Wednesday, June 12, 2013 — Week of Proper 5, Year One
Enmegahbowh, Priest and Missionary, 1902[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/ for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]
Today’s Readings for the Daily Office
(Book of Common Prayer, p. 970)
Psalms 72 (morning) // 119:73-96 (evening)
Deuteronomy 31:30 – 32:14
2 Corinthians 11:21b-33
Jesus’ parable of the nobleman and the three slaves is a subversive one. It is like several others that expose the injustice and exploitation of the rural agrarian economy. It is not easy to interpret, and scholars have various ways of thinking about this story. I prefer to call it the “parable of the whistle-blower.”
The nobleman was part of an elite class who owned and controlled most of the property and wealth of the land in Jesus’ time. These aristocrats had large holdings and were frequently absent. They functioned through retainers. Jesus calls the retainers “slaves,” a sarcastic word in this setting, much like calling the franchise manager for a major retail chain a “slave.” In the first century economy, the aristocrats and their retainers controlled about 98% of the annual income.
In Jesus’ story, the master gives each slave money to manage during his absence. (My NRSV translates “mina” as “pound.” It seems like it is not that much money, $20 perhaps, but a pound represents about three months’ wages for a laborer.) Jesus knew (and his hearers knew) that the expectation would be that the slave/retainers would double the master’s investment and keep whatever “honest graft” they could accumulate above that amount. Under the laws of Hammurabi the minimum acceptable profit was 100%. Anything less was considered a default. Profits above that could be kept by the retainer. Such high levels of profit can only be accomplished through exploitation. Retainers did the dirty work of the powerful. They were hated by the oppressed peasants whom they exploited.
The two successful slave/retainers do the expected thing. They’ve squeezed 100% profit for the nobleman. He rewards them. It was a system, like so many others, where the rich indeed grow richer. But the third slave/retainer is the focus of the story. He behaves in an unexpected way. He opts out of the abusive system of exploitation. He takes the money out of circulation. By doing that, he has prevented the power of that money from exploiting the peasants.
His language is very different from the courtesies of the first two (“Lord, YOUR pound has made ten more pounds.”) He speaks the truth to the nobleman. “I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” That’s smack talk. It is public insult and shame, if the man could be shamed. He describes the aristocrat as an exploiter who lives off of the productive labor of others. The aristocrat monetizes the wheat others have winnowed. It is a judgment not only on the nobleman, but on the whole system. This slave/retainer is a moral man and an economic whistleblower.
And everyone knows what happens to whistleblowers? The master attacks him. He is banished. His fate is predictable — poverty, misery and certain death. That’s the life of a day-laborer. And because of his former status as one who oppressed the peasants, he will be helpless when thrown into their world, vulnerable to their resentment. That’s the lesson of the powerful. Threaten power and suffer the consequences.
But what is Jesus’ point? It’s hard to know exactly, but it may be a way of reframing the economic picture in order to promote more honesty and community. What if such a third slave/retainer had acted in such a way? He’s as much a victim of this system of exploitation as the peasants. These hated retainers really are slaves. And what if some of them began to mess with the aristocrats’ system? Would the people (the peasants listening to Jesus’ story) have compassion? Could they receive the whistleblower into their community with acceptance and forgiveness? The ruling elite are just using the animosity between the retainers and the peasants to control them both. If retainers are to do the right thing, if whistleblowers are going to expose corruption, they will need some support and cover when they receive the inevitable punishment from the powerful.
It’s dangerous work to expose the abuse and corruption of the powerful. How will we treat those who have been part of that corruption but then take the risk to bring the truth to light? We know the powerful will attack them? What will the community do?