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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Socialism, Capitalism & the Parable of the Talents

The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30 and the Parable of the Minas in Luke 19:11-28 are often used to justify the recent reinvention of Jesus as a capitalist.  In both parables a rich man gives his servants money (a different amount to each according to his ability) and expects them to invest it on his behalf.  One servant in each story is scared of his lord and buries the money, handing back the same amount he was given. The servant is rebuked and cast out for being lazy and slothful.

Both of these parables have been used to justify capitalism rather than socialism. Yet for any economic system to be successful and contribute to the betterment of society, there is a requirement for hard work, honesty, integrity and fairness.

The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 and the Parable of the Minas in Luke 19, both show a rich man giving his money to his servants to earn him more money.   At all times this money remains the property of the rich man.  Two of the servants double the man's money, the other hands back what he was given.  This servant is described as lazy and wicked.   The "lazy" servant describes the rich man as a hard man who he is afraid of.  The rich man admits that he "reaps where he has not sown and gathers where he has not spread seed".

Below are two interpretations of these parables, both from an economic perspective and both with the same conclusion - that the parables are not an endorsement of capitalism.  As parables they don't just relate to how we manage money, they also relate to how we manage anything, including gifts, service, increasing the Kingdom of God; they show that we should not bury our gifts but use them productively.

Let's look at these parables as applied to Capitalist and Socialist systems.

Traditional Interpretation

Traditionally, the rich man is seen as representative of Jesus and the servants as representing us. In this analogy, the lazy servant failed to invest the money entrusted to him.  He buried it out of fear of his Master.  If anything, this parable highlights the crippling power of fear in our lives.   It shows that we can achieve great things if we don't allow fear to dominate.    It also shows that the servant was disobedient.  He had been asked to produce a result and he deliberately failed to do so.  What if he had tried to increase the rich man's wealth and instead lost what he had been entrusted with? Would he have still been cast out?

In our own professions we are required to produce results for our employers or businesses.  If we do so we are blessed with an income and possibly with promotion.  The lazy servant deliberately failed to produce and was dismissed.

This interpretation does not declare categorically that capitalism is God's preferred political system.  Even Socialism needs productive workers to have enough resources to care for the people.

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats immediately follows the Parable of the Talents.  It is significant and indicates that money is not meant to be accumulated purely for individual wealth but to be distributed according to the needs of people who are worse off.

From a doctrinal perspective, the traditional interpretation indicates that we must work our way into heaven; that salvation is earned, not given to us by the grace of God. Ephesians 2:8-9 states, 'For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no-one may boast'. Verse 10 goes on to state that we were 'created for good works'. However, we are not saved by works and can not work our way into heaven.

Alternative Interpretation

Looking at these parables from purely a financially perspective, they could be interpreted in another way; in this case, the servant is the hero.

In both parables, the rich man states that the servant should have invested the money in order to earn usury.  The bible generally condemns the system of usury, or earning with exorbitant interest and did not allow Jews to charge usury to other Jews. Additionally, the concept of "reaping where he had not sown and gathering where he had not spread seed" indicated that the rich man was using immoral methods, or extortion, for gathering his riches.  The servant could be seen as the model of behaviour in that he didn't yield to the corrupt methods of his master; he returned the money, he didn't steal from him, nor did he participate in the extortion requested of him.

Galations 6:7-8 explains the deceit of the rich man, "Do not be deceived, God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please the flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life."

Extortion is condemned throughout the bible and if anything this parable is a condemnation of the immoral economic practices of the rich man.  The behaviour of the rich man contradicts the Beatitudes, such as "blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy". The rich man also has responsibility with the money he expected his servants to earn for him.


Neither parable explains the fate of the rich man or how he used his wealth.

Proverbs 28:8 explains how the rich man should  have used his wealth.  This proverb states "one who increases his possessions by usury and extortion gathers it for him who will pity the poor".  The bible is very strict about the conditions of usury and is very clear about helping the poor and not exploiting them.

Ezekiel 18:7-9 describes the moral behaviour expected of people in dealing with others, including showing justice, compassion and fairness. It says "But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right .... and hath not oppressed any, but hath restored to the debtor his pledge, hath spoiled none by violence, hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment; he that hath not given forth upon usury, neither hath taken any increase, that hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity, hath executed true judgment between man and man, hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgments, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live, saith the Lord God".

Isaiah 5:8 warns against greed and capitalism and certainly the globalisation that we see today with smaller businesses being "acquired" by larger ones, "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth."

Neither of these parables is a ringing endorsement for unfettered capitalism. They do not espouse the "laissez-faire", "survival of the fittest" mentality of modern capitalism.   As stated above, it is interesting that the parable of the talents is immediately followed by the parable of the "Sheep and the Goats".

In this parable Jesus is on His throne in heaven and has separated the nations one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  Those deemed to be goats are on his left hand and those deemed to be sheep are on his right. In Matthew 25:34-36, He says to the sheep, "Come you, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to Me".

The goats don't fare so well.  Jesus says to them in Matthew 25:41-43 "Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, I was naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me."

Socialism is not about slothfulness, it is not about a "welfare" state. It is about redistribution of wealth for the benefit of society. For there to be wealth, there has to be profit.  Socialism is not against profit, it is against profiting from the exploitation of others - exploitation which is also condemned in the bible. For socialism to be effective it needs productive "workers".  The socialism of the bible acknowledges this and the secular socialism of Karl Marx acknowledges it.

Capitalism in general takes the wealth common to a nation, such as natural resources, and redistributes it to the rich.

An argument has been put forward that the charity of the bible is meant to be undertaken by the Church not by the State.  The flaw in this argument is that centuries ago the Church was the State or had great influence in the government of nations, whether it was the Sadducees and Pharisees in the Sanhedrin Council or the Catholic Church which ultimately ruled the former Roman Empire and influenced many other rulers.  Eventually, the influence of the Catholic Church in State matters waned, however, the responsibility to care for its citizens remained with the State.  Certainly the Church needs to provide charity, but not to the exclusion of the State.

Government is not designed to simply pass laws and collect taxes.  It is meant to govern the economy and the people.   To achieve this, the State needs to responsibly spend those taxes in a manner that protects and develops the nation.  The State has a responsibility to ensure that all people within its borders are cared for, that no-one is left behind.  It has a responsibility to contribute to the global community of which all nations are now members.

Government is to provide the infrastructure and framework for the efficient operation of the nation and to meet the needs of the people, this includes schools, hospitals, police, roads, trade and market regulations and so on.  The trend in privatising these services has resulted in higher operational costs and lower quality service as private business focuses on profit and not on service delivery. Government traditionally focuses on delivery of service, ensuring that the services meet acceptable standards within a value for money framework.

The bible needs to be read in context.  The context of the bible is that no-one is left behind, all are cared for, all are loved.  Certainly, the more money you have the more people you can help. The bible is not opposed to profits, it is opposed to exploitation and lack of charity.

Capitalism is not a system that lends itself to caring for the individual.  It is a system which encourages exploitation, unfair and deceitful practices.  Capitalism results in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.  Capitalism is about personal wealth.

Matthew 6:19-21 says "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, your heart will be also".

If you treasure the accumulation of wealth and don't redistribute it, then your heart will be focused on selfishness, not on charity.

Capitalism is self-centred and focuses on the accumulation of personal wealth for a small segment of individuals at the expense of many.

Socialism is based on creation of wealth to be utilised and redistributed as needed for the benefit of every person in society.

Our responsibility is to build the Kingdom of God and care for each other, to care for the poor, the stranger, those who are not the poster-children of success, those who have been the victims of exploitation, greed and tragedy.

In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Matthew 25:45 Jesus declares:

"'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to Me". 

For further comment on Biblical Socialism refer to the following article:

"Biblical Socialism - to each as anyone has need"


  1. You know, even though we've talked about capitalism and socialism, I've never thought this parable (in either Matthew or Luke) were about money - it's too strongly suggestive of attitudes and abilities, therefore metaphorical.

    Reading it this way means that you see the 'talents' as capabilities which were trusted to the servants to be used for the benefit of the Master. Now what would please the Master? We see that he rewards the first 2 by giving them what they earned (developed) and we expect that to continue. But the one who did nothing with what he had was punished by losing even that much (of his capabilities).

    So to me, I read it as a lesson on personal development and the willingness to be out in the world striving to do more with what you have.

    I have always wondered about the snippet added by the lazy servant about the Master being hard and perhaps unscrupulous.. the lesson would stand without that part. And in Luke at least, the Master acknowledges it. But it just doesn't seem to make any sense to be in the story.

    Happy to hear what you think, Shane.

  2. Just as a thought, students who get High Distinctions should shed some of their grades to students who fail, so that all can pass. Those students who do get the HDs should be encouraged to continue to get the HDs as they are earning those HDs to give to students who fail.

    Which doctor do you want working on you?

  3. I don't see how "sharing High Distinctions with those who fail" is relevant to this article. Socialism is not about sharing academic ability but ensuring that no-one is exploited.