…on the final parable before Jerusalem

Here’s a paper from class on Luke 19:11-28, a commonly misread parable.  Its about 1800 words which is a bit long, but I hope you can at least skim through it.

From the inception of Christian history,[1] thinkers have allegorized the Parable of the Minas in Luke 19:11-28, likening a “certain man of nobility” to God.  This historic translation of God dispersing gifts to be “invested” and then be rewarded by more gifts is particularly appealing in our modern context of capitalism.  However, many scholars today reject this allegorical notion in favor of inferring that Jesus was merely cautioning that the Kingdom of God would not appear immediately.  The importance of translating the parable as non-allegorical must be underscored, however, a more accurate reading must then be constructed and offered a redemptive meaning for disciples of Christ in our world today.

The parable begins, “a certain man went to a distant country[2] to receive for himself a kingdom” (Luke 19:12).  Jesus was “near Jerusalem” (19:11), and immediately afterwards, “went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem” (19:28), where He would be hailed as “King” (19:38).  This leads readers to assume Luke has positioned this parable as an allegory for Jesus receiving His kingship in Jerusalem.  A look at the historical context however, challenges that.  For example, King Herod slaughtered masses of people—his reign being summed up by Josephus as follows, “…[he] attached more closely to himself those who had espoused his cause, while he exterminated the partisans…”[3] (19:27).  At his death, his sons Archelaus and Antipas each went up to Rome to appeal for power (19:12). After Archelaus departed from Judea, they revolted; “the whole nation became unruly”.  The Jews sent a delegation to Caesar to oppose him (19:14).  Nevertheless, Archelaus was appointed tetrarch of Judea and Idumea, but was eventually dismissed because of his excessive cruelty.  (He went so far as to slaughter 3,000 Judeans in his temple precinct.)  A similar account happened with Antipas and was also the story of Herod the Great’s rise to power.[4] This was a common theme for dynastic power shifts.

Brian Shoultz notes that the parable was probably told on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, (19:1, 11, 28) which offered an excellent view of the palace of Herod.[5] Mikeal Parsons suggests this parable be viewed as a cultural type scene—it incorporates such familiar elements that the audience recognizes the pattern and anticipates the outcome.[6] Imagine therefore that Jesus and His Jewish peasant listeners are looking at this palace during this parable, every detail resonating the horrible realities of their rulers who have stationed themselves there.  Unlike us, they already know the outcome, because they already know the story.  Indeed, Jesus blatantly has His character confess his (un-God-like) ruthlessness:

“You knew that I was an austere man, collecting what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow…everyone who has will be given; and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.  But bring here those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me” (19:22b-27 NKJV).

At this point in Luke’s narrative, Jesus has in no way yet referred or alluded to Himself as “King”.  It would seem strange for Him to unveil such a title for Himself in such a way.  The idea of Jesus comparing Himself to such ruthless, violent rulers would have seemed incredulous both to Jesus’ and Luke’s audiences.

Diametrically opposed to our Western, capitalistic minds, the idea of God rewarding these commercial traders and punishing the one who stored the money would have seemed almost equally alien to Jesus’ peasant Jewish audience.  Shoultz writes, “Rabbinical law teaches that when entrusted with money, the surest way of safeguarding it is to bury it, which is what the third slave in Matthew is said to have done, thereby guarantying his innocence”[7].  In Luke’s version, the third servant ties it up in a “handkerchief” (19:20).  This is riskier, but still would have been regarded as the morally correct, wise thing to do by the Jewish audience.[8] In modern economics, we assume goods are in unlimited supply and to amass wealth does not necessarily mean other people inversely lose wealth.[9] In ancient, biblical economics, wealth was seen like a pie.  If these servants amassed profit and got a bigger slice, then somewhere out there another Jewish peasant’s piece of “wealth” was getting even smaller.  For the original audience, the first two servants were clearly in the wrong while the third was a sort of martyr-hero who was the victim of living under Gentile, evil rule in its current praxis.  This new king is unjust because he awards the first two by making them rulers of cities (19:17,19) and punishes the third by stripping him of his money (19:22-27).

While this parable is often juxtaposed to its parallel in Matthew 25, another version can be found in the now lost, Gospel of Nazoreans.  Eusebius discusses this parable found in the two synoptics and this lost gospel:

“But since the Gospel (written in Hebrew characters) which has come into our hands enters the threat not against the man who had hid (the talent), but against him who had lived dissolutely—for he had three servants: one who squandered his master’s substance with harlots and flute-girls, one who multiplied the gain, and one who hid the talent; and accordingly, one was accepted (with joy), another merely rebuked, and another cast into prison.  I wonder whether in Matthew the threat which is uttered after the word against the man who did nothing may refer not to him, but by epanalepsis to the first who had feasted and drunk with the drunken.” (Eusebius, Theophania on Matt 25:14f., cited from Malina, Rohrbaugh, 2003: 386)

Thus, Eusebius grouped this as a parallel to the Parable of the Ten Minas, except the third; “idle” servant was exonerated instead of punished.  This gospel parable and Eusebius himself are characteristic of the original Mediterranean audience: the third servant is righteous in the eyes of God.

To allegorize this parable perverts the Christian symbol of God and the understanding of His economy of grace.  Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson highlights the detriment of such a maneuver.  “The symbol of God functions… hence the way in which a faith community shapes language about God implicitly represents what it takes to be the highest good, the profoundest truth, the most appealing beauty.  Such speaking, in turn, powerfully molds the corporate identity of the community and directs its praxis.”[10] We paint a negative symbol of God if He is likened to this greedy, wicked ruler (19:12, 14, 21-22, 27) and thus exonerate wicked greed and thirst for power.  We paint a broken picture of His Kingdom if it is likened to this worldly order and thus proliferate unjust economic, religious, and social structures where the blessed are given even more and the poor become even poorer (19:22-26)—all standing in direct contrast to not only Lukan (6:20-36), but all New Testament theology.

Allegorical assumptions about the Final Parable Before Jerusalem arise from our understanding of parabole, presuming it always entails metaphor or allegory.

The Greek word means comparison, juxtaposition, or analogy.  In the Septuagint, it is a translation for the Hebrew word, ‘mashal’—often meaning a fable, allegory, simile, metaphor.[11] In both New and Old Testaments, we most often see parables as allegorical or highly symbolic, but this is not necessarily universal.  Brad H. Young notes that Jesus’ parables should be understood first and foremost as Jewish ‘haggadah’, or storytelling with a message, designed to captivate audiences and demand a decision.  It was a way to teach to simple, uneducated people[12].  We must understand this final parable then with a Hebraic mindset, as a story with a message that demands a decision, which juxtaposes the anathainesthai–the appearing or shining forth—of God’s kingdom to the present reality of the world.

So, if Luke was not trying to show how Jesus was receiving His kingship and Jesus wasn’t showing how the Kingdom of God operates with God’s gifts, why did Luke insert this lengthy parable at such a pen-climatic juncture of his gospel?  The parable functions apophatically to show us that God is not a ruthless king and His economy of grace does not serve to embellish upon the gifts already bestowed upon those who already have, as do the kingdoms of this world (19:26).  The central, constructive purpose was to remind the disciples that the Kingdom of God would not immediately appear as they might suppose, and thus demand that they be willing to endure the injustices of their rulers as they continued to hope for His Kingdom.

“And as they were hearing these things, He went on to speak a parable because he was near Jerusalem and they thought that the kingdom of God would immediately appear”  (19:11).  The pericope preceding verse 11 is the story of Zacchaeus, where a crooked tax collector was repenting, economic justice was being restored, and salvation was coming upon the people—this being preceded by eighteen chapters of signs of the coming of the kingdom of God.  This was Jesus’ final parable before finally entering Jerusalem.  The close coupling of Jerusalem and the paracrhma of God’s Kingdom emphasizes Jesus’ intent in telling this parable: He knew he would indeed be hailed as king upon entrance, and He also knew they would witness Him die on a cross.  Even after His resurrection, they would endure harsh persecutions and oppression. Perhaps it could have been said, “Yes, everything does and will appear great, but do not be deceived, my Kingdom will not appear immediately—just look at the wicked rulers of this world to see that this will take time.”  A cross still waited for Jesus and an uphill battle for the anaqainesqai of God’s kingdom, for His disciples.

This message is relevant still today.  The injustice of this world continues to challenge the substance of our faith—“if God is in control, why does ‘this’ happen?”  To reflect on Jesus’ final parable before Jerusalem is to be reminded that He is well aware of the unjust oppression found in this world.  He is also well aware that His Kingdom has not yet fully shone forth.  When we see the rulers of this age rewarding the wicked and punishing the righteous, it does give us great hope to know that the Kingdom of God did not appear “immediately”.  It is arriving slowly through the course of history but ultimately, like Christ’s resurrection (24:6-7), will prevail over all sin and death.  Doing what is right may mean seeing others “get ahead” (19:17, 19) while we are stripped of what we have (19:24-26).  When we see injustice and wicked people in power, will we choose—like the first two servants, to play their game and advance ourselves in this world?  Or will we—like the third servant, call out the rulers for their evil, refuse to play their power games, and place our faith in God, knowing that His Kingdom has not yet fully appeared and thus that decision may cost us something?  This is the decision Jesus demands from us in the Final Parable Before Jerusalem.

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3 Responses to …on the final parable before Jerusalem

  1. Andrew says:

    This was quite interesting. I’ve never studied this parable in depth, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything except the allegorical interpretation which you’re writing against. I’d be curious to talk to you about this sometime and hear more about your research.

  2. Mike Ingham says:

    Hey man…. appreciate your studies and i know the kingdom will benefit from what you are learning in school now…. press on bro!

  3. Pingback: …on mutating Jesus into capitalist | theology factory daily grind

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