In his pitch to a predominantly Pentecostal Christian audience last night the Prime Minister used the Parable of the Talents to justify his view that we each have a divine obligation to use our assets to maximum benefit. Howard was endorsing the prosperity gospel preached by those such as Paster Brian Houston of the Hillsong Church. God wants you to be rich, the parishioners are told. Your prosperity is a sign that you have been blessed by the Lord.

Despite the tendentious efforts by some evangelists (especially in the United States) to interpret the Parable of the Talents in this way, in truth this passage of the Bible actually says more than the PM has let on about his political philosophy.

The parable is recorded by Matthew. A master lends money (or talents, with a talent worth around $1000 today) to three of his servants or slaves and goes away for some time. When he returns two have “put their money to work” and doubled its value. The master is well pleased and invites them to “come and share your master’s happiness”.

The third slave did not put the money to work but, choosing prudence over avarice, buried it so he could be sure he could return it in full on his master’s return. When challenged by his master over his failure to double the sum, the slave declares: “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed”.

The slave knew that his master looked for quick returns, preferring speculation or extortion to long-term investment in productive activity, and, fearing he could not emulate his master’s dubious “talents”, took the safe and honest course.

And what was his reward? “You wicked, lazy servant!” shouts the master, who – while admitting that he prospers by reaping what he has not sown – condemns the slave for not depositing the money with a banker and earning interest.
Pace Prime Minister Howard, the real message of the Parable of the Talents is that there will be no mercy for those who fail to pursue wealth with sufficient fervour and by any means.

The master’s worldview is summed up in these words: “For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away”. He therefore demands that the prudent servant be thrown outside “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”.

It is a travesty of Christ’s message to read this parable as if Jesus endorsed the master’s view of a ruthless, unprincipled world in which the rich are rewarded with further riches and the poor are cast out and punished.

Yet that is what the Prime Minister has done. Like politicians through the ages he has read the Bible for his own political use. There must be a commandment against that.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey