Last week we started looking at the “Parable of the Talents,” and found what seemed to be one or two anomalies in it. Not in the message, of course. That is pretty straightforward: use your God-given talents or you will answer for it. What seemed a little odd was the parable itself: a slave owner hands over large sums of money to some slaves and goes on a trip.
Stop the presses. Every other parable starts with a familiar situation, such as a traveler getting beaten and robbed and left by the roadside, or a housewife losing some of her housekeeping money — events that are familiar and comprehensible, if not entirely pleasant or welcome. But somebody just handing over the equivalent of twenty, forty, or sixty years’ worth of wages to some slaves? That’s not only not familiar, it’s not even believable.
Or is it?
This is where a little knowledge of history and Roman law come in handy. The institution of slavery might be pretty much the same wherever and whenever it is found — even when it’s not called slavery — but societies can differ greatly in what they do with their institutions.
Take slavery for example. A slave is a human being without rights. He or she is not a person, but a thing. So far, so bad.
But how did, say, the Greeks, Romans, and Jews view slaves?
|Be kind to slaves, but don't go crazy like Romans and free them.|
To the Greeks, a human being was a slave because he or she was inferior. Sure, as Aristotle noted, you might find cases where by mischance or war a normal human being had been enslaved, but that was considered an exception rather than the rule. Slavery was the “natural” condition for inferiors.
To the Romans and Jews, however, a human being was inferior because he or she was a slave. If someone was a slave, it was because he or she had demonstrated inferiority, such as by committing a crime, going to war against the Romans, or choosing the wrong parents.
This had what we would consider some rather bizarre consequences. A Greek would tend to be kind and indulgent to his slaves, just as he would to pets and any barbarians who weren’t trying to kill Greeks. He might even throw them a party once in a while, something completely alien to the Romans; in a Greek play adapted for the Roman stage, the plot required a master to give his slaves a few amphorae of wine to have a party, and one of the actors had to step out of character for a moment and explain to the Roman audience that this was the sort of thing “we Greeks” do.
|The Romans boasted they spared neither others nor themselves.|
A Roman, however, would tend to be a harsh and demanding master. After all, if the slave hadn’t done something wrong, he or she wouldn’t be a slave, right? It was therefore the master’s duty to whip slaves into shape, often literally. Kindness and indulgence were for slaves who earned it, not for miserable wretches who insisted on remaining inferior instead of taking advantage of being owned by a Roman.
Freedom, though? A Greek wouldn’t think of freeing a slave in the ordinary course of events. It was alien to the Greek attitude towards slaves to free an inferior creature, rather like letting a pet dog loose in the woods to make its way on its own instead of taking care of it or putting it to sleep mercifully. It wasn’t kind to the slave to free it and force it to act like a real human being.
Romans had a different view. Where a bad slave was the most worthless of creatures, a good slave was a valuable asset . . . so valuable that it might even be worthy of being free, and in some cases becoming a Roman citizen.
|A Roman and his Freedman|
Manumission was consequently rather common among the Romans. Certain forms of it even raised the freedman or woman to the status of Roman citizen. A certain social stigma remained, of course, but he or she had full legal rights . . . and their children might even sit in the Senate of Rome. The ancient law of Rome, the Law of the Twelve Tables, made no distinction between a man’s children and his slaves; the same law applied to both.
It wasn’t unusual when an oldest son turned twenty-one and was emancipated (if he was — it wasn’t automatic) to free all the slaves who had taken care of him while growing up, and a few others besides in order to make certain it was a happy occasion. Getting married? Free some slaves. Win an election? Free some slaves. Just feeling good? Free some slaves. You want happy people around you, don’t you?
|The Roman familia included everybody.|
It was therefore not uncommon for a Roman to keep an eye open for talented and intelligent slaves, and deliberately train them for freedom, just as he would raise his children to take their proper places in Roman society with the rights and duties of free people and citizens. And, just as children had duties to their parents that could last a lifetime,* freedmen and women had similar duties to their former masters. A Roman who raised his children right and freed intelligent and talented slaves gained valuable allies and supporters, which was essential in Roman politics as well as everything else.
And how best do you do that? By assigning your children or your favored slaves some assets, thereby giving them the opportunity to learn how to act like a freeman or woman by managing capital and investing wisely.
|The sons of some freedmen and women sat in the Senate|
When the assignment was to a slave, it was called a “peculium.” The slave didn’t own it, of course. Property is a right, and slaves don’t have rights. The slave, however, was permitted to control the assets as if he was the owner. Some would use a portion of the peculium to buy their freedom, then go into business, repaying the peculium out of future profits. Others would go into business while still enslaved, sharing the profits with the master or keeping all the profits until the final reckoning day. Then, depending on the master, the slave would be freed and be given actual ownership of all or a portion of the peculium plus profits.
|Jesus always taught using everyday images and concepts|
Some slaves amassed large fortunes, including (of course) slaves. This gave rise to a joke that some people were so rich their slaves owned slaves. Senators were forbidden to engage in trade, so they would assign their non-agricultural wealth to a slave or two, who went to work making them both rich(er). He would then be freed, and (as Jesus has the rich man in the parable say) “share his master’s joy.” The former slave was now his former master’s equal, often in both wealth and legal status.
Jesus’s audience would therefore have been familiar with a rich man handing over large sums to slaves. The Roman custom would also have appealed to the Jewish notion of the Jubilee.
And as for the rewards given to the two slaves who had doubled their capital? Freedom and a grant of all the original assets and the profits was certainly generous, but not unusual. Nor was the punishment meted out to the third slave who didn’t take advantage of his opportunity. He proved he wasn’t fit for wealth and freedom, and wasn’t much of a slave, either. Jesus’s listeners would have reckoned he got just what he deserved.
But how does this apply to the world of today?
That is what we will look at tomorrow.
*In his Roman History, Livy related the story about a man whose father was believed to have been killed in the war against Hannibal. When he ran for office, his enemies discovered his father was still alive, a captive, and let everyone know that the man was running for office without first asking his father’s permission — a gross violation of pietas! The authorities were inclined to dismiss the charge on the grounds of it being a technical violation and not required due to the presumed impossibility of getting permission. Instead, the man gathered his friends and slaves and organized a rescue. He then went to the Forum and, in the presence of all the citizens, knelt before his father in the prescribed manner and asked permission to run for office. He, of course, won by a landslide.