The illusion of meritocracy, simplistically summarized in the line, “You get what you deserve,” is a dominant tool used to justify our societal devaluing of certain lives while propping up the value of others. As long as the idea, which both Barack Obama and Donald Trump made references to the ideal in their inaugural addresses, remains legitimized by public discourse, we will remain a society of inequality.
The True Nature of Meritocracy
Ironically, when Michael Young first coined the term in his 1958, The Rise of Meritocracy (affiliate), he rightly intended it as satire. He understanding of cultural dynamics was large enough to realize that actual meritocracy does not exist. However, those at the top like to pretend it does.
So why do some people want to live under the illusion that meritocracy exists? Quite simply, it allows them to look at what they have and believe, “I earned all of this on my own and the only reason others do not have it is because they made the wrong choices.” It dismisses the notion of privilege, the idea that factors beyond their control control contributed to their success. It avoids the guilt that would come if they realized that part of why they have what they have is because society actually values their life.
Ultimately, this makes meritocracy a coping mechanism. It is a way to manage shame. Meritocracy is a tool used by our psyches to counter our deep sense of inadequacy.
Meritocracy and Christianity
Sadly, broken Christianity fuels this shame with its focus on depravity and a Jesus who died because of your wretchedness. This is part of why my foundational series (sign up here) on rescuing Christian faith from broken Christianity is so essential.
Not surprisingly, shame-fueling prompts mainstream Christianity to embrace meritocracy and teach it through a bad interpretation of the Parable of the Talents.
The Parable of the Talents
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 a simplistic and misguided interpretation. Because Matthew and Luke use similar stories in different contexts, I will examine each individually.
Matthew places the parable amid a larger discussion concerning the end of the age and between two parables about faithfulness until Christ returns. The meritocratic reading of the Parable of the Talents 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 stole 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 to use it as he would until he returns. The first two operate as if their master is a nobleman, while the third assumes 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 see me as someone who reaps where I do not sow and who gathers where I do not plant? You 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 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 about God’s nature and character.
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 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 amid 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 attempts 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 a life of faithfulness happens amid cultural opposition to the way of the king. It is following the Son of God Jesus rather than the Son of God Caesar. In the United States, following the way of Caesar, the way of power includes embracing meritocratic capitalism. This means, rather than supporting the meritocracy, the parable denounces it!
Moving On From Meritocracy
I do not know your story, but I grew up in a context that rooted me in meritocracy. In a few weeks I will share about the experience began to change the way I saw the world. I was 27. I know others who, at 72, are still functioning as if meritocracy is real.
Because it is a tool that shame uses to defend ourselves from feelings of inadequacy, letting go of meritocracy gets rid of the very thing that keeps us from feeling inadequate. At the same time, unless we release it, we will maintain a society where some lives matter less. In other words, holding on stunts our creation. It causes us to do evil and causes others to experience evil.
The real solution to shame is to hear and believe that you are loved because you are, not because of what you do. This solution invites us to embrace God as subject and trust that the divine is not standing over us demanding we do better, but standing before us and constantly inviting us towards better. Only then can the shame that haunts us begin to heal us.
Video: Meritocracy by The School of Life
Still not sure on what meritocracy is or where it goes wrong? This video from The School of Life will help.
Video: Chess and Philosophy in General by Irami Osei-Frimpong
While I shared this video in my resources a couple weeks ago, The Funky Academic’s chess analogy is a helpful tool in how we often see the world (meritocratic) versus the world as it is.
Article: A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you by Clifton Mark
While meritocracy guards us from the discomfort of shame, “a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways.” That is why this post follow up one asking, Which Lives (Actually) Matter?
Book: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (affiliate) by Kenneth Bailey
This is the resource that opened up the cultural and historical realities necessary to understand the Parable of the Talents. I highly recommend anything and everything that Bailey has written.
Confess ways you have held on to meritocracy and hear grace spoken into your life.
Do you need help with that? Message me and share your story.
Meritocracy is one side of a coin that helps us cope with shame. The other side of that coin, victimhood, is what we will cover next week.
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