Last time we left off with the claim that an embrace of meritocracy is one of two primary ways we 21st Century Americans like to answer the question, “Who sinned?“ It is a question that is really about blame. We need to know who is at fault?
While in an ancient world built on transcendent enchantment the search for who to blame was all about appeasing an offended deity, in our world of immanent disenchantment it often comes down to knowing who to shame.
What is Meritocracy?
Meritocracy, in its most simple form, is the belief that you get what you deserve. Academically, it “represents a vision in which power and privilege would be allocated by individual merit, not by social origins.”
Americans on the whole are strong proponents of meritocracy. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump made references to the ideal in their inaugural addresses. The main difference between the two centers on how to implement the system. Obama, at least in rhetoric, pushed to equalize the playing field for those starting at the bottom. Trump, believing that when the elite thrive everyone wins, wants to free those who are at the top because they have already proven themselves to be successful.
Who Sinned and Meritocracy
Given America’s love affair with the idea, it is ironic that Michael Young, who originally coined the term in 1958, The Rise of Meritocracy, intended it as satire. There is good to treat meritocracy this way. The Guardian explores one perspective in The Myth of Meritocracy: Who Really Gets What They Deserve? Aeon on the other hand argues, A Belief in Meritocracy is Not Only False, It’s Bad for You.
It is also problematic when we use meritocracy to answer the question, “Who sinned?” In this framework, the answer is simple. If you succeed it is because you earned it and if you fail then you are to blame. This video expands on how we come to this conclusion:
Hopefully by now it is clear that there are issues with using meritocracy as a framework for determining who is to blame. But before we move on, it is important to address a parable of Jesus that, at least from our cultural perspective, seems to promote meritocracy.
Does The Parable of the Talents Promote Meritocracy?
In Matthew 25:14-30 or Luke 19:11-27 Jesus tells a parable commonly known as the Parable of the Talents. In both versions a master gives his servants money to manage while the master is away. The more skilled servants use the money to make more money and offer it to the master upon his return. The master rewards them accordingly. The less skilled servants hold on to what the master gave them in fear of losing what he entrusted to them. The master punishes them accordingly. It certainly sounds meritocratic and reinforces the idea that, if you have wealth it is because you earned it through hard work and/or faithfulness.
But a closer look at the texts reveals that this is simplistic interpretation is as misguided as the disciples questioning, “who sinned, this man or his parents?”
Because Matthew and Luke use the similar stories in different contexts, let’s consider them individually. In doing so, I will primarily use cultural theologian Kenneth Bailey’s work, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels.
Matthew places the parable in the midst of a larger discussion concerning the end of the age and between two parables about faithfulness until Christ returns. The meritocratic reading of this parables fits the theme but not the cultural context. Specifically First Century Israel did not operate as a capitalistic society nor did they measure success or faithfulness using monetary gain.
However, there is a cultural clue in how the wicked servant describes the master as one who “[reaps] where you did not sow, and [gathers] where you did not scatter seed.” In ancient times, there were two kinds of masters. One was the nobleman who ran a farm that produced a crop. The other was a Bedouin raider chieftain who aimed to steal what the noblemen produced.
A Noblemen Or A Bedouin?
With this distinction in mind, the parable tells the story of a master who comes to three servants and tells them he is going away for a while. Then he gives them each a huge sum of money and tells them use it as he would until he returns. The first two operate as if their master is a noblemen, while the third as if he is a Bedouin raider.
The master reprimands the third based on his failure to understand the nature and character of the master, with the master’s response being something like, “You really see me as someone who reaps where I do not sow and who gathers where I do not plant? You really think I am a Bedouin and not a nobleman?”
He then goes on to point out the inconsistency in the servant’s behavior. Because Jewish law forbids earning interest, ancient Jews saw burying money as a one of the safer ways to protect wealth. This means what the servant did was consistent with faithful Jewish practice. However, a Bedouin has no interest in obeying Jewish Law and would happily take the return on the investment. So even in acting out his perception of his master, the servant lacked faithfulness.
The point of the parable is that we are all called to use whatever skills, talents, gifts, and resources that we have at our disposal as Christ would use them if he were us, and how we use them reveals what we believe is the nature and character of Christ.
Luke on the other hand places his telling of the parable while on the road to Jerusalem. First, Jesus heals a blind man. Then he dines with Zacchaeus, the wealthy tax collector, prompting his generous act of repentance. Before leaving Zacchaeus’ home, Jesus tells the parable.
Luke does add a helpful caveat that Jesus tells this parable to stress that the kingdom will not fully manifest right away, despite what his followers just saw in the healing of the blind man and the conversion of Zacchaeus.
This time, some of the unique details of the Luke’s account help us see beyond our meritocratic thinking. Specifically, Luke identifies the master as someone of royal lineage going on a journey to receive his kingdom. In the First Century, this would remind the people of trips both Herod and his son Archelaus made to Rome in hopes of receiving kingly power. The people would also know that while Herod was successful, Archelaus was not. So when the ruler sets out on this journey, there is no certainty he will return as king.
The Timing of Faithfulness
In this context, the use of the resources reveals whether or not the servants truly believed in the cause of their master in the midst of social pressure to reject his rule. The first two, lived as faithful representatives while the master was away. The third, not wanting to side with the master only to have him not return, does nothing. When the master arrives revealing his faithlessness, he desperately attempt to justify his behavior.
Like Matthew, Luke‘s use of the parable is a call to faithfulness using the resources you have. Luke highlights that the life of the faithful happens amid cultural opposition to the way of the king. In the United States, this pressure includes a call to embrace the measure of success offered by meritocratic capitalism.
Measuring A Life Well Lived
So how are we to measure a life well-lived? The answer the parables offer is, like the Gospel of John, shallow enough for a child to wade in but deep enough for an elephant to drown in: What would Christ do if Christ were me? In some ways this echoes the WWJD craze of thirty years ago, but it recognizes that you are not Jesus and Jesus isn’t you.
In his article on The Myth of Meritocracy, British-born Ghanaian-American philosopher and cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah writes:
The central task of ethics is to ask what it is for a human life to go well. A plausible answer is that living well means meeting the challenge set by three things: your capacities, the circumstances into which you were born, and the projects that you yourself decide are important.
Because each of us comes equipped with different talents and is born into different circumstances, and because people choose their own projects, each of us faces his or her own challenge. There is no comparative measure that would enable an assessment of whether your life or my life is better; [The Rise of Meritocracy author Michael] Young was right to protest the idea that “people could be put into rank order of worth”.
What matters in the end is not how we rank against others. We do not need to find something that we do better than anyone else; what matters… is simply that we do our best.Kwame Anthony Appiah
For those who are in Christ, I would suggest that part of loving yourself is, in large part, embracing your capacities, your circumstances, and your passions. Your love of others, is how you work within your capacities, circumstances, and passions to love your neighbor.
Loving You Because I Love Me
As I write this from my basement office at the end of week two of social distancing, this idea holds unique weight for me. I am forty-five and spent most of the first forty-one years of my life hating my circumstances. In doing so, I undermined my ability to use my capacities and passions to love my neighbors. The last four years have, in large part, been about learning to love myself and to see myself as a beloved son of the divine in spite of and even within my circumstances. For more on this, see my about page.
As fruit of this discovery of self-love, over the past two weeks, for the first time in my life, I find myself enjoying my own company. Even more, I am finding that when I am at peace being with myself, it is freeing me to embrace my capacities and passions in ways that allows me to love my neighbor … including you. I am called to love by sharing these ideas with the world. And in a world overcome by death at the moment, I feel more alive than ever.
You Loving Me Enables Me To Love Others
A few years ago I did a 30-minute call with therapist Larry Bilotta. While we discussed quite a few things in that brief call and he dropped a number of truth bombs on me, one stands out right now. I was talking a bit about my personality and passions and he cut me off saying, “You are a creative and creatives need patrons.”
For those of you not familiar, a patron is someone who supports a writer, artist, or creative. This could include promoting my work to others, offering direct financial support, or buying a product I produce. It can come with no strings attached or with some strings like a pastoral care, advanced access to a product, or membership in a private group.
But in the context of this post, I would say that patronage is one way to use your capacities, circumstances, and passions to love me so I am able to use my capacities, circumstances, and passions to love others.
So I am asking you, as an artist, to consider how, given your capacities, circumstances and passions, you might be a patron. That could mean sharing my work on social media or directly with a friend. You could be a part of a team that commits to praying for me and the work I am doing. Perhaps you will commit to buying a book in the future. Or maybe you would pay to be part of a group I lead. Or maybe your circumstances are such that you want to help cover my living expenses so I can continue to spend hours a day researching and writing even after social isolation ends.
How Are You A Patron?
Whatever the case, I would like to hear your thoughts, so please, click reply or send me a message through my contact form. Even if it has nothing to do with me, I would love to hear about your capacities, circumstances and passions, and how you are called to love others through them.
If you want to know more about what it means to be a patron before you answer this question, I recommend this New York Times article that touches on the history of patronage and what it looks like today.
Next week we will explore another way we try and figure out who to blame … victimhood.