22 November 2014

Stewardship and Parable Inversion

Speaking of terms and terminology it is worthy to note how the term 'stewardship' is used in such radically different ways.

Everyone more or less acknowledges that in a Christian framework our possessions and assets do not actually belong to us but to God Himself.

And at that point all agreement ends.

What does this term mean? What are the implications of stewardship for the Christian life?

Historically the Christian groups that have rejected wealth and power have said our possessions are not our own and therefore we are to be free in their distribution. Non- and Anti-Materialism are ethical mandates. As commanded in the Sermon on the Mount, we are not to think of tomorrow but to give to those in need and thus lay up treasures in heaven.

This also profoundly changes how we are to view wealth acquisition and our use of time in this life. These things become secondary at best. The credo that insists that time is the equivalent of money is at best worldly wisdom and in fact may be a rejection of Christ's command.

Another school of thought says that 'stewardship' suggests that we are more like financial managers. Our job is to promote and stimulate growth. We are to take our money and cause it to increase and thereby we can supposedly give away more.

But like the manager of a trust you never want to dole out too much where you run the risk of hurting the principal investment. The more you accumulate, the more you'll have to 'give' or 'spend'.  

The original investment itself becomes critical to this way of thinking. You only give away what is 'extra', that which is made on top of the original amount thus maintaining the principal. Of course figuring in costs and the rate of inflation means that even that principal amount needs to grow a bit in order to maintain its relative value.

Many Christians have wholeheartedly embraced this way of thinking as normative. It's the world we live in and this how you have to think to get by, let alone be successful. The other group insists that this is the sanctioning of the world and its system and we're to think in entirely different categories. Some would even suggest that making money in this fashion is unethical and exploitative. They would suggest that it's not a matter of being financially small minded and unsophisticated, but that we're called to simplicity and to live from the labour of our hands, not skimming off the labour of other's hands.

They would insist the financial stewardship or investment model is perilously mistaken. In fact it's a totally different mindset and the polar opposite of say, the widow putting in her two mites. That was reckless stewardship! Of course I've also heard some tortured Dominionist interpretations that suggest Christ was actually being critical of the widow or mocking her. So foreign is this spiritual mindset to them that they literally cannot understand Christ's point. Such anti-materialism they must at once label Gnostic in order to reassure themselves.

Of course the parable of the talents will also be appealed to at this point. This is the 'investment' parable. Both camps appeal to Scripture for support but someone has evidently misread it on a massive scale. The parable of the talents, it is argued, teaches the validity of investment as the servant who didn't invest and earn interest is condemned.

Is this about money?

Some of course have misinterpreted 'talents' for gifts of proficiency and have created a whole theology based on this misread. This can be seen on any given Sunday in most Evangelical Churches as the 'talent' interpretation has led to performance and entertainment which according to their beliefs are necessitated by the application of this passage. For Bill to not play the guitar and for Sally not to sing, well they would be squandering their gifts. You're sinning and causing them to sin by suggesting they shouldn't! There are problems with this viewpoint on many levels and the argument also rests on many faulty assumptions regarding what is worship and good works. But that's another topic for another time.

Others rightly understand that the 'talents' referred to are sums of money denominated by weight. Thus the parable is using money as the referent.

But is it about money?

Most will agree that wasn't the primary import of the parable. It would be primarily about Christian growth and the advancement of God's Kingdom. Again some think this means talent to play guitar builds the Kingdom etc... More sober exegetes will acknowledge it refers to gifts in the sense of teaching, works as defined by Scripture, and lifestyle.

Some, particularly those of a certain theological mindset, would say the acquisition of wealth and power can play a part in the advancement of the Kingdom. Most interpreters would acknowledge that's not exactly what Christ was talking about.

But for the parable to make sense it is argued, for Him to use the referent it has to follow that the monetary lesson also stands. Thus whatever the spiritual meaning, the principle of investment, the idea of loaning capital to a bank or business and receiving cash payments or dividends in return, must therefore be Biblically sanctioned.

I would argue this is not at all the case.

Christ explicitly said the parables were only for those with spiritual eyes and ears. The plain and regular meaning of the parable was not the actual point.

In Luke 8 we read,

9 Then His disciples asked Him, saying, "What does this parable mean?"

10 And He said, "To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that

         'Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.'

Or as expanded in Mark 4,

11 And He said to them, "To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables,

12 "so that

         'Seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them.'

In both passages, Christ is quoting from Isaiah 6 when the prophet was commissioned to speak even though (virtually) no one would hear.

Christ was speaking in terms of the cultural context, using examples that people could understand, but at the same time the lessons far transcend these meanings to the point that regular people couldn't understand what he was actually talking about. If you understand the parable prima facie, as one would literally sense it, then you are guaranteed to misunderstand its message. You're interpreting it the way a lost person would, who lacks eyes to see and ears to hear.

This is also instructive in terms of the argument commonly heard that stories and illustrations are to be encouraged in the pulpit because Jesus spoke in parables.

In fact the opposite is the case. While it may be okay to use some stories and illustrations, this notion that sermons can be large-scale parables is to misunderstand what a Gospel Parable actually was.

I would say that using the model of the Parable is actually inappropriate for the Church context. The Church is comprised of believers and we don't need to speak in type and shadow but with light and clarity. This does negate the pulpit illustration, but the sanctioning of the popular method of endless stories is founded on a misunderstanding. In the parables Jesus was not being 'earthy' and speaking to people in the vernacular.

Using parables to derive economic and sociological principles is to use them in precisely the way Jesus seemed to indicate they would be understood by lost people. This is to invert the parable, to turn it on its head.

Jesus wasn't laying down principles of investment or the rules of labour negotiation.

If this was the case consider another parable, that of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13). If we are to derive sociological principles from this then it must be argued that all pesticides and/or the weeding of gardens is sinful.

He did say to let the wheat and tares grow together right?

Of course no one would argue this and rightly so. Even the most strident advocates of organic farming wouldn't go so far as to appeal to the parable for support.

Or perhaps Christ meant to teach economic inefficiency in the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15)? Any businessman would say you don't use your resources to find one lost sheep out of a hundred. It doesn't make economic sense to do so. It's not efficient. Was Jesus teaching a principle of inefficiency. Should we spend $100 to make a $25 product? Is this a principle we're meant to follow in our economics and the running of our businesses?

No one would argue this.

The problem with Parable Inversion is that not only does it miss the true nature of the parable it can actually derive rather erroneous ideals.

Jesus wasn't sanctioning or condemning the ethics he presented in the parable narratives. That wasn't his point or purpose. He was simply providing an illustration using characters and settings that would be familiar to the audience. His point was transcendent, wholly outside the simple temporal context.

I might tell a story using an Iphone as a prop, but that doesn't mean I want everyone to go out and buy one. God forbid! Why would I use it then? It's something that's part of our cultural context, something that would make sense to people even if I took the story in an unusual direction.

What is growth? What does it mean to increase your talents?

This of course is about laying up treasures in heaven. We do this when we repent, believe, worship, pray, show kindness to the orphan and widow, show love to the stranger etc... The New Testament is replete with examples of what good works are.

Dominionism has distorted this teaching and has incorporated ideas like building a business or perhaps even fighting in a war. In a Dominionist scheme, these works and others like them can also be reckoned 'good works' even though the New Testament knows nothing of this.

This is not to say that it's inherently wrong to run a business or trim the bushes along your driveway. But these aren't 'good works' as the Scripture defines them. We do all to the glory of God and that may mean that we don't put profits first, that we pay employees a reasonable wage that ignores the market. It might mean that we ignore the yard for a time because we have greater priorities. It means that time is not money because money should be of little account to us. A house is not an investment or a status symbol, but merely a shelter to keep us out of the rain and snow.

It means thinking about all of these questions in a very different way.

The parable regarding the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) isn't about the rules of contracting labour. It's not a prohibition against a minimum wage. It's a picture of grace at work.

Yes, the thief on the cross gets to be in the same Kingdom as the apostle Paul.

Is that fair? If we reckon our salvation in terms of grace and our works in terms of grateful fruit then indeed it's quite fair. This doesn't mean there won't be a differentiation in heaven with regard to these rewards but this is above and beyond the grace of salvation.

In terms of the world it doesn't seem fair that the dying thief has the same reward as the Apostle Paul. And that's because the Kingdom is operating on a different level. The parable is in fact more about the gentile inclusion, an elaboration of redemptive history than it is about even the idea of grace at work in individual salvation. It's effectively the same issue that Paul is dealing with in Romans 9-11 wherein he deals with the question of the Jews and the nature of the True Israel.

But of course these passages aren't generally understood either.

Paying the workers who laboured for an hour the same wage as those who laboured all day isn't fair. That was the deal, but the owner did show considerably more favour to the workers at the end of the day.

By definition that's not fair or just. Maybe it's legally okay. That's not the point of the parable. Jesus wasn't commenting on the whether or not that's right in terms of contract labour.  

He was using the imagery to teach a point about grace. The parable is actually meant to demonstrate a situation that isn't fair. In terms of our human relations, to reject fairness is no virtue. But the parable isn't about human relations but the Kingdom of God.

And thankfully for us Grace isn't fair. If God was fair we'd all be condemned. Grace isn't unjust but thankfully for us it is the suspension of justice as it were. The judgment is suspended because a substitute bears the judgment due to us.

To read the parable in terms of sociology and economics is to interpret it as a worldling, a lost person. To read it thus is to reject its demonstration of a 'grace' arrangement. If the Dominionist interpretation is correct, it would be teaching an unjust version of salvation by works.

No one says that of course. So what they would say is that it teaches a spiritual lesson about Grace but at the same time teaches a temporal economic principle. Of course this is also a problem when Dominionism teaches the Kingdom grows and advances in temporal terms. Then the literal/worldly reading of the parable also becomes a spiritual maxim.

Dominionism has substituted the spiritual Kingdom for a worldly one and thus falls right into this trap. They are consistent in their complete misreading of the parables. They invert them and use them as justification for their worldly programme.

That is, when it's convenient. When it's not, they choose to interpret the parables solely in spiritual terms.

While this seems to be a minor issue of interpretation it plays out on a grand scale.