The Parable of the Minas

Jesus’ parables get a pretty wretched treatment.  So easy to rip out of context, trivilialize, turn into a banal illustration of some timeless spiritual truth.  Sometimes we even read the absolute opposite meaning out of a parable to that which Jesus intended.  One of the saddest examples of this is the Parable of the Minas in Luke 19:11-27.  In general, we mentally elide this parable with the Matthaean version, with which we are more familiar, the Parable of the Talents.  Even here, mind you, our readings tend to be rather shallow, but I’ll be leaving the Matthaean parable to the side for now, and focusing on the Lucan.  Too often we are prone to despise God’s gift to us of four gospels, and we hasten to amalgamate them into one, instead of attending carefully to the different accounts they give us and different lessons they teach us, often using the same basic story in very different contexts for different reasons.  The Parable of the Minas simply isn’t doing the same thing as the Parable of the Talents. 

What do we usually think of when we think of these parables?  Two messages are common.  The most bastardized reading of all treats this as a lesson in economics.  “See, Jesus teaches us the importance of good stewardship, and the importance of a capitalist economy.  You can’t just let your money sit around doing nothing–if you’re going to be a faithful steward, you need to go out there and put your money to use.  Go invest, make a profit–that’s what God wants of you.”  Thankfully, most interpreters are sensible enough to realize this is not what Jesus is trying to say, but their reading is scarcely better.  They “spiritualize” the parable, as we generally like to do with parables, and turn it into a story of the Christian life, the Second Coming, and the Last Judgment…seems like we turn a lot of parables into a variation of this.  Jesus is the nobleman going away into a far country, and when he returns to receive his kingdom, he wants to see if we, his people, have been using his spiritual gifts well in his absence–if not, we are punished.  And those who refuse to accept his kingdom are punished even worse.  So, we’d better get busy using our gifts, because Jesus is going to be pretty demanding when he comes back.

 

The problem is that both of these readings unequivocally identify Jesus with the protagonist of the story, something that is seriously problematic from both a textual and a historical (not to mention theological) standpoint.  When we stop and read the story carefully, we should be aware of several jarring moments in the narrative that clash with the Jesus-as-protagonist reading.  “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom.”  Is Jesus a “nobleman”?  Does he usually portray himself that way?  Is he one of the powerful, out seeking even more power?  That’s not how he’s generally appeared thus far in the gospel.  The nobleman sets his servants to work to make money by trading–though Jesus has set himself squarely in opposition to Mammon thus far in Luke.  The servants who increase his wealth and worldly power are rewarded with worldly power of their own–”authority over cities”–whereas Jesus has emphasized that his followers serve in lowliness and humility, away from the centers of worldly power.  The last servant tells the master, and the master does not dispute him, that “you are a severe man.  You collect what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.”  This doesn’t sound like a very nice description, and certainly not like Jesus.  This master is someone who expects money that he hasn’t earned, who doesn’t do the work himself, but expects his servants to do it for him, who demands the maximum yield from them on pain of severe punishment.  All of this sounds rather like the opposite of Jesus.  Then the nobleman tells the last servant, “Why then did you not put my money in the bank, that at my coming I might have collected it with interest?”  In other words, the nobleman is demanding of the servant–“Why did you not use my money for usurious lending, such as is forbidden in the Torah, so that you might profit from the misfortunes of others?”  We’ve become so comfortable with usury that we might completely miss this dimension, but why would Jesus ever cast himself in the role of someone encouraging this serious violation of the Law?  Then the nobleman, stripping the mina from the unprofitable servant, says, “For I say to you, that to everyone who has will be given: and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”  But again, this doesn’t sound like Jesus at all.  Giving the rich even more, and stripping the last penny away from the poor?  The one of whom it was said at his birth, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty”?  The one who has just finished humbling a Zacchaeus, a mighty one (someone who made their money oppressively, like one of these servants perhaps), sending a rich man away empty?  No, this doesn’t seem to fit at all.  And then, in the last verse, “But bring those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me.”  Ouch!  No, that doesn’t sound like Jesus at all, the Jesus who just finished telling us, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost,” (Lk. 19:10), the Jesus who is just about to weep and lament over the downfall of his enemies who do not want him to reign over them (Lk. 19:41-42).  

Once we get through asking these questions, we’re left to wonder how we could ever have read this straightforwardly as a parable of the way Jesus treats his servants.  And in fact, there is every reason, historically, not to read it this way.  

For, unlike most of Christ’s parables, we have here very good reason to perceive factual events behind this fictionalized narrative.  In the immediately preceding generation, a Jewish nobleman (Archelaus son of Herod) had gone into a far country (Rome) to receive a kingdom (Judea).  He had been hated by his subjects (for his abominable cruelty, massacring thousands) and they did send a delegation after him, saying “We will not have this man to reign over us.”  He was, however, given lordship over Judea, and returned to reward his cronies who had enriched themselves and him at the expense of the people, and to punish cruelly all who opposed him.  Here was a man who fits perfectly the greedy, bloodthirsty picture of the nobleman in the narrative.  No need to look further, right? 

 

Well, clearly there must be more to it than that, or else why would Jesus bother telling the story?  This story does tell us something about Jesus’s kingdom, but the point is that it is not the first layer of meaning.  Jesus’s kingship enters the story at a secondary level, subversive of the first level of meaning, and when we read it this way, it makes quite a lot of difference.  Rather than trying to make Jesus fit into the value-systems of the world–Jesus must want us to go out and make money; Jesus must be a hard and scary taskmaster; Jesus is going to kill everyone who stands in his way–and try to bend his Gospel to make these alien elements fit within it, we should see the point–that Jesus is subverting the value-systems of the world.  

The introduction of the story gives us a good hint: “Now as they heard these things, He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem and because they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately.”  They are expecting an imminent, dramatic manifestation of the Messianic kingdom.  Jesus is going to Jerusalem, and he’s going to kick the Romans’ butts, punish all his enemies, and reign over Israel.  Right?  Well, not quite.  Jesus knows that they are imagining his kingdom according to worldly values–as the most powerful among the powers, the most victorious in battle–and he wants to show them how misguided this is.  So what does he do?  He tells a story of an actual King of the Jews, one in their recent experience, one who ruled according to the values of the world, who rewarded those who helped him to power by giving them power of their own, and made sure everyone who stood in his way got what was coming to them.  It’s as if Jesus is saying, “You want a king?  You want someone else to take power over you?  Really?  Don’t you remember what all your other kings have been like?”  Jesus, as the immediately preceding and following narratives show, is not like this king at all.  He befriends the hated tax collector, rather than slaying him, like a Zealot Messiah might have.  He has come to “seek and to save that which was lost.”  He is about to enter Jerusalem as the Messiah, but not like a conqueror on a war-horse, but a simple carpenter on a donkey.  And when he gets into Jerusalem, he goes not to Antonia Fortress to kick Roman butt, but to the Temple to kick Jewish butt.  

Jesus is a king, he is going to go into a far country (death itself) to receive his kingdom, and he will be challenged by his people, who will not want him to reign over them, and these will in the end suffer judgment.  But his kingdom is not like the nobleman’s–it is not one in which you have to work hard and trample over everyone else in order to earn his favor, but in which grace is extended freely; it is not one characterized by usury and pursuit of profit, but by equity and charity; it is not one in which the gifted receive more gifts, and the less capable are despised altogether, but in which the last shall be first and the first last; it is not one in which enemies are treated mercilessly, but with mercy, lamenting the judgment that they bring upon themselves.  

 

In short, the “spiritualized” reading of the parable is not entirely off-track, but, if it mistakes this parable as a portrait of the Kingdom, rather than a portrait of the world that is being subverted, it will distort the nature of Christ’s kingdom.

 

(Note: Doug Jones’s commentary Making Trinity Here provided much of the inspiration for this)

12 thoughts on “The Parable of the Minas

  1. Yes, excellent! I came across this reading of the parable a while back and it makes so much more sense of the otherwise very uncomfortable details.Now, if only someone can explain the Matthean version…

    Like

  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Glad you appreciated it! That was a bit too easy, though…I felt sure I was going to get some serious blowback. But then, Donny is on vacation right now, so he's probably not reading this. :-)As far as the Matthean version…yes, that would be nice. That one (for those of you too lazy to glance at the passage) is of course much less amenable to this interpretation, because it tends to be more abstract and pushes clearly in the direction of "spiritualizing," and uses explicitly eschatological language at the end: "And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." The specific historical details of the king seeking a kingdom, and his people not wanting him, are not present here. Of course, also for some of these reasons, the Matthean version is not as troubling as the Lucan, read as an account of Jesus. A number of the friction points are still there, but not all of them.A couple thoughts that came to me, on looking back at it:If we look at the Matthean version in context, we find that it is the last of a series of three kingdom parables, all of which emphasize the theme of being ready for the Lord at his coming, preparing the way for him, doing the work of his kingdom, etc., followed by an explicit statement about the Lord's coming. In the first parable, the master makes the servant ruler over his household when he is away, to "give them food in due season." The good servant will be rewarded with a share in the coming kingdom; the evil servant, who beats his fellow servants and gets drunk, will receive the eschatological judgment. In the second, the virgins are slumbering, rather than waiting expectantly for the bridegroom, and so they are left out in the cold. Then in the third, the lord goes away, and gives his servants his goods, to use wisely and profitably while he is gone. Two servants diligently invest the resources, while the other is lazy (explicitly described thus here) and does not seek to increase his master's goods. He, like the servant of the first parable who squandered and abused his master's estate, receives eschatological judgment. In this progression, the emphasis is much more on being rightly prepared for Christ's coming by busily doing the work of the kingdom and keeping the master always in mind, rather than being narrowly focused on economic gain, or on a concept of spiritual stewardship that is a simplistic analogue of economic gain. The economic metaphor is there, but it's just one of several metaphors being developed here, none of which is a precise description of the kingdom. Judgment is there, but it is of the servant who squanders what he has received (the apostate, in other words) only–here there is no merciless massacre of everyone who didn't want the king.The explicit description of the kingdom comes at the end, as an interpretive key to the preceding parables. Here, the kingdom work that we are supposed to be engaged in is described explicitly–it is the work of feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. This is the household the Lord has left us to care for in his absence, and if he finds us neglecting all these, then we shall receive his judgment. Here, then, the economic metaphors, the usury and obsession with profit, are radically subverted and shown to signify a totally different kind of investment, the investment of the one who loses his life to find it. There's still a few odd things in there (e.g., what does the whole "to everyone who has, more will be given, but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away" mean?), that I'd love to understand better, and of course, there's still the inescapable element of judgement. I am not trying to deny that element–judgment is real–but my point was that the way that element is presented in the Lucan narrative doesn't ring true with Christ's message and ministry in the surrounding context. Hope that helps a bit.

    Like

  3. The scales have fallen from my eyes … As you say, why did I ever need anyone to explain it to me? Not that I have ever been truly comfortable with that parable – nor have I (to my shame) ever done my own research into a solution….But, are we therefore justified in treating the two different accounts (Matt & Luke) as distinct rather than supplementary?It is true that the contexts seem to differ quite markedly, but does not their very similitude demand synthesis? (An honest question) Thank you for an excellent blog,Shalom

    Like

  4. Brad Littlejohn

    A very good question, Peter, and one that I don't have a very good answer to….I would love to find a satisfactory account of how we ought to integrate the four gospels. The main models on offer seem to be liberal ones that take for granted that these are four independent accounts that can and should be played off against one another, none of which are terribly authoritative, or else evangelical ones that take it for granted that these are all perfectly harmonious and should be mentally subsumed into one meta-account. Of course, I'm sure there are some better alternatives on offer, but as I don't have much time to spend in NT studies, I don't know them. We ought, it seems, to first seek to understand each gospel's account on its own terms, from the perspective of the human author, and then, as a distinct move, to seek to achieve theological integration on a second level of divine authorship, so to speak. But this latter integration will look different for different sorts of passages. It seems to me, for instance, quite important that we find a satisfactory integration of the crucifixion accounts, in which the Gospel narratives supplement each other to give a meaningful and accurate composite picture. For certain parables and stories, however, it may well be more acceptable to leave them in a state of creative tension, without trying to find the true parable behind the tellings of the parable, so to speak. This is just speaking off the cuff, though…I'm not sure.If I were to propose a reading of this parable that ran flatly contradictory to what the Matthean parable is clearly doing, then we would definitely have a problem. But to say that they’re doing different things and making different points is not to say that they’re contradictory. I would like to say more about the proper method for interpreting the Gospels in light of one another…but I’m really not sure. This post was something of an experiment, and I’d love to hear from anyone who can either offer me a clear methodological justification for what I did in this post, or else a serious methodological challenge to it.

    Like

  5. Donny

    Hmmm, I'd be interested in seeing this in the overall context of Luke, especially in like of the literary structure. You're right about the Luke account being a little weird to apply to Jesus.I'm not buying it for the Matthew account, and yet it offers some of the same problems you pointed out (usury, profiting where he didn't sow, throwing the servant out into the darkness). Of course, I have no solution, but I do think it's interesting that some early church writers had no problem appealing to an analogy with usury for almsgiving. I think it was Augustine who actually said that rich people shouldn't invest their money, but they should give it a way, because they would get eternal treasures, which, of course, is a much higher return on your investment than anything you could get in this world.

    Like

  6. Hi Brad, Thanks for an excellent response made all the more useful by being so candid.I'm about to start some NT papers so this example might serve well for testing different approaches.Shalom

    Like

  7. Matt

    Hi, I know I'm a bit of a late comer to this post, but I enjoyed reading it as I have been researching this parable a bit recently. I'm interested in this "Making Trinity Here" book but it doesn't seem to be readily available, the only google search result comes back to your blog! Is it published?Cheers

    Like

  8. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Matt,Yes, I'm afraid the book was never published because Jones encountered so much opposition from his church, as the book sharply challenged the capitalist/libertarian ideology of its leaders. Last I heard, he was going to revisit publishing it in another venue, but he doesn't seem to have ever gotten around to it. I'll have to try to give him a nudge again to do that sooner rather than later.

    Like

  9. Dave

    Brad, I think I have a handle on making Matthew & Luke work together. Can we take the discussion off your blog into private email? I just "subscribed" and left my address.

    Like

  10. pete Soyt

    This is excellent.. I also believe Christ was warning his apostles not to be too hasty in hoping for things (Christ’s Kingdom) without first understanding the cost

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s