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)

John Calvin–Friend of Usury?

By defenders and detractors alike, John Calvin and his followers have often been identified as laying the foundations for modern capitalism.  Weber’s version of this thesis, focusing on the so-called “Protestant work ethic” is the most well-known, but a great deal of attention has also focused on Calvin’s reinterpretation of the usury prohibition to allow for commercial lending.  As Reformed pro-capitalists (like Hall and Burton of Calvin and Commerce) tell it, Calvin’s thought facilitated massive social progress by liberating Christians from the oppressive constraints of backward medieval economic thinking, that simply didn’t understand the productive capacity of money.  He removed the stigma on money-lending, thus helping Western Europe embrace all the wonderful advances in productivity that come with a credit-based economy.  In previous posts, I have pondered the question of to what extent Calvin’s new ethic worked as an interpretation and application of Scripture, but here I want to ask a more fundamental question–what did Calvin actually say about usury?

When you read his Letter of Advice on Usury, the striking thing is not its permissiveness, but its restraint; not a sanguine embrace of the possibilities of credit-based economics, but deep suspicion and hesitance of the practice, mindful of the greed of the human heart.  While, in one short and crucial passage, he does question and dismiss (though without much argument) the medieval dictum “that money does not engender money,” a move with potentially radical consequences, the tone of the letter as a whole is remarkably conservative.  Indeed, anyone wishing to follow the principles Calvin lays down would have to condemn almost the entirety of the modern system of credit, and if he were a banker, investor, or mortgage lender, would have to subject his business practices to serious scrutiny.  Let’s look at some of the letter.

In Luke 6:35, he says, Christ

“corrects the world’s vicious custom of lending money [only to those who can repay] and urges us, instead, to lend to those from whom no hope of repayment is possible.  Now we are accustomed to lending money where it will be safe.  But we ought to help the poor, where our money will be at risk.  For Christ’s words far more emphasize our remembering the poor than our remembering the rich.  Nonetheless, we need not conclude that all usury is forbidden.”   

In other words, “Yes, of course, the majority of our lending should be to the poor with no hope of return; I’m just saying that loans at interest to the rich are not completely forbidden; they are the exception to the rule, to be sure, but a permissible exception.”  Ha!  Imagine an economist or ethicist today saying that.  

A little further on he says, “What am I to say, except that usury almost always travels with two inseparable companions: tyrannical cruelty and the art of deception.  This is why the Holy Spirit elsewhere advises all holy men, who praise and fear God, to abstain from usury, so much so that it is rare to find a good man who also practices usury.” 

Wow, that’s pretty stern stuff.  Calvin does not feel that he can legitimately pronounce a ban on all usury, but he hardly wants to present himself as a fan of the practice, and wants anyone contemplating the practice to examine themselves and the circumstance very carefully before they do so–in stark contrast to we moderns, who waltz nonchalantly into the world of paying and charging interest about as soon as we’re old enough to drive.  Moreover, his permission of usury is not a permission of usurers…because of the dangers of the practice, he doesn’t think anyone should make it his regular line of work: “I must reiterate that when I approve of some usury, I am not extending my approval to all its forms.  Furthermore, I disapprove of anyone engaging in usury as his form of occupation.”  

Loans at interest, Calvin goes on to say, are only legitimate if they are made for the benefit of both parties, not merely the creditor.  Just because someone wants a loan and is willing to agree to a certain interest rate does not mean a creditor should give them the loan–only if they are confident that the debtor is in such a position of stability that he is almost certain to derive great benefit from the loan, even after repaying the interest.  Calvin develops this principle to list seven rules to distinguish lawful from unlawful usury: 

“The first is that no one should take interest (usury) from the poor, and no one, destitute by virtue or indigence or some affliction or calamity, should be forced into it.  The second exception is that whoever lends should not be so preoccupied with gain as to neglect his necessary duties, nor, wishing to protect his money, disdain his poor brothers.  The third exception is that no principle be followed that is not in accord with natural equity, for everything should be examined in the light of Christ’s precept: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  This precept is applicable every time.  The fourth exception is that whoever borrows should make at least as much, if not more, than the amount borrowed.  In the fifth place, we ought not to determine what is lawful by basing it on the common practice or in accordance with the iniquity of the world, but should base it on a principle derived from the word of God. [Which means that one can never appeal merely to the “market rate of interest” as justification for charging a certain rate, but must determine what is just and appropriate for the needs of the debtor.]  In the sixth place, we ought not to consider only the private advantage of those with whom we deal, but should keep in mind what is best for the common good.  For it is quite obvious that the interest a merchant pays is a public fee.  Thus we sould see that the contract will benefit all rather than hurt. [Thus, for instance, a creditor should not lend to an investor who proposes to build a development or expand a business that, while quite profitable, will harm the surrounding community.]  In the seventh place, one ought not to exceed the rate that a country’s public laws allow.  [Which means, of course, that Calvin is presupposing that it is legitimate for governments to put restraints on the interest rates that can be charged, instead of taking a laissez-faire approach.]”

Needless to say, if these principles were consistently followed, it would rule out a substantial majority of the lending and borrowing that goes on today–not just the dubious dealings of “Wall Street” investment bankers, but even much of the ordinary flow of credit that comes from “Main Street” banks and mortgage lenders.  It seems that once you actually look with any attentiveness at his work, it becomes impossible to enlist Calvin as an early proponent, or even an ancestor, of laissez-faire capitalism.