- Twice Called, Thrice Rebuked:Doing African Biblical Scholarship
In a speech to the International Labour Conference in 2003, Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, turned to the Bible, engaging in an extended way with the parable of the talents “in the Biblical Gospel according to St Matthew” (Matt 25:14–30).1 Here the Bible is used to shape an argument concerning economic matters, an argument that Mbeki will reiterate again and again, regularly using the Bible, as he attempts to separate the spheres for which the government is responsible and the spheres for which religion is responsible.2 Mbeki began by reading the King James Version of the biblical text. He then interpreted this parable against the grain of Matthew’s redaction to locate Africans in solidarity with the “unprofitable servant,” saying:
Among the hundreds of millions of the African world from which we came, as we travelled to Europe, the outer darkness into which the money merchant cast his unprofitable servant, there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Those who do not hear and do not see the agony, have neither ears to hear nor eyes to see.
But I am certain that even they who do not see or hear the people, have seen the great volumes of literature that describe in the greatest statistical detail and graphic language, the extent of the poverty that afflicts billions in Africa and the rest of the developing world.… [End Page 850]
The surfeit of information available to all of us says that we live in a world defined by a deep economic and social structural fault that mirrors the angry outburst of the money merchant of the Parable of the Talents, when he uttered the ominous curse not just to his servant, but to the poor of the world: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”3
Recognizing, perhaps, that his appropriation of the Bible may seem a little out of place in Europe, he went on to say, “Obviously, we have to explain what we have just said, lest we are accused of special pleading and being overly dramatic.”4 Mbeki then did just that, using the biblical parable as an extended metaphor for his analysis of global capitalism.
On 15 December 2013, Bishop Ziphozihle D. Siwa, the presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, preached on the same text, Matt 25:14–30, at the state funeral of Nelson Mandela. The sermon begins with a reading of a portion of the parable, with the assumption that the parable is well known, as indeed it is, among South Africans:
“Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”(Matt 25:21)5
What follows is a grappling with whether to read this parable with or against Matthew’s redactional grain. For Siwa, the third slave is his “special comrade” because “he has the guts to look at justice issues at a great cost to himself—true selflessness and sacrifice,” which is one of the primary “lessons from the life of Tata Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.” But Siwa goes on to note that the other two are also slaves, and their actions, though not as commendable as the systemic resistance of their comrade, the third slave, nevertheless do try to make use of “what was available at the time,” though working within the system. Here too, Siwa suggests, Mandela provides our exemplar, for “we still learn from my comrades that opportunities must not be allowed to fly by—as long as we do not forget the justice issues. In 1985, Tata Mandela refused to leave the fellow comrades behind and waited for an opportune time.”6
These invocations of the Bible summon African biblical scholars, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. African biblical scholars are, in most cases, socially engaged scholars, engaged not only with their studies and students but also with their communities.7 We are summoned, regularly, to serve our local...