Reading the Bible through the Eyes of the 99%

Like just about everyone else I watched in horror this past weekend as campus police mercilessly pepper-sprayed student protesters at UC Davis. Juxtaposed with that image of brutality was the comment made by Republican Presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, that Occupy Wall Street protesters should “go and get a job, right after you take a bath.” What struck me about Gingrich’s comment was not that he made it in the first place–his moral illiteracy should surprise no one–but that the audience applauded the assertion that those who protest the rising income disparity in this country and the emboldened plutocracy that disparity makes possible are merely lazy whiners. The idea that those who speak out on behalf of some reasonable standard of political and economic justice are too lazy to go out and make their own fortunes seems to have taken hold among a significant portion of the body politic. That this applause, which signals the equating of the pursuit of fairness with whiny laziness, occurred at a gathering purporting to advance religious values, only serves to underline the moral confusion inherent in a system that rewards the “haves” and treats the “have-nots”with suspicion and disdain.

The Gospel of Matthew contains a well-known parable about a master who, in preparation for departure on a journey, turns over control of varying amounts of money to three slaves. The first two slaves, who’ve received the largest sums of money, invest what they’ve been given, while the last slave buries his money in the ground. When the master returns, he finds that the first two slaves have doubled their money, which, of course, pleases him. The last slave, however, turns over the original sum with a less than flattering explanation, which paints the master as an ancient Near Eastern Tony Soprano: “Master, I knew you were a hard man, taking what is not yours. So, I was scared, not wanting to risk coming back empty-handed” (Matt. 25:24). The master is furious. He takes the slave’s money and gives it to the one with the most money, and kicks the least productive slave out.

The “Parable of the Talents” has been viewed by some on the right as an endorsement of the kind of risk-taking speculation that animates capitalism. On this popular reading of the parable God is an impatient master who requires productivity, spurred by a bold investment of resources, and is intolerant of the lazy and unresourceful. Viewed this way, God sounds eerily like a Republican Presidential candidate, looking to establish Tea Party bona fides: “Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you’re not rich, and you don’t have a job, blame yourself.”

There is another way to interpret this parable, however, one that takes seriously the insights provided by a broad reading of critical theory, specifically that all texts are political. That is to say, texts are always situated in the midst of socio-ecomonic systems of organization where some have power, while most do not. On this account the master isn’t a stand-in for God, but the beneficiary of a system that rewards those in power by maintaining arbitrary and unjust socio-economic arrangements. The master in the parable, after all, is described as a crook–a designation it is difficult to see Matthew applying to God.

Moreover, the last slave who buried his money, rather than lazy and unresourceful, is viewed as the bold subversive who opts out of a game rigged against those at the bottom of the economic food-chain. In other words, it’s possible to read Jesus here, not as offering implicit approbation to investment capitalism, but as condemning a system that punishes people at the bottom, a system that believes the “have-nots” to be lazy whiners. In the Parable of the Talents Jesus offers up a vision of what it might look like to live as his follower in a system designed to reward those who already have wealth and power, while keeping in place those who have little of either.

One of the complaints I hear most often about Christianity centers on its failure to produce Christians who actually look like Jesus. Christians, this argument goes, are merely shills for a political and economic system that seeks to protect the rich and keep the poor docile by distracting everyone with grave sounding discourse about the moral threat of gay marriage and teenagers’ access to contraception. The Parable of the Talents, the Urtext of “Christian capitalists,” has been one of the passages used to underwrite this narrative.

But if Christians are ever going to establish credibility with anyone besides themselves, they’re going to have to start reading the bible through the same eyes as the people with whom Jesus spent most of his time. The Gospels refer to them as the poor, the sick, as prostitutes, tax collectors, and slaves. Some quarters of the Republican party refer to them as “lazy whiners.”

I like to think of them as the 99%.