In the last installment we revisited the parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1–13), which we looked at in part 3 in relation to Jesus’s shocking example of a man who steals his boss’s money as an image to depict “the kingdom of God.” But more shocking is the character of the king in the parable of the Ten Pounds (Luke 19:11–27), who at the end of the story, apparently has his enemies brought to him so that he can watch them being killed (v. 27). What makes this more shocking, at least for Christian readers, is that the story in Luke is almost the same as the parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14–30), in which the figure of the king (there simply a rich man with servants) has almost always been interpreted as standing for God.
There’s a common theme common in the two parables: in their master’s absence, two servants invest his money successfully and are rewarded, whereas a third servant is too scared to invest it, so is punished.[i] Does this not just make the Ten Pounds a slightly different write-up of the same story, therefore having the same meaning? Following Symon Hill, I will argue that this is not the case; that despite having the same set-up at its core, the Gospel of Luke is getting at something very different here. It is a portrayal of the immoral use of money, and thus a warning of behavior to be avoided rather than imitated.
The parable is a keen illustration of how powerful interests are motivated by profit to the exclusion of other considerations, preying on the fearful (Luke 19:21) and seeing the function of money primarily as making more profit for themselves. Hence they reward those who make them more profit and punish those who do not. We hear that such an arrangement means that “to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (v. 27). In other words, it systematically exacerbates material inequalities, making the rich richer, and the poor poorer, just as we experience with the misuse of markets and the profit motive in today’s society (Hill, 38).
Research by Hill indicates that most readers, regardless of their beliefs, identify with the third servant (Hill, 37). This may be out of pity: the king knows the third servant is afraid of him, but still judges him with intimidation and abuse. The Hebrew audience would also have been inclined to identify with the third servant because he is the one who does not lend money at interest, which was prohibited by their law. Regardless of the audience’s self-identification, I believe that the bystanders present—unique to this parable—are actually meant to represent us. They begin to criticize the king when he asks them to take all of the third servant’s money and give it to the one who already has the most, but they then become diffident, not speaking up again (v. 24–25). The servant, by contrast, although he is afraid, courageously speaks out against the injustice of these economic and power arrangements: “you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow” (v. 21) (Hill, 42). In other words, the servant exposes that the king steals from the poor, making profit without working for it.
We therefore have an inversion of the conventional allegory. Far from being a divine king, the master is a vicious plutocrat, representing those who misuse money for power. The first two servants collude with this immoral economic system and receive worldly power in return (v. 17 & 19), leaving the third as the hero of the piece. The bystanders represent we the audience who must choose between the virtuous courage to stand up to injustice (Hill, 42)—even in the face of state violence—and the vicious sloth of “letting others decide your life for you” by complacently “‘going along’ with what we have heard, with how things are,” which the theologian Harvey Cox called “leaving it to the snake” (Borg, 149).[ii]
Given the reality of ideological power, it’s hardly surprising that this radical anti-establishment message has often been neglected in favor of safer, more “comfortable” supernatural interpretations. Nor that it has elsewhere been sterilized into straightforward support for the status quo: that Christians should follow the first servants in taking full advantage of the opportunities of capitalism. The latter interpretation is clearly opposed to Jesus’s intended message, indeed he urges that we should “lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35). But what about how I interpreted the parable of the Talents earlier, as letting go of fear and opening ourselves up to risk—must that now be overruled by the anti-establishment interpretation? It need not be—admittedly to my convenience—but not because parables do not need to have a single correct interpretation, but because the Ten Pounds is significantly different as to be regarded as a distinct parable anyway.[iii] Moreover, these interpretations of the two parables, along with the statements on money discussed in part 9, are strengthened by being coherent with one another, as revealed in Jesus’s nonviolent direct action of clearing the Jerusalem Temple.
The description of this event in Luke is very simple: “[Jesus] entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, ‘It is written, My house shall be a house of prayer; [Is. 56:7] but you have made it a den of robbers.'” This led to “the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people… looking for a way to kill him” (Luke 19:45–47), which of course they soon did. Note that the last parable he tells before this, earlier in the same chapter, is the Ten Pounds—his actions now supporting the anti-establishment interpretation there, with him taking the role of the third servant exposing the immoral use of money. But these actions also embody the fearless risk-taking ideal read from the Talents. Perhaps more so when we read the additional detail in Mark and Matthew: “he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves” (Mark 11:15/Matt. 21:12).
Jesus’s problem was not so much with what was being sold—this was before the mass production of tacky souvenirs of his mother—but with how, and of course where they were selling it. The commercialization and gentrification of public spaces is an issue for us today in our hyperconsumerist society, but it appears it is not a new problem. And while I find abhorrent the ubiquity of advertising in otherwise unintrusive residential areas and increasingly in schools, I expect it was even more repugnant for Jesus in the sacred space of the Temple.
Jesus was not trying to start a violent revolution, and stood no realistic chance of forcing a change in Temple practices. But what he did produce was an inspirational symbolic challenge to the Jewish establishment, and more pointedly, to the ruling imperial economic system behind it (Hill, 171). As per our discussion in part 9, Jesus was not attacking trade or money itself, but their being used with possessiveness, and this encroaching outside of their domain of what is Caesar’s into that which is God’s (cf. Luke 20:25).
Continuing the focus on social justice, the next parts of this series will look at more stories of rich men, workers, and outcasts. And will discuss whether Jesus’s philosophy was a kind of communism, or whether he was advocating similar ideals as a private morality.
[i] This is usually read as what Crossan calls an “exemplar parable,” in which the servants who were rewarded set an example for us to follow. Remember, this how I interpreted it in part 4 to form a solution to the tensions surrounding the role of prudence in Jesus’s teaching. The exemplar interpretation is underpinned by the identification of the master with God. For the original audience, this identification would have been natural because he is the most powerful character and takes the role of a judge, handing out rewards and punishments. Indeed, the context in Matthew appears to confirm this because the parable is immediately followed by a passage about God’s judgement (25:31–46). Moreover, the first two servants’ reward includes the invitation “enter into the joy of your master,” (v. 21 & 23) which would be stranger not read as a metaphor for heaven, than if it were. Neither of these are the case with the parable of the Ten Pounds (pounds, like talents, were a large unit of currency).
[ii] Unfortunately, “leaving it to the snake,” to “the lord of this world,” is exactly what St. Paul seems to do in Rom. 13:1–7, where he calls for absolute obedience to the state, similarly to Hobbes’s Leviathan. Paul’s reasons there are irrationally fatalistic and incoherent with the rest of the tradition of Jesus, including how Paul himself presents it elsewhere. Sadly, since many Christians derive their moral doctrine first from Paul and then, if they do read Jesus’s moral statements, do so within the limits of Paul’s teaching, this error has legitimized many unjust authorities throughout history. In defense of Paul, he probably said this because he was concerned that persecution of Christians not be exacerbated by seditious activities. And I very much doubt he would have said it if he had not believed that the end of the world would occur imminently in his lifetime (as indicated in 1 Thes. 4–5). Indeed, Jesus’s reason for telling the parable of the Ten Pounds may have been to correct that very problem, it begins: “he went on to tell a parable… because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately” (Luke 19:11).
[iii] There are a number of reasons for treating the Ten Pounds as a distinct parable from the Talents. Firstly, while they could be two parables written as different interpretations of one original parable told by Jesus, there is no reason why, in different periods of his ministry, Jesus could not have told two different parables structured around the same basic plot line. Indeed, moral tales focusing on two or three characters who receive different rewards and punishments have, in the history of folklore, been so popular as to produce thousands of variants of the same stories (see: Tatar, Maria, 1992, Off With Their Heads: Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood, Princeton, esp. Ch. 3). Moreover, for Jesus to do this would be conducive to the purpose of participative pedagogy, i.e., coaxing the audience to think about the meanings for themselves.
Secondly, the passages surrounding the Ten Pounds set it within the register of social justice and critiquing the economic establishment. In particular, following Jesus’s encounter with the rich man Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10) it expresses that “we need to keep challenging the rich, who benefit from an ongoing sinful system” (Hill, Symon, 2014, “Misreading the Parable of the Talents,” response to the 3rd comment).
Finally, there are more differences in the detail of the stories than those mentioned above. On the whole, the Ten Pounds is very politicized whereas the Talents is not. One example of this is the first two servants being rewarded with worldly power, with rule over cities, rather than heavenly joy. But the most obvious example is that the master is now a king, and presented as a villain, not only by his actions toward his opponents, but because his character is a reference to the previous ruler of Judea: “Jesus’s listeners are likely to have recognized the story of a nobleman going to ‘a distant country to be appointed king’ as a reference to Herod Archelaus. He traveled to Rome to receive the emperor’s appointment to rule Judea, although his opponents sent a delegation after him, as described in Jesus’s story” (Hill, 40, citing: Jeremiahs, Joachim, 1972, The Parables of Jesus, Pearson). I think it is very unlikely that so much of the story would be just for show and not serve any purpose. I believe this context is meant to turn us against the king and toward supporting the third servant in criticizing him. Therefore it is not just an updated version of the Talents parable, one that adds the point that the business that takes place is unjust, it is a significantly different parable commending different action to us.
The Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (1993), Geoffrey Chapman, London
Borg, Marcus J., (2011), Speaking Christian, HarperOne, New York
Hill, Symon, (2015), The Upside Down Bible: What Jesus Really Said About Money, Sex, and Violence, Darton, Longman & Todd, London