Because they were near to Jerusalem, and they supposed that the Kingdom was to appear immediately

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?

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7 responses

  1. So let me see if I’ve got this right

    From related Luke 19:11 post (parapharasing): “What was Jesus trying to say that would have gotten him killed if he’d said straight out?”

    your answer above, from NT Wright? “there is a strong probability that Jesus intended a reference to the [then] Jewish nation and its current leaders…”


    and…you ask: “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?…”

    and you say “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.”

    yeah, I think the part about “for our benefit” / “2nd meaning” is important and essentially points to The Story (of Life, the Universe, and Everything) that you somewhat reference in this great question about what point Jesus’s life on earth was in the story. I have the feeling that we are very integrally a part of the same story ….so it is not that Jesus is actually the end of that story, or the beginning. The magic just keeps going on and on and on! Everyone reading can get Jesus’s message for them however many thousands of years later….as well as some great exegesis from Forrest.

  2. you know….I’m totally skipping over the massive apocalyptic aspect you have shared with us. This parable reminds me of a Bill Cosby skit about the book of Genesis (how God’s kids Adam and Eve were a template for what parents see everyday with their own kids: silly childish manipulations and childish reasoning…). Probably a lot funnier when Bill Cosby said it than when God says it via this parable. What reminds me of Bill Cosby is that in Genesis (via Bill Cosby) and again in this parable there’s the idea that God was here and then God went “away” — stepped out for a moment — and BOY, when God gets back let’s just see what goes down! “Boy, when God sees what his kids have done in his absence!” For some misbehavers there will be Hell to pay.

    I don’t know about the whole personal-theology that God goes away and then comes back. I realize I’m flying in the face of a lot of Biblical stuff there… I’m just not sure whether it holds up anymore, post Jesus. God’s not going away anymore. Right? What about “Lo, I am with you always…even until the ends of the Earth.” Is the going-away and coming-back only for those who reject God’s goodness?

  3. What I’d gotten from Gabor Mate (not the first time I’d heard it, but when it clicked): that there are times in a child’s life when a little estrangement from his/her parents is a necessary step in development. (I forget where I ranted on this…)

    Maybe something akin to peekaboo, on a truly vast scale? Or more like ‘God becomes “silent” when nobody listens’?

    That we aren’t suppose to have perfect lives, but to “make mistakes, and learn from them.” (And such are precisely the grubby lives we will eventually recognize as having been ‘perfect’!)

    What does Jesus-and-or-God “coming back” look like? Like everybody waking up some morning, opening their eyes, seeing what’s truly happening around them? Until that becomes more and more like paradise?

    Alan Lew’s story of being ‘chaplain’ to a terminal patient who was terrified of dying, beforehand, from everything except the disease which was actually killing him. Continually complaining, freaking out, driving the whole hospital to wishing he’d get it over with… & one day Lew was surprised to hear that this guy was asking to see him. Found him weeping from the unexpected beauty of everything he saw around him in this ghastly old hospital ward. I think he died later that day. But suppose we could live in that? Maybe a little at a time?

  4. Unless I’ve over looked something, the version in Matthew 25 comes as part of a very long series of parables and sayings, given on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3) not in Jerusalem.

    A lot can be learned from Matthew’s placement of this parable between that of the Ten Virgins, which is about vigilance and the piece about the final judgment in which the sheep will be separated from the goats — not according to their theology, doctrine or creed, but according to their works.

    The parable of the distribution of “talents” (English speaking peoples make far too much of a coincidence out of this word) to the servants coming between these two gives a clue as to how it should be understood within Matthew’s narrative.

    We do not know when the accounting will come, and we will be held to account, one way or another.

    By contrast, Luke’s version seems to almost make this business about the ten, five or one minas besides the point. There is this whole business about a group of enemies trying to prevent the establishment of a kingship and their ultimate punishment when the king is vindicated. It can be very tempting to read a very Western “final judgment” context into that part of the tale, but that cannot be what was intended. The doctrine of God’s restoration of his creation and a final judgment have always gone hand in hand, but the emphasis was always in the other direction until Western thinkers fused the gospel of Christ with European contract law and conceptions of guilt. The ancient, Eastern church understood the gospel of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom to be about God’s redemption of the Cosmos into life and love as it had been intended from the beginning, not about punishing the wicked.

    In Luke, this parable comes between the restoration of Zacchaeus and the Triumphal Entry (“palm Sunday”). The one a tale about the dangers and pitfalls of a life based on status, stature, fiscal comfort and capitulation to Empire, and the other a tale about this king and this kingdom were not going to be anything like of the sort which many of those who had begun following Christ after the feeding of thousands in the wilderness thought that it was going to be.

    And in between, we find a story about a brutally exacting man who craves earthly power over people who offer him no loyalty or authority and who demands that his subjects focus their attention on the business of the world — making money. The passage opens with this explanation: “He spoke another parable… because they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately…”

    This passage is not so much about “be good stewards, use your time and aptitude wisely” as it is about “be vigilant” (like the ten virgins), and focus your time and efforts on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the widows and orphans and visiting those in prison, not on the business of the world — because my kingdom may be a long time off and you do not want to get entrapped in the Empires of austere men.

  5. Luke has him ‘teaching in the Temple during the day’ and ‘returning to the Mount of Olives at night.’ “Apocalyptic” teachings, which is where Matthew has placed this, would be more likely in the more private setting. But there probably aren’t many parables that Jesus only told once, in only one setting.
    — — — —
    I am almost certain that the correspondence between “talents” and “talents” in English is not coincidental, but based on the way English Christians happened to interpret the parable. I agree that this probably wasn’t the original meaning; but it is a natural reading once the story passed out of that original context.
    — — — —
    Matthew’s view… I hope to someday go through Matthew the same way I’ve been posting Luke; but he’s setting these stories in a significantly different frame.

    That “final judgment” may or may not have been part of Jesus’ message; an “immediate judgment” taking place right then — against the religious establishment of his day — fits the historical story as NT Wright has brought me to see it.

    The force of the “final judgment” theme comes from the very real, persisting corruption of human ways since then. Any story that starts in the time of our birth just seems to demand an equally dreadful climax. Our history didn’t actually start that recently… but there’s been a nasty fuss throughout. “And then humankind all grew up and learned to play nice together”? I like that ending; but all I see of it is a mustard seed springing up here, another one there…

    “Punishing the wicked” seems to go on all the time; but it seldom brings visible improvement. Doesn’t necessarily seem like punishment to them; just “hardening of their hearts” until whichever day their illusions break down. Probably with a crisis, a shift from chronic, subtle pain to more overt manifestations (?)

    “God’s restoration of his creation” doesn’t seem to include this “punishment” except as prelude: The restoration begins where the punishment ceases.

    What I mean: Wrong ways of life are “punishment” and lead to further wrongs, further punishment. Whenever a person sees that something better exists, chooses that, there may still be suffering to come — It takes time to limp out of a deep dungeon. But the attitude involved is entirely different!

    1. You seem to have misunderstood most of what I was trying to say.

      Forgive me.

      1. There’s lots of space for another try, and I will certainly reread what you did say!

        Meanwhile, I know I don’t understand why you say: “Forgive me.”

        The way I’ve been thinking of this may be a big obstacle; that isn’t my crime, or yours! Maybe it means we’ve got a lot to learn from each other!

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