2008-03-11

A slightly revised parable of the pounds for modern times

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by Neil Godfrey

Traveling through Thailand one cannot avoid the national focus on the Thai king as benefactor of the poor, the good shepherd of all his people. (Sound familiar to any of us raised in company of a religious tradition with Mid-Eastern roots?) So on a long drive back to Bangkok from a beach resort this evening I could not help but compare the wealth of royalty, multinationals, religious institutions (hidden in real estate and treasure troves of sacred trinkets and ornate architecture and statuary) and a relatively few locals with the mass of ordinary citizens eking out what seems to this new outsider to be surely very little more than subsistence wages.

I found it hard to relate to the arguments that (1) the multinational intruders sincerely believe that their operations are doing much more than tokenism in raising living standards, or that (2) the royal and its subsidiary establishments are moving mountains as fast as they possibly can. I still have a hard time swallowing the Dalai Lama’s giggling suggestion that a village without even public sanitation should raise funds for a Buddha statue or temple on some rationalization that made Jesus’ “you have the poor with you always” quip sound banal.

So what does my Western Christian tradition have to offer as an alternative?

A thought experiment started working itself out on my drive back to the home of my hosts. . . . . 

The New Testament is not alien to the thought of a central government or any rich company or person instituting a plan to assist in money creation. We all know the parables of the talents and pounds in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27. But those had to do with the rich man’s money and methods by which he utilized his employees or staff to make him even richer. And the poor timid bugger who did his best not to take any risks with losing someone else’s money got sent off to suffer death by torture.

But maybe with a little tweaking perhaps this antiquated Christian parable can still inspire some virtue.

My slightly tweaked parable for modern times:

What if the king in the parable, instead of distributing his money to his servants to see how much they could increase the royal coffers in his absence, opted rather to distribute a small portion to each and every citizen who had an idea how he/she could use the money to establish some enterprise that would make a better living for themselves and their friends and kin.

Then when the king returned he had his servants check how each recipient had done. Those who had done well with the money on behalf of themselves and their loved ones were offered reasonable terms by which they could repay the loan without interest. Those who had managed to improve their lot a little were offered more appropriate repayment terms. Those who had not managed to succeed with their hoped-for enterprises were offered consolations and best wishes that some time still not too distant they might still make good. Till that day, the topic of repayment was not even raised.

So the king would lose a few bucks in the short term. But balance that against the mushrooming prosperity and living standards within his kingdom, and the wealth that would inevitably still find its way to the royal coffers.

A morality parable for an alternative to a mercantilist / capitalist system that current Christianity appears to favour?

4 Comments

  • 2008-03-11 23:52:32 UTC - 23:52 | Permalink

    A lot of recent scholarship on this parable suggests that either (as in an early Jewish Christian Gospel) the original form rewarded the one who buried the money, or this was a story about the way the rich expect their slaves to do their dirty work for them, and punish those with the courage to refuse. In that time, attempting to increase one’s wealth had a certain amount of shame attached to it, while the rabbinic recommendation about the appropriate thing to do with something borrowed was to bury it.

  • 2008-03-12 00:45:43 UTC - 00:45 | Permalink

    That’s interesting. It reminds me of my learning ages ago of that ancient Roman aristocrat who rejected some innovative technology on the grounds that if he adopted it, it would ruin the livelihoods of all his slaves. (Too long ago for me to remember the source and details, dammit — if only for my own satisfaction to check the status etcetera of whatever source that was.)

    Not doubting that there was some shame in various ancient Mediterranean quarters at long stretches of time attached to increasing monetary wealth, but do not the biblical parables speak of someone of aristocratic class, and not of that “inferior money-making” merchant sector? No doubt the recent scholarship you raise allows for this. I’d appreciate a few pointers/citations to that scholarship, if you would.

    You also touch on another favorite button of mine: Why has not the recent scholarhip which you refer to (don’t mistake me — I’m always interested in learning new things like this — unfortunately each of us is limited to what we can take in by our time and circumstances) been publicized more prosaically through the most readily accessible lay channels? The recent scholarship you indicate would clearly have major implications for many current western supporters of certain prevailing economic systems. Is it hidden in the recesses of academic caverns for but a moment only?

    P.S. — I also nicked my tweaked parable idea from an NGO/Bank that is doing just the very thing I describe among some African communities.

  • Giuseppe
    2014-05-06 15:34:58 UTC - 15:34 | Permalink

    The parable of ten talents has always impressed me for its very bad description of God: why God is so severe to require at any cost at least the interests of what he offers?

    This remembers me the implacable justice of marcionite Demiurge: right but severe.

    perhaps that the authors have written this ”parable of minas” just to force you to believe positive what for Marcion was only a negative figure?

    Mistery.

  • Usman Burghoff
    2018-07-31 21:30:53 UTC - 21:30 | Permalink

    :It reminds me of my learning ages ago of that ancient Roman aristocrat who rejected some innovative technology on the grounds that if he adopted it, it would ruin the livelihoods of all his slaves.:

    The story was about Tiberius executing the inventor of flexible glass, as recounted by “Petronius”, Pliny the Elder and Cassius Dio, because the new material might devalue precious metals. The story might be about the suppressed discovery of tempered glass.

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