Luke does get heavy-handed with the interpretations sometimes. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is actually in Jerusalem when he tells this story, and the context is an extremely apocalyptic monologue about the coming of a new age. There, Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple… which I am sure is something he actually did. Whatever else he may have been saying there… remains disturbingly mysterious.
Modern people automatically assume that Luke 19.11 is about them and their use of personal resources, whether that means literal money, time, or some spiritual faculty. “Use it or lose it.”
A 1st Century Jew would automatically assume the story is about God — having abandoned the Temple when the Babylonians came to take everyone important (and everything not nailed down) back home to Babylon (as prophets had been predicting for some time before) — and ‘now’ (as prophets had been saying ever since) returning there to rule His people as specified in the deal with Moses: milk & honey, peace and freedom, so long as everyone does right [and God is to fix them all so as to make even that possible!]
Luke says it’s about some mysterious ‘nobleman’ wanting to be king, and going away to confirm his position. Much as Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, had gone off to Rome when his father died — and returned as a mere ‘ethnarch,’ but still ruler of most of Judea, until the Romans finally deposed him as a liability. I don’t know how many enemies Archelaus slaughtered on his return, but he’d already killed a great many Pharisees, provoking a delegation to follow him to Rome and lobby against his appointment.
The account of the claimant’s behavior would be just the sort of thing 1st Century Jews had learned to expect of their rulers, harsh, brutal — and greedy. This could certainly be a story of “what goes on in these corrupt times!”
But there’s that initial frame about ‘the Kingdom of God’. NT Wright: “In most parables about a king and subjects, or a master and servants, the king or master stands for Israel’s God and the subjects or servants for Israel and/or her leaders or prophets. This is true both in Jesus’ teaching and in some Jewish parables. In Jewish usage the relation of God and Israel was so constantly represented as that of a ‘lord’ and his ‘slaves’ that a hearer of the parable would almost inevitably seek an interpretation along those lines…”
But this is not,Wright says, an explanation that God’s return will be delayed; Jesus is saying that it isn’t going to look like what people had in mind. “YHWH is visiting his people, and they do not realize it; they are therefore in imminent danger of judgment, which will take the form of military conquest and devastation.” As in similar parables, “there is a strong probability that Jesus intended a reference to the [then] Jewish nation and its current leaders… Those who do not want the king to reign over them are like the older brother [in the Prodigal Son story] who refuses to join the party. In terms of exile and restoration, they are thos who do not want the Temple rebuilt. In the pounds, Jesus implies an analogy between those who rejected Archelaus a generation earlier and those who, in his own day, prefer their own dreams of national independence to the coming of the true king.”
I find this entirely convincing — but many many Christians have assumed that Jesus was telling this story near its beginning: his own ‘departure’ after death — rather than its ending: God’s visitation to Jerusalem, coinciding with and symbolized by Jesus’ own arrival there.
So was Jesus including a second meaning, for our benefit? About a world which would fall into similar corruption, through two thousand subsequent years, and undergo a similar judgment? Or do people just keep acting the same, and getting the same kind of results?