Or How the Kingdom of God is A Bad Business Model
Last week, after meeting with former biblio-blogger Kurk Gayle and Chad, I asked,
After the meeting and much reflection, really, shouldn’t Christians do as Jesus do with their lives? Shouldn’t they recite narratives that are all too familiar to their culture, and but with a Gospel twist? Is not this what Christian witness is all about?
Thus began an attempt by Chad and I to start a Tuesday series on reflecting on how Jesus’s parables can shape and change our lives. Today, I start with my own attempt to grapple with the American church’s favorite parable, the parable of the Talents (a real misnomer in many respects as I will explain in my excursus). I would first like to do a re-telling of the story that brings the parable to life in a contemporary context.
The Parable of the Wicked Senator
The crowd was listening to Jesus of Nazareth, the Anointed One. Because he was near Jerusalem, the blessed city, they expected the Messiah to tell them when and how the kingdom of God was to come, and they wanted it right here and now. So, Jesus said to them,
“An aristocrat travelled to the capitol to network among the statesmen and enter his name on the ballot for Senator. The next day, he returned to his plantation to check on his sharecroppers. The oligarch summoned ten of his tenant farmers and gave them ten crops of land for them to raise cotton. Some of the Negro citizens on the other side of town were outraged; they did not want this man to tell them how to run their lives. The rich man received word that he had won the election to become a member of the Senate. Having returned to his property, the Senator-elect summoned his ten tenant farmers to see how well they had done by taking care of the land he had lent them. The first tenant walked up to the landlord, and said, “Massa, yer one plot of lan’ has yielded enuf cotton to fill ten plots o’ lan’. The Senator replied, “You are one of the good Negros, I reckon. Because you have made a profit for me, you shall receive ten farms from that other side of town.” The second farmer walked softly up to the Senator, with him head down, and said, “Massa, good sir, I have given ye ‘least ‘nuf cotton for five plots of land.” The ruler said to him, “You shall be given five farms.” A third tenant farmer, who stood defiantly in front of the Senator, said, “Good Sir, I know youse is a harsh man. I was afraid of you so I took this land, and covered it with a blanket. You take what you do not invest, and you reap what you do not sow. You are a thief.” The Senator answered, “you are judged by your own words, for yes, I am a harsh man, yes I do steal what I do not work for. Why did you not grow cotton in the land I let you borrow? You are one lazy coon!” To the bystanders, the rich prince said, “Take away this man’s land; I say to you all: to all those who have much, their riches will increase. But to the ungrateful Negros on the other side of town, as well as this man, bring them here to be lynched right in front of me.”
After Jesus had told them this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
Some of you may be wondering, “What is wrong with the traditional interpretation of the Parable of the Talents?” Isn’t it just about Jesus teaching us that we need to use all of our gifts, and that we will be rewarded for doing such? It would be easy to slip into an approach, but there are many complex issues at work, with the text, and with the picture of God in general in this parable. As a faithful Protestant Christian, one has to wonder, where is the grace in this story? Is not Sola Gratia one of the top five important doctrines? If one is to take this story at face-value, and attribute God as the harsh aristocrat/prince (one with royal power) [verse 12] who rewards us for our works/giving us what we deserve, how does this line up with Jesus’s other teachings on God’s providence? (Matthew 5:45)?
If God is traditionally understood as the harsh (severe, exacting, in a favorable/unfavorable manner–the Greek root word for austere) murderous ruler, what does that say about our image of God? Is one to believe that God abandons humanity in order to passively permit injustice to reign, or is God omnipresent throughout the world, actively confronting evil as God did through Israel and in Christ? How are we to understand God as the Almighty if God has to leave and take royal power from somewhere else? (19:12) Moreover, in the context of the canon, God in this parable, traditionally understood, functions in a way that contradicts God’s preferred way of being just, i.e., that being the case of forcing usury upon the impoverished (cf. Leviticus 25:35-38 and Deuteronomy 15:7-11). If we divorce the parable from its historical context, the one in which our Jewish rabbi who was all too familiar with the Hebrew Bible and its dictates, it makes this parable that much easier to hold in cultural captivity (U.S. American corporatist-capitalist logic).
What makes the history of the Western reception of this parable and the up-liftment of usury all that more problematic is that in the Reformation era, the Laws pertaining to the prohibition of interest of loans for the disenfranchised were viewed as ideas not to take literally. The body of evidence, considering the agrarian nature of the Palestinian economy in the second century B.C.E. as well as Jesus’s Jewish identity lead me to believe that the harsh ruler is none other than Satan/the wicked powers that be itself. Even if there was an exception to the law that interest was to be taken from Gentiles, perhaps Christ, if the third servant is non-Jewish is inviting equal treatment for the poor of all ethnicities. But it makes more sense, at least in the literary placement of the parable, where Jesus is close to Jerusalem, and then walking up to Jerusalem, that the third servant is actually the Messiah himself. Jesus is discussing the kingdom of God (verse 11), and the kingdom of God is accomplished not by anything that human beings can do, but the Triune God alone accomplishes. Jesus exposes the Enemy as a liar, and looses his life because Jesus is the Truth (John 18:38). Subsequently, in the same chapter, Jesus weeps over his beloved city of Jerusalem, because they did not recognize God visiting them (19:44). Jesus the Anointed One, in his death, initiates God’s reign here on earth.
Truth and Peace,
For further resources on this possible interpretation of the Parable of the Wicked Ruler, please see William Herzog’s Parables as Subversive Speech as well as God is Not religious, nice, one of us an american a capitalist by Brent Laytham