Another Take on the Parable of the Pounds

Today we are going to look at the parable of the Pounds.

Our story is found in Luke 19. Your translation might say “talents” or “minas”. Jesus is among his followers, and he uncorks a parable:

A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. “Put this money to work,” he said, “until I come back.”

But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, “We don’t want this man to be our king.”

He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

The first one came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned ten more.”

“Well done, my good servant!” his master replied. “Because you have been trustworthy in a small matter, take charge of ten cities.”

The second came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned five more.”

His master answered, “You take charge of five cities.”

Then another servant came and said, “Sir, here is your mina, I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.”

His master replied, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?”

Then he said to those standing by, “Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.”

“Sir,” they said, “he already has ten!”

He replied, “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.”

–Luke 19:12-27

No doubt you are all aware of the traditional interpretation of this parable, which is all over the place in western Christianity. It’s all about the money, and how the servants were faithful (or not) with what they were given. Be like the faithful servant(s). Don’t be like the unfaithful one. Be faithful to God and seek to grow spiritually, and more will be given to you. Don’t squander what God has given you, or it will be taken away from you. And certainly don’t be the subjects who didn’t want this master to be made king over them. The final verse even serves potentially as a nifty type for eternal conscious torment of all who reject God, in full view of God himself and all who are faithful to Him.

I would bet good money that Jesus means something altogether different here.

This parable does not exist in a vacuum. Instead Luke situates it in a specific context: “While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable…” (19:11) What were they listening to? The story of Zaccheus the tax collector is right before this. Jesus has come to dinner at Zaccheus’s house and Zaccheus has promised to pay back everything that he extorted from others and Jesus has said “Today salvation has come to this house…”. That exchange is what they were listening to. Luke gives us even more context: “…because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.” (19:11)

The parable is a pointed reference to Archelaus, a corrupt regent in the area who some thirty years prior had gone away to have himself commissioned as a ruler and who had appointed servants to exploit the people of his territory on his behalf. Archelaus’s servants were charged with increasing his fortune in his absence, likely by using the exact same methods which Zaccheus himself had used, and of which he had just repented. Why in the world would you think that Jesus, in a roomful of Zaccheus’s tax collector friends, would have made a ruler like Archelaus the hero of his story and commended us to be “faithful” to Him by using the exact same methods of which Zaccheus had just repented?

I submit to you that the real hero of this story is the “unfaithful” servant. He sees through the Archelaus-type’s game and refuses to participate. He calls out the whole thing for what it is, and pays the price for it. Such is the way of this world: Power is set up to protect itself, and those who attempt to speak truth to it will pay the price.

Jesus told this parable to a roomful of people who all thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once, in an attempt to tamp down their enthusiasm. This parable was a warning: The kingdom of God is not coming right away. Until it does, your job is to go out into the world and speak truth to the powerful and the perpetrators of injustice in our world. Be warned: It will probably not go well for you, just as it did not go well for the “unfaithful” servant in our story.

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