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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Lent / Tarot / Capitalism: The Seven of Coins

Jesus saves; Moses invests. So goes the old joke.

One very popular image is Jesus the Effeminate Hippie. There's plenty of fodder for this image in the New Testament: Jesus hanging out with little kids, Jesus announcing that the foxes have their lairs and birds have nests but that he has no home to rest his head, Jesus' exhortation to his followers to be like the lilies of the field who neither sow nor reap but who rival Solomon's riches in their glory. "It's harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle."

But Jesus talks plenty about money, and he has rich friends, and he praises high-yield investments. He establishes one of the most important principles of Christianity, the separation of church and state, by using a coin: render unto Cesar what is Cesar's, and unto God what is God's. He exalted the spirituality of the poor by praising the Widow who donated only one small coin to the temple; one small coin was all she had. Jesus cavorted with tax collectors, and never told them to stop collecting taxes.

The seven of coins tarot card depicts a farmer stopping work for a moment to assess the return he is receiving on his investment of labor. This card immediately calls to mind the Parable of the Ten Talents.

A rich man is going away. He calls in three servants. He gives them part of his wealth to invest while he is gone. The first two servants invest successfully and receive a large return. The final servant is fearful because he knows the rich man is a hard man who takes out what he did not put in and reaps what he did not sow. This final servant buries the money the rich man gave him.

The rich man returns and abundantly rewards his servants who profited from their investments. He punishes the final servant who was too afraid to invest. The man says, "To everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away."

I remember hearing that line in church as a kid and being horrified by it. It didn't strike me as comparable to anything else Jesus said; it didn't strike me as Christian. It struck me as exactly how the world works. The rich get richer and the poor get screwed.

As Ray Charles sang,

I've gotten down to my last pair of shoes
Can't even win a nickel bet
Because, them that's got are them that gets
And I ain't got nothin yet
I'm sneakin in and out duckin' my landlord
All I seem to do is stay in debt
Because, them that's got are them that gets
And I tell you all I ain't got nothin' yet

The Parable of the Ten Talents inspired the Billie Holiday / Arthur Herzog song, "God Bless the Child that's Got His Own."

Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news…

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don't ever make the grade…

Money, you've got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you're gone and spending ends
They don't come no more

Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself
But don't take too much

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own

When I first heard this verse in church, I was a poor kid in a rich country. There often wasn't money for food and I remember subsisting for days at a time on government surplus white rice or government surplus pasta served with nothing but government surplus margarine. This verse didn't just insult me, it damned me.

So, today, after drawing the seven of coins, I use that profound spiritual aid, Google, to see what other Christians have said about this verse. And I really like what I find.

The first page to turn up identifies this verse as "typically Jewish." My first thought, when I read this, was that I had stumbled upon an anti-Semitic page that would talk about Jews being greedy capitalists. But no. The page's author identifies himself as KJ Went, a scholar of Hebrew who uses Jewish culture better to understand early Christianity.

Went cites some really interesting passages from Jewish works that illuminate the Ten Talents parable. For example:

"He who does not increase his knowledge decreases it" (Mishnah, Pirqe Abôth 1.13)

"Observe how the character of the Holy One, blessed be He, differs from that of flesh and blood. A mortal can put something into an empty vessel but not into a full one, but the Holy One, blessed be He, is not so, He puts more into a full vessel but not into an empty one." (Babylonian Talmud, Berakôth, 40a; Sukkah 46a)"

In these Jewish sources, the substance is not money at all, but wisdom. Those who study and gain wisdom are able to internalize yet more wisdom. Those who don't study and have no wisdom can't receive wisdom.

Paradoxically, Went adds,

"Jesus did indeed talk about giving to those who cannot return and hence not expecting it back (Luke 6:30; 14:12), and he also praised God that he had revealed wisdom to babes and not to the apparently wise who actually turned out to be fools (Luke 10:21)."

Finally, I need to remember that this is a parable, not a literal statement, and the rich man who punishes the servant who didn't invest is not Jesus himself.

Sam Harris, atheist Christophobe, committed that folly in a speech. Harris quoted the rich man as if he were Jesus. The rich man of this parable, Jesus tells us, is a bad guy. In Luke 19:27, this bad, rich guy says, "Anyone who doesn't want to be ruled by me, bring him before me and slay him before me." This is not Jesus' statement. This is Jesus telling a story about a bad man, and quoting that bad man saying a bad thing.

Sam Harris quoted that line that the bad, rich man in the parable spoke – "Anyone who doesn't want to be ruled by me, bring him before me and slay him before me" – as if it were Jesus speaking. Sam Harris, you are a big, fat liar. Watch Sam Harris tell his big, fat, New Atheist lie right here: 

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