Exodus, the parable of the talents, and the accumulation of wealth

The other day I saw the movie Exodus. For a fairly weak movie, it was well worth seeing, and not only for the big wave. So I reread the relevant parts of the Books of Genesis and Exodus, which are quite gripping narratives considering they were written down over two and a half millennia ago, not long after the Iliad and Odyssey took on written form.

The rereading reminded me how much counting there is in the Bible: generations, years, wives, children, animals, property, money, plagues, years in the wilderness, commandments….

Moses’s many-times-great uncle Joseph, who 400 years before the movie begins was responsible for getting the Israelites into the situation from which Moses had to save them, was a champion accountant and financial planner.

After his successful interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream with its 7 fat + 7 lean = 14 cows (Genesis 41:14-36), Joseph is raised to great power and skillfully consolidates Pharaoh’s economic dominance (Genesis 47:13-22; all biblical quotes from English Standard Version at Bible Gateway):

13 Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine. 14 And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought. And Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. 15 And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” 16 And Joseph answered, “Give your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” 17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year. 18 And when that year was ended, they came to him the following year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. 19 Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.”

20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh’s. 21 As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other. 22 Only the land of the priests he did not buy….

Joseph’s success shows the usual triumph of those who have over those who have not. To update the text to our own frame of reference, just replace Pharaoh by “the 1%” and Joseph by “banks too big to fail” as you read.

The most notable New Testament account of the biblical accumulation of money is the parable of the talents. In the version of Luke 19:12-27:

…“A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. 13 Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ 14 But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. 16 The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant![c] Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ 18 And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ 19 And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ 20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ 26 ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’”

The story holds its mysteries. Is Jesus praising the servants who invested the minas well (1 mina = 100 drachmas; 60 minas = 1 talent)? Is money really a good thing? If so, does the investment represent faith or good works? Or conversely, is the moral of the story that people should not let the accumulation of worldly wealth distract them from the life of the spirit? Is this nobleman who is proud of reaping what he does not sow, becomes a king, and slaughters subjects who oppose his rule a good or a bad role model? Does he, by leaving the scene and returning with a higher rank, represent Jesus? Or is he an evil exploiter? Is the story a warning to the non-faithful… or to the faithful?

It seems to me the moral would be clearer if it were the parable of the 3 pots of beans: the master would leave some dried beans to his servants, of whom two plant theirs and end up with many beans, while the third keeps his on the shelf. Beans, representing a necessity of life, have a better resonance than money, a social creation.

Matthew (25:27), in his rendition of the parable of the talents, has the master specify to the non-investing servant: “you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.” (Or, in some other translations: with the money-changers or money-lenders or usurers, but τραπεζίτες literally = banker.)

Maybe the master would have liked his servants to invest in Pharaoh & Joseph Inc. over in Egypt?

Jesus doesn’t usually have a positive attitude toward money. He chased the money-changers (or vendors, in Luke 19:45-48) out of the Temple. He advised one ruler: “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22) and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25).

In the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8–10 ), a woman searches for her lost silver coin and rejoices when she finds it, and it specifically represents the soul of a repentant sinner; but that doesn’t prove that investing one’s capital is a positive value, and in fact, that woman has kept her coins around the house, like the servants who didn’t dare invest.

The Old Testament world can be a pretty tough place to live; the New is usually less oriented to the material and more to the spiritual, and though the consequences of delinquency can be severe, there is always the hope of grace. Actually, I would have thought the non-investing servant and the enemies of the master returned as kind should have been pardoned and lived happily ever after cultivating their gardens.

Perhaps the parable is an anachronistic throwback to the Exodus ethos, when Joseph did: invested Pharaoh’s many talents or minas wisely in agricultural futures and real estate. Joseph’s success allowed him to settle his relatives in Egypt, from where later Moses had to lead their descendants to other real estate with a more favorable location, where Jesus ultimately was able to preach and tell his often challenging parables.

220px-Exodus2014Poster
movie poster from IMDb

PS This is my second no doubt daring entry into theological thought; the first was “Free will, whose will? Some theological questions for the day” written just as Pope Francis was about to be elected.

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About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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