I have been leading a Bible study group almost every Saturday at my house. A careless reading of the Bible can lead to serious misinterpretations. Context is very important.
I have been constantly surprised by how people on the Right try to make Jesus into a capitalist. If you go on Amazon.com’s website, you can actually find a book by this title. This is both sad and comical. Jesus’s word and teachings are constantly being appropriated to suit various political and ideological agendas. But the fact that such misappropriation is possible reflects a general lack of literacy and critical thinking ability among the readers. The proper reading of Scripture requires a high level of sophistication and literary skills. Most readers do not meet such requirements. There are many Christians who identify themselves as “biblical Christians.” But how meaningful is such statement if they read the Bible without proper understanding?
The all-time favorite parable of Jesus for those on the Right is the Parable of Talents (Matthew 25: 14–30) . According to this parable, a master embarks on a long journey. Before he leaves, he gives to his servants various amounts of money. One servant is given 5 talents. Another is given 2 talents. And a third one is given 1 talent. When the master returns from his trip, two of the servants are each about to double the money they are given. Only the last servant, the one given 1 talent, is not able to do so. Afraid of losing the money, he buries it. At the end of the story, it is said that the servant who is not able to turn a profit is punished by the master while the other two servants are rewarded for their wise investments.
Sounds like a perfect capitalist fable, right? The Christian Right takes this as a showcase story of the importance of entrepreneurship and the value of taking risks. As I understand it, Margaret Thatcher loved this story so much that she selected it to be read in her funeral.
While this is the traditional interpretation of this parable, it is inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings and his other parables. For example, when a rich young man came to Jesus for advice on how to inherit eternal life, Jesus said that he had to obey the commandments (Matthew 19: 16–30). The young man told Jesus that he followed all the commandments. He then asked Jesus he still lacked. Jesus told the young man that if he wanted to be perfect, he had to sell all he had, give the money to the poor and follow him. The young man went away sadly, for he had great wealth. Seeing this, Jesus told his disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19: 24) Attachment to wealth is a serious obstacle to genuine spirituality, for wealth can easily be a self-imposed prison. The notion of Jesus teaching others with a parable of a profit-maximizing capitalist is out of character.
The interpretation of the Parable of the Talents as a capitalist moral tale is also inconsistent with Jesus’s other parables. For example, in the Parable of the Workers in a Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1–16), the workers are paid the same wage, regardless of how late they start work. The late comers get paid the same amount as the early comers. What capitalist or business owner would do this?
Finally, we should note that the Parable of Talents is immediately followed by the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25: 31–46). In this parable, those who help the poor, feed the hungry, cloth the naked, care for the sick and visit those in prison are rewarded by the king, while those who are not willing to help others are kept out of the kingdom of heaven. The message here is that God rewards those who gives and serves without looking for a return. Again, God is not a capitalist.
Interpreting Bible verses without considering the context and the known character of the teacher is a poor way of studying scripture. In fact, it is a form of abuse. It is certainly a form of spiritual abuse to distort Jesus’s words and mislead others.