the poor and oppressed, to consider their needs, and to help them as if they were Christ himself. Can we put aside our middle-class biases and listen compassionately to the voices of the least of Christ’s family and then do what Jesus calls us to do?