20 October 2015

A Cultural Understanding of the Parable of the Pounds (Luke 19:11-27) - Part 2

In part one we laid a little foundational work on parables in general and some basic hermeneutical practices often forgotten by modern readers. Now I would like to turn some attention on this one particular parable to look at in a little more detail to see what kind of things get missed at first reading. Lets take a look at Luke chapter 19, starting with verse 11:

And while they are hearing these things, having added he spake a simile, because of his being nigh to Jerusalem, and of their thinking that the reign of God is about presently to be made manifest.

He said therefore, ‘A certain man of birth went on to a far country, to take to himself a kingdom, and to return, and having called ten servants of his own, he gave to them ten pounds, and said unto them, Do business — till I come; and his citizens were hating him, and did send an embassy after him, saying, We do not wish this one to reign over us.

‘And it came to pass, on his coming back, having taken the kingdom, that he commanded these servants to be called to him, to whom he gave the money, that he might know what any one had done in business.

‘And the first came near, saying, Sir, thy pound did gain ten pounds; and he said to him, Well done, good servant, because in a very little thou didst become faithful, be having authority over ten cities.

‘And the second came, saying, Sir, thy pound made five pounds; and he said also to this one, And thou, become thou over five cities.

‘And another came, saying, Sir, lo, thy pound, that I had lying away in a napkin; for I was afraid of thee, because thou art an austere man; thou takest up what thou didst not lay down, and reapest what thou didst not sow.

‘And he saith to him, Out of thy mouth I will judge thee, evil servant: thou knewest that I am an austere man, taking up what I did not lay down, and reaping what I did not sow!  and wherefore didst thou not give my money to the bank, and I, having come, with interest might have received it?

‘And to those standing by he said, Take from him the pound, and give to him having the ten pounds — (and they said to him, Sir, he hath ten pounds)  — for I say to you, that to every one having shall be given, and from him not having, also what he hath shall be taken from him, but those my enemies, who did not wish me to reign over them, bring hither and slay before me.’ (Luke 19:11-27 YLT)

I am sure most everyone is somewhat familiar with this parable, but I wish to look at it just a little deeper than surface level and to use it to give an example of how cultural background can alter the story a bit. First off, many scholars tie this story in to contemporary events, one of which even happened right around the time of the birth of Yeshua, so was still somewhat of a recent happening even thirty years later.

In the political environment of the time, the scenario was somewhat common, where a would-be ruler had to travel to the main city to receive his new position of authority. While he was gone, it was not uncommon for the citizens to rebel and cause trouble in his kingdom. Sometimes this may even lead to an abuse of those who were under his power and were left behind to keep things in order.

In 40 BC, Herod the Great made such a journey to Rome, as was common, to be appointed as king. In 4 BC, Herod died, and his son Archelaus was expected to become the new king. He began ruling upon his father’s death, but he was still expected to make the journey to be officially deemed the ruler by Caesar Augustus.

Unfortunately, there was opposition to his being the ruler, and when he arrived at Rome, he found that some of his own family members had filed rival claims to the throne. Also, on top of that, about fifty Jewish rulers had come from Jerusalem, seeking to let Caesar know why they thought Archelaus was unfit to govern. In other words, they would not have this man to be king over them.

So, Archelaus' return took longer than expected, but in the end he was given the kingship, as Caesar wanted to give him the chance to prove himself. Of course, when he returned with the power, he rounded up those who had opposed him, and executed swift punishment against them.

So, with this little bit of historical background, we should be able to see how much more relevant this parable was to those that heard it. For us, most modern readers may tend to use our own capitalist cultural eyes to view this parable as an issue of money, investments and returns, when in fact, it is more talking about faith and public witness.

The political climate back in the day was quite turbulent, and at a time when there was a change of power, those loyal servants to the one coming into power may have it tough when their leader is away. Would they stand up and continue to openly profess allegiance, and do “business” in the name of their soon to be ruler, or would they hide and keep quiet until he returns in power and is there to protect them? That is more of what is being spoken of here.

First off, let’s back up just a little to see what kind of starts this whole parable. They had just left the house of Zacchaeus, where Yeshua stated

Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (v 9-10)

This would have set off eschatological and apocalyptic red flags in the minds of the Apostles, for if salvation had come to someone like a tax collector, then surely it was there for the nation. Plus with Passover being near, this was the perfect timing – and he was speaking clear kingdom talk in their minds. We know this because of their response in the next verse:

…because of his being nigh to Jerusalem, and of their thinking that the reign of God is about presently to be made manifest. (v 11)

So, salvation has come, Passover is near, they are heading to the center of their world, Jerusalem, so surely the arrival of the kingdom in all its glory is right around the corner. But, Yeshua throws a wrench in their thoughts by showing them that there will be a bit of time before the fullness of the kingdom.

As we stand in hindsight, it is clear who the parties of the parable are, and the general idea of the story, but again, with the cultural understanding, we are able to see it a bit more clearly for what it is.

As the nobleman is about to leave to receive the kingdom, he distributes gifts to his followers; this is in affect saying to them, be faithful while I am gone, and promote my good name to those around you. It is easy to be bold while the leader is there, but when gone, and they are encircled with the enemies, how will they conduct themselves?

After giving them the gifts, he tells them to “Do business — till I come.” Now the word used for “till” is the little used Greek expression en ho, and some scholars state that this literally means “in which.” While it can legitimately be translated as “until” as it often is, and as we see here in the YLT, it is also another option to read it as a causative, meaning it is producing something – so we could see it as “Do business because I come [back].”

By turning this phrase en ho into the time reference – until – it becomes more of a command to go do business in the short time they have, and make as much profit as they can. Yet if this is the case in this parable, then why upon returning does he commend them for their faithfulness - and not their successfulness in much profit?

Well done, good servant, because in a very little thou didst become faithful, be having authority over ten cities. (v 17)

So, it is probably better to read this phrase as more of a causative, meaning he is telling them to do business in a situation in which he is coming back. So, in essence, he is telling them to stand firm and boldly proclaim his business, for he is coming back to examine their faithfulness in it.

Are the servants willing to take the risk of openly declaring allegiance and loyalty to the soon to be king, during his absence, in a place and time where many surrounding them oppose the new king’s rule, and threaten the safety of the servants?

A real life situation similar to this is told in Bailey’s book, and I find worth relaying to you:

It has been my privilege to teach short courses for the Lutheran Church of Latvia. While I was at the Lutheran Academy in Riga, I observed the interviewing of new students for the academy. I asked the interviewing committee what kinds of questions they asked the applicants. They told me, “The most important question is ‘When were you baptized?’” And I asked, “Why is the date of baptism such an important question?” They answered,” If they were baptized during the period of Soviet rule, they risked their lives and compromised their futures by being baptized. But if they were baptized after liberation from the Soviets, we have many further questions to ask them about why they want to become pastors.” (Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, pg 401)

This is the thrust of the discussion in this parable – will they be bold and public about being his servants, using their resources – doing his business – unafraid of the enemies, and confident in the future of his future?

Here is another reason I enjoy using the Young’s Literal translation. When the king returns home, he:

…commanded these servants to be called to him, to whom he gave the money, that he might know what any one had done in business. (v 15)

He wanted to know how they had conducted business, or how much business was conducted. Other translations, like the ESV state it as:

…he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business.

See, they make it sound more like he is asking how much money was gained by doing the business, making it again appear to be about business practices that lead to profit and not simply about doing the business faithfully itself.

The term used here is diepragmateusanto, and this is the only appearance of it in the Greek Scriptures. The primary meaning of it is “how much business was transacted,” though some do list it as “how much has been gained by trading” as we see in many modern translations.From the second century onward though, the Syriac and Coptic versions of the text have all consistently chosen the first meaning, as have most Arabic versions. It may sound minor, but the difference is pretty critical.

Is the master concerned with profit, or open loyalty during his absence?  The primary meaning tends to lean towards the suggested view that the master was asking about the latter – obedience and faithfulness during uncertain times. This same idea of being faithful publicly is what we see throughout the Scriptures time and time again:

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:16 ESV)

So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Matt 10:32-33 & Luk 12:8-9 ESV)

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matt 7:21 ESV)

Faithfulness in doing and proclaiming before men was the desire of the day. The disciples were being told of tough times coming after his departure, and were being instructed that they must remain faithful – even to the death.

Now, when we look back at this parable, we can see the main characters to be Yeshua, who is the one going away to receive a kingdom and return, and then there are those servants who he left behind and commissioned to work in his absence. The disciples assumed the Kingdom was to come fully - real soon, but he in turns tells this story of a going away for a time, and a return that was to happen first.

Not too long afterwards, we see the enemies who will “not have this man to rule over” them. It is they who have blood on their hands for the torture and crucifixion of Yeshua. Three days later, he rises from the grave, and ascends to the Father, then returns to their presence for a time. And within a short amount of time, the disciples hit him up with the questions again:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. (Acts 1:6-7 ESV)

Maybe they assumed that since he had left and returned (though after a very brief time), that NOW was the time for the fullness of the Kingdom. He again tells them that is not the case. His leaving to “receive the Kingdom” was to take place at his ascension that soon followed.He instead tells them in the next verse:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (v. 8)

So, here he is, leaving to receive his Kingdom in all of its fullness, and he bestowed upon them many various gifts to do business with until he returns, just like in the parable.A key factor in understanding this story, as well as much of the Scripture, is audience relevance. What did this story mean to those in the first century who heard it? We will look into that in our next part.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4