Here we go again. Washington Post "On Faith" contributor Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is once again twisting Christian scripture to push a liberal economic agenda.
You may recall the liberal theologian and Center for American Progress fellow last month contorted The Lord's Prayer into an argument for government to "forgive" students loan debt contracted between private parties. Now the Chicago Theological Seminary professor is charging that Jesus was a first century "occupier" having "occupied" the Temple when he drove out the moneychangers. What's more, the reverend argued, one of Jesus's most haunting parables -- the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 -- is a condemnation of the banking system (emphasis mine):
[Family Research Council president Tony] Perkins relies on the Parable of the Ten Talents (Luke 19:11-27) for his ‘Jesus is a free marketer’ argument. Here’s where Perkins and I agree, actually. I also think Jesus is talking about the ‘free market’ in that parable, only, as in many of the parables, there is a reversal. A ‘the last shall be first and the first shall be last’ kind of a move that Jesus so often makes in his teaching.
Jesus employed parables as a way for the people in his time to actually think about the surprising nature of God’s justice, and what their social responsibilities might be. Jesus’ parables often expose the social inequalities of his time, and contrast them with God’s call for greater justice and mercy in the Kingdom of God.
The wealthy “nobleman” in the parable is not exactly a model citizen. Indeed, he doesn’t deny the accusation of the third servant who says, “you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” (21) Is Jesus suggesting a critique of the absentee landlord, who is only interested in maximizing his profit?
The third servant is the one who refuses to participate in the game of increasing his lord’s financial wealth at the costs of the poor. When the nobleman chastises the third servant, it is the nobleman and not the servant who is in violation of the laws of the Hebrew Bible, the laws on usury that Jesus is trying to defend. This kind of financial transaction is forbidden in the Torah. “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” (Exodus 22:25)
One of my seminary teacher’s long ago, Frederick Herzog, from whom I learned this social justice interpretation of the Parable of the Ten Talents, called that servant a “whistle-blower.”
Jesus taught in parables to the people in the street, to the poor. Jesus was teaching to those who had been driven into poverty by unjust lending practices in his time, and his turning the tables on the nobleman, and making the third servant the real hero of the story would have been well understood by his hearers.
Surely ordained United Church of Christ minister Brooks Thistlethwaite knows that the Bible condemns calling good evil and evil good (Isa. 5:20). That is precisely what she's doing, of course, with this parable by ripping the text so out of context as to flip it upside down.
The parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30) is a parable of the coming of the kingdom of heaven, following as it does immediately after the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-3) and before the parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). The parable is within an extended discourse Christ delivered about the coming kingdom of heaven and the imperative for Christians to be vigilant until the day of Christ's glorious return. Be alert and at work, not wicked and lazy servants who are unprepared and unproductive when the master returns, Jesus was teaching.
Another clue that Brooks Thistlethwaite is off base is that the lazy servant that she holds up as the heroic whistleblower suffers a similar fate in verse 30 -- "outer darkness" in which there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth" -- as the five foolish virgins in the preceding parable who were shut out of the wedding feast which represents the return of Christ for His bride the Church.
It is fair to say that the Bible is not an economics textbook or a political treatise for either the right or left. It may be off-base to insist that Jesus was a pure free-marketeer, but it's also ridiculous and intellectually dishonest to rip Scripture out of context to present Jesus as a first century "Occupier" as Brooks Thistlethwaite does.