I'm speaking at the church service this morning on Luke's parable of the pounds. Here the gist of what I'm sayng.
Ask a Westerner today to summarise the message of this parable and he would probably respond, ‘As Christians, we should use our gifts wisely and responsibly.’ But is that what the story means?
When trying to understand any text we need to take into account several aspects: the text, the reader, the author and the historical setting. A response such as the above only takes into account the twentieth-century reader and his or her cultural context and worldview. We also need to take into account the text, what the author intended and the historical setting. This is not the time for a session on hermeneutics, so without spelling out these different aspects let's look at the parable.
There is undoubtedly some connection between the parable of the talents in Matthew 25.14-30 and this one, but they are different enough to be regarded as distinct stories. Not least the value of a talent, about 6,000 denarii and a denari is about one day's wage for a labourer, and a pound (or mina) which is equivalent to about three months wages. Several elements are unique to Luke’s version. Most particularly, in Matthew we are told of ‘a man going on a journey’; here, it is a nobleman going to a distant country to secure ‘royal power’ for himself. He is successful, despite opposition, and on his return he has his enemies put to death.
There are many layers of meaning in this parable, but how would a poor first-century Jew in occupied Palestine have understood it? Presumably, she would have identified most with the servant who had achieved the least. Now, according to the tradition of Jewish oral law in the Mishnah, this man had done nothing wrong in wrapping the money in cloth to keep it safe. He was obliged merely to make good any loss.
Many of us today assume that the nobleman in the story represents Jesus. This identification would have been puzzling to the original hearers, if not absurd. The Jewish historian Josephus records that in 4 BC Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, had to go to Rome to confirm that he would inherit his father’s throne. At the same time, a delegation of 50 Jews also went to Caesar, to protest that they did not want him to rule over them. The opening lines of the parable seem to be a deliberate reference to that recent history. The people who first heard the story must have taken the nobleman to be not Jesus but the tyrannical Archelaus.
The nobleman is thus no hero. He seems to take pleasure in robbing the poor to reward the rich and to delight in the slaughter of his enemies, and is interested more in profit than in the welfare of his people. Not surprisingly, his servants fear him.
How are we to understand the parable, then? Luke’s editorial comments in verse 11 provide some clues. Jesus is in Jericho, on his way to Jerusalem 17 miles away, and the disciples imagine that the coming of his kingdom is imminent. He has just had his encounter with Zacchaeus, which Luke recounts in the first 10 verses of this chapter. The tax collector who had grown rich by exploiting the poor – not unlike Archelaus – has had his life turned around, and has experienced immediate salvation (Lk 19:9).
So, it is not surprising that the disciples are optimistic that the kingdom has all but come. The fact that one of the oppressors has just given half of his possessions to the poor and has paid back fourfold anyone he has cheated must have seemed like a foretaste of it. Now, as they approach Jerusalem, they are expecting that Jesus will seize power and establish the kingdom of God. It is this misconceived hope that Jesus is answering. In effect, he is saying, ‘If you want to play power games, look what happens: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Don’t oppose those in power by using their own methods!’
And all this just before the Passover, a time when messianic expectations were at their peak. Many of the Jews were awaiting someone who would free them from the Roman occupiers, and from collaborators such as Archelaus and Zacchaeus.
Jesus’ strategy is very different: he is not going to Jerusalem to seize power. It is no accident that Luke places this parable immediately before his ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem (19:28-44). The fact that Jesus rode in on a donkey would have undermined any ridiculous thoughts of a military coup. It is almost as if he were saying, ‘My way of becoming king is not like Archelaus’.’ Jesus dealt with his enemies not by putting them to death but by dying himself.
The parable was not told, then, to show that if we have gifts and talents we should use them wisely or lose them. Rather, it is a warning that if we try to win power in the way that ‘the world’ does, all that will result is that the oppressed will experience only greater oppression. Instead, we are to follow the example of the man on a donkey, who gave up all to attain all.