The rich get richer and the poor get poorer


 Scripture: Matthew 25: 14-30     Jan Savory


Today’s Gospel reading is about the parable of the talents; a rich man leaving on a journey shared his money with 3 slaves. On his return, two of them had doubled the money by investing it, and were rewarded handsomely.  the third, fearful of his Master’s wrath, had preserved his share safely but had not increased it; for this he was punished. 

The common interpretation

Whew you hear this parable, do you think about the “sanitized” version of the parable: how we should use the gifts (talents) God has given us and the rewards and punishments for using these gifts well or badly?  It’s a natural reaction, to think of the land owner as representing God, given

how many parables start with “The kingdom of Heaven is like a man who (even occasionally a woman who) …”

God as the capitalist slave owner?

But I don’t think that’s what this parable is about at all. God as a slave owner? God as a capitalist more concerned with profit than people? Or God the stern punisher? Where is love?  Where is grace? How does this tie in with Jesus’ other teachings? “Do not lay up treasure on earth where moth and rust corrupt”; It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; Or telling the rich young ruler to sell all his worldly goods and give the money to the poor.  Where is the Jesus who came to preach good news to the poor?

More than one meaning

A parable isn’t just a simple story whose meaning is obvious. It is a story that can be read on many levels. Jesus told his disciples that “The reason I speak to them [the crowd] in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.””

Who is Jesus / God in this story?

A question that can be asked of parables is, “Who is Jesus / God in this story?” There may not be only one answer, just as there may be more then one meaning to the story. So, who is Jesus in this parable? Typically, we think that the man who goes away and comes back is Jesus. That may well be. But this question and the above comments have me thinking about Jesus being the third servant, who refused to play the economic games, had everything taken from him, and was cast out. 

Investing in first century Palestine

The first two servants invested their money. There wasn’t a lot of financial risk involved. But, it was contrary to the Law of Moses which forbade charging interest on loans.

In 1st century Palestine, there were two common ways that someone could invest their money to make a profit.  One was currency exchange business in the Temple primarily targeting Jews from the diaspora coming to Jerusalem to make their sacrifices at the temple.  We know what Jesus thought about this practice; he turned over the tables of the money changers!

The other was loans to small farmer families struggling to stay afloat. These loans were disastrous to the general population. Interest rates were often as high as fifty percent, so it would not be at all unlikely for a steward of a powerful finance family to double or even triple an investment.  Their farms were the collateral on the loans.   Often borrowers got in over their heads and the lenders foreclosed, and the borrowers lost their property. They would then become tenants on what had been their own property, or become homeless, and possibly resort to crime to be able to eat.

The rich  got richer and the poor got poorer

Only about 1% of the population had enough money to invest in this way. And the rich, the 1%, got richer and the poor got poorer Does this sound familiar? 

The widening gap between rich and poor

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer
The widening gap between rich and poor

The USA is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. There, the wealthiest 1% of residents – just over 3 million people — hold 42.5% of the national wealth, $35 trillion, up from 25%, 19.2 trillion in 2006. At the other end of the scale, the poorest (bottom 50%) have 35.7% of liabilities and just 6.1% of assets. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Based on the World Population Review 2020, Canada is 10th in the list of wealthiest countries. Here, the situation isn’t quite as stark, but we are moving in the same direction;. the richest one percent controls 25.6% of our total wealth. while the bottom 40%, control just 1.2% of Canada’s money. Here, too, the richer and the poor get poorer.

Financial Abuse

So, in this parable, was Jesus telling us that we need to refuse to be part of a corrupt system where some people are filthy rich and other dirt poor? I think so. The third servant provides a contrast to the other slaves. Following the Torah that forbade lending money at interest (Exodus 22.20-30), he believed that the system was corrupt, that the leader was evil, that money should not be used as a weapon against homes and farms and families, and he refused to participate. He shows us the financial abuse of the boss and the complicity of the other two servants. Seen from the perspective of the Jewish peasants, living in a limited goods economy this would stand out to them. Every day, they saw the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Denouncing an inequitable system

And what did he get for this? Nothing but trouble and punishment. Here, Jesus is warning us that if we stand up and denounce a corrupt and inequitable system, we may have to pay for it. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to offer up our life (or our comfortable way of life) as a bulwark against injustice, even if it means losing that way of life.  This isn’t just a message for the rich 1%. But for all of us who have enough. Because the “Kingdom of Heaven” works completely differently from this parable.

The Upside-Down Kingdom

In his book, “The Upside-Down Kingdom” Donald B. Kraybill explores how the kingdom of God points to an inverted, upside-down way of life that challenges the prevailing social order in ancient Palestinian society and does the same in our world today.  “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. Jesus’ values, rooted in the deep love and abiding grace of God, require new ways of thinking and living; sometimes they compliment prevailing practices and are easy. Other times, they don’t and then they make us uncomfortable. That, I think is the message of this parable.

Showing and sharing God’s love

Think about it. In Matthew’s Gospel, this is the second to last parable Jesus told.  We hear the last one next week (in as much as you fed, clothed visited … you did it to me). Then, Jesus starts making arrangements for eating his last meal with his disciples before his death. After which, the religious and political rulers executed him for insurrection, for not playing the game.  Jesus spent his life and ministry proclaiming God’s upside-down kingdom, feeding the hungry, healing and sick, offering forgiveness, and welcoming all into the loving embrace of God.

And for that message he is crucified. That’s how much God wants us to know of God’s love. And just in case we miss or underestimate that message, God raises Jesus on the third day that we might know that life is stronger than death and love more powerful than hate.     That’s the God we proclaim, and that’s the God we, like the third slave, are called to emulate and follow, whatever the cost.