There is a strong dissident view that the nobleman in Jesus’ parable, who gives ten minas to each of his servants to “do business with” before travelling to a far country to receive a kingdom, is an unjust rather than a just “lord” and that his “kingdom” is quite antithetical to the kingdom of God. Lloyd Pietersen makes use of it to illustrate how “readings from the margins completely subvert the natural Christendom reading which is still favoured by commentators”.1
What has especially recommended this line of interpretation is a story in Josephus’ Antiquities. The appointment of Archelaus as king in 4 BC was contested before Augustus by a delegation from Judea, accompanied by a large number of Jews who were living in Rome. The Jews were afraid that Archelaus would follow in the footsteps of his tyrannical father Herod. Justifiably so: before setting out for Rome to have his kingship confirmed by Caesar Archelaus had violently suppressed opposition from the Pharisees, killing three thousand in the temple. To avoid a repeat of Herod’s brutal reign, the Jews asked that:
they might be delivered from kingly and the like forms of government, and might be added to Syria, and be put under the authority of such presidents of theirs as should be sent to them (Jos. Ant. 17:314)
This has led some interpreters to suggest that in the parable Jesus depicts an unjust and oppressive kingdom, in which the “powerful of this world expect their servants to use wealth to gain more wealth for them”,2 and those who refuse to play the capitalist game, who won’t even put the money in the bank to earn interest, inevitably suffer. In other words, the parable is direct social comment. As Keesmaat and Walsh put it:
A crucifixion economics indeed. And this third slave is saying that he won’t play by the rules of this economic game. He names the ruler for the unscrupulous and violent man that he is, he refuses to invest his money in a way that is only concerned about generating more money and he suffers the consequences.Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright, 83, italics removed." href="#footnote3_uiz9tgn">3
Critiquing the political and economic injustices of Christendom is no doubt a good thing to do, but does this admittedly intriguing and disorienting reading of the parable really serve the cause?
The parable is connected loosely with the story of Zacchaeus (“As they heard these things…”), which is the story of the salvation of an unrighteous Jew who had defrauded many people, but more importantly with the imminent arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem:
he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately (Lk. 19:11)
The parable is not, in the first place, about economics but about kingship: it answers (in some manner) the question of whether the “kingdom of God was to appear immediately” (Lk. 19:11); the nobleman goes away to receive a kingdom; his suitability for the role is challenged by his citizens, who hated him; the faithful servants are rewarded with delegated authority over cities; the parable concludes with the slaughter of the king’s enemies; and the parable is followed by the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a Davidic king (Lk. 19:29-40).
In response to Keesmaat and Walsh, Wright argues that the economic reading makes the parable a metonymy rather than a metaphor. I’m not sure that’s quite correct: it makes it rather a literal, if somewhat ironic, comment on an unjust form of kingdom. But I think he is right to say that we do not normally expect the parables to function as moral tales. The parable of the sower is not about farming practice; the parable of the great banquet is not about “social behaviour”; the parable of the unjust steward is not about unjust stewardship; and so on. We expect the parables to point to something other than themselves, in the way of metaphor.
The first servant is told: “Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities” (Lk. 19:17). This recalls the point that Jesus makes to his disciples after he has told the parable of the dishonest manager:
One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Lk. 16:10–13)
In light of this it seems very unlikely that the first servant in the parable is not held up as a good role model for discipleship. In fact, this paragraph may go some way towards explaining the parable: the first two servants are faithful even perhaps in respect to small material matters, therefore they will be rewarded with authority in the kingdom when eventually it is inaugurated (cf. Lk. 22:28-30).
The nobleman justifies taking the one mina from the third servant and giving it to the man with ten minas with the words “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (19:26). Matthew has this saying in a different context, where it is the disciples who “have” and will receive more, and those who do not receive the word are the ones from whom even what they have will be taken away—if you can disentangle that (Matt. 13:12).
Finally, the destruction of the king’s enemies is echoed in the parable of the wicked tenants: the owner of the vineyard “will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Lk. 20:16).
This leaves us still wondering why the king is presented in such a harsh light, and whether either Jesus or Luke intentionally drew on the parallel with the story of Archelaus. But I see no reason to overturn the more or less traditional view that Jesus is speaking of his own kingship.
How exactly the details are applied is another matter. Judgment on a nation that has rejected Jesus as king is clearly in view and must set the boundaries to the story. The business in which the servants engage is the business of their lord, who will be made king—presumably the continuing work of proclaiming the coming of the kingdom to Israel, casting out demons and healing the sick. When he “comes”, he will pass judgment on his enemies and give his faithful servants the authority to rule. But inevitably some will not be faithful with even with the little that is given to them.
- 1. L. Pietersen, Reading the Bible After Christendom, loc. 701.
- 2. L. Pietersen, Reading the Bible After Christendom, loc. 689.
- 3. S.C. Keesmaat and B.J. Walsh, ‘ “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” ’, in N. Perrin and R.B. Hays (Eds.), Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright, 83, italics removed.