June 21, 2013

The Stories Jesus Told: The Parable of the Pounds pt.1

Kenneth E. Bailey, Th.D., scholar and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies, through his fascinating book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, has been teaching me about Jesus’ parables. I’ve been enjoying this book slowing, using it mainly as a resource for my sermon series on the parables, which is just underway. If the teenagers scattered along the couches at youth group find it equally as interesting I will sleep soundly.

My preparation for next week has me reading the chapter on (what my Bible calls) “The Parable of the Ten Minas.” Professor Bailey renders it “The Parable of the Pounds.” The cultural insights available in his book inspire me to share the goodness within.

Luke explains that Jesus tells this parable to the gathered crowd because they supposed the kingdom of God was about to come, like, immediately; no doubt, in part, because Jesus tells Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.” In the imaginations of Jesus’ hearers “salvation” and “the kingdom of God” go hand in hand. If the kingdom had come to Zacchaeus’ house, surely it’s here for the nation! But that just isn’t the plan. Thus the story.

A nobleman, so the story goes, gathers ten servants and tells them, “Hey, I’m traveling to a country far away to receive a kingdom, but I am coming back don’t worry. Take this $5,000 - a gift for you - and open up shops downtown and spend your time conducting business there in my name. Though there’s much uncertainty, I will return.” In times of such transition, Bailey explains, anything can happen. Herod the Great, in 40 B.C., set out for Rome seeking Roman appointment as king. He returned as king. The same cannot be said of his son Archelaus B.C. He was banished.

But the potential opposition doesn’t end there. In the parable, the citizens hated the nobleman and sent out a delegation, in hopes of stopping him, whether that meant undermining his mission or worse. Bailey’s literal translation here (of verse 14) reveals something interesting:

But his citizens hated him and sent an embassy after him, saying, “We do not want this…to reign over us.”

This what? It doesn’t say, the word/phrase is omitted. This is a deleted expletive. Basically, fill in your preferred profanity.

The nobleman’s servants are more than aware of the presence of the nobleman’s enemies. The servants could easily have wondered what would happen if the enemies overcame their master. What would happen to them? What would happen to their business? Activities like this are dangerous in such a heated climate of hated opposition. It might be smarter to wait it out, to see what happens, hold onto the money, keep it safe. It might not be worth the risk. The enemies could rob the shop, revile them, and worse.

Bailey writes,

No one knows how such a perilous journey will end. The nobleman wants to know, “Are you willing to take the risk and openly declare yourselves to be my loyal servants (during my absence) in a world where many oppose me and my rule? … Once I return, having received kingly power, it will be easy to declare yourself publicly to be my loyal servants. I am more interested in how you conduct yourselves when I am absent and you have to pay a high price to openly identify yourself with me.”

The nobleman indeed receives kingly power in spite of attempts of the opposite. Reasonably, he wants to know what diepragmateusanto. This Greek word is not used again in the New Testament. Primarily, it means “How much business has been transacted” and secondly as “How much has been gained by trading.”

The difference is critical. If the master wants to find out what has been gained by trading, he will ask some form of “Show me the money.” But if he is asking, “How much business have you transacted?” he is seeking to discover the extent to which they have openly and publicly declared their loyalty to him during the risky period of his absence.

Let’s experiment. If the master is after profits, the money, then the “faithful” servants are rewarded because they made the master richer. The higher the profit the more faithful the servant is. Too, the “wicked” servant is the one who didn’t make the master richer. “You didn’t open up shop, nor even invested?! You fool! Give me my money back!” But, “faithful” and “wicked” seem odd in this context, no? Particularly if the nobleman in the parable is Jesus, which Bailey affirms.

Though if the master is concerned with how much business the servants conducted in - how much they publicly risked themselves in the master’s absence inspite of opposition - and not primarily with the extra cash in his pocket, “faithful” and “wicked” are rendered quite differently. The question is not how much money but how much business. Essentially, quantity not quality. Thus the most “faithful” is the servant who conducted the most business and “wicked” is the servant who didn’t at all.

This parable can easily be interpreted about money, particularly if we fail to consider Bailey’s insight about the word diepragmateusanto. But in light of this word, the minas the servants gained should be seen as how much business they conducted in. Because it’s not hard to imagine that first servant getting lucky one day and selling to a rich man. Perhaps he made ten minas all in one transaction while the second servant made only five minas but conducting business over many weeks. In this case, the latter servant - the one who only made five minas but conducted more overall business - is more “faithful.” If diepragmateusanto is to be interpreted as Bailey suggests, the minas should then represent business conducted.

But why did the “wicked” servant make such difficult accusations toward his master, calling him, essentially, a thief? This question is more troubling if we assume the master is Christ. With professor Bailey’s help, to that question (and more) I will turn to next.