Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Luke 19: The Gospel According to Gordon Gekko

Jesus, as every Sunday school student knows, often teaches in parables, homely little object lessons designed--we assume--to make his revolutionary teachings easier to understand.

Conventional wisdom, then, suggests that the meaning of Jesus's parables is transparent. Thus the story of the prodigal son is about forgiveness and parental love. And the story of Lazarus and the rich man is about the blessedness of poverty and the dangers of wealth. And the story of the lost sheep is about how Jesus pays special attention to those who are most in need.

However, not all Jesus's parables are so simple to decipher. Indeed, as I've mentioned in a previous post, Mark's Jesus describes parables as concealing meaning rather than revealing it: speaking to his disciples, he says, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand'" (Mark 4:11-12).

Said differently, the int-erpretation of Jesus's parables may not always be obvious--or even readily available. And some times, these odd stories seem to promote messages that are ethically dubious.

Many of the most difficult parables come in the gospel of Luke. Take, as just one example, Luke 19, commonly known as the parable of the talents, or the parable of the pounds. This is a financial fable in a gospel whose Jesus is supposedly devoted to those who are least financially able--the poor and outcast. And it is a troubling tale to read in times of economic hardship like our own.

In it, Jesus tells the story of a nobleman who leaves his home to seek "royal power" in a foreign land (19:12). In his absence, he leaves ten of his servants with a set amount of money, telling them to "do business with these until I come back" (19:13). When he gets back, he finds that some of his servants have invested the money and produced a return; a first multiplies the principle by ten, and a second multiplies it by five. These men are rewarded for their ambition with entire cities to govern.

However, a third servant merely returns the initial sum, saying, "Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow" (19:20). Though he protects his master's investment, this servant is punished, and his "pound" is given to the servant who produced the most capital.

For the standard reading of this parable, I turn--almost at random--to bible.org--whose authors understand Jesus's message in the following terms: "We should carefully note the outcome of faithful service, and of unfaithful service, in this parable. Faithful service led to increased responsibilities in the kingdom of heaven, and eternal joy in the presence of the Master, Jesus Christ. Unfaithful service led to condemnation, the removal of one’s stewardship, and an eternity of weeping and gnashing of teeth in outer darkness, away from the presence of our Lord."

Okay ... good effort, bible.org.

But is this parable really just about "faithful" versus "unfaithful" service? Is the third servant "unfaithful" because he saved his master's money? Perhaps this man merely misread the economic environment--if the nobleman were gone from August of 2009 and February of 2010, the third servant's conservative investment strategies would have bought him a huge bonus, right?

And is a tenfold return on investment really a sign of "faithfulness"--or "trustworthiness," in the NRSV translation? Couldn't it just as well be a sign of unscrupulous investing strategies? After all, Jesus does not tell us how the first and second servants thrived. In any economic climate, a ten-fold investment raises eyebrows. These are Bernie Madoff numbers here.

And it is possible, in first-century Palestine, that the first two servants resorted to usurious lending practices, charging ridiculous interest rates on loans. Indeed, they may have been the subprime barons of Samaria, for all we know. (Jesus passes no judgment on usurious lending in another parable in Luke 16:1-9.)

And why is trustworthiness read in financial terms? Indeed, it is Luke's Jesus who suggests that the poor are blessed, and who consigns rich men to hell simply for being rich (cf. Luke 16:19-31). And it is Jesus who claims, just chapters earlier, that "you cannot serve God and wealth" (16:13).

Further, why does the nobleman let stand the third servant's characterization of him as "a harsh man [who takes] what I did not deposit and [reaps] what I did not sow" (19:22)? Aren't we to assume that this departed nobleman is himself Jesus, who will leave shortly (in the crucifixion) only to return in judgment at the Parousia?

And doesn't it sound as if the moral of this troubling tale is not "faithfulness is rewarded," but "greed is good"? This sounds to me like the gospel of Gordon Gekko.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm completely off base here. I don't know why Jesus would advocate risky investments. I don't know why he would punish those who merely save their resources. But I do know that all of Jesus's parables do not have simple, straightforward meanings. And I do know that I often "listen" to his stories, though I do not "understand."


  1. Maybe you're reading the parable a little too literally. Parables come to us in layers, which is why they're usually disorienting at first. We're in David Lynch territory here, not...you know, Herbert Ross or Gary Marshall. If, as you suggest, parables are sometimes _intended_ to conceal, then it's worth asking what's being concealed here.

    The question for me is, What does this parable teach about the kingdom of God? I'd wager that what's being tweaked about the third servant here is his fear, his lack of creativity, his cowardice. And the reason? B/c he imagined a God that is harsh and exacting, instead of imagining a God who will reward risk-taking, independence of mind, courage, and shrewd pragmatism.

  2. Well, Patton ... I admit that may be the first time I've been accused of taking the Bible too literally. :) Your "kingdom of God" reading if the parable is much more creative--and believable--than the one I cherry-picked from bible.org.

    That being said, the irony for me remains. Luke's Jesus is the one most concerned with the blessedness of the poor. And yet here, Jesus's parabolic model for correct behavior--even if it is metaphorical--is shrewd financial speculation, or the acquisition of riches.

    I think you're right: the true meaning of the parable lies in its allegorical or anagogical levels, but the literal material is still striking--and perhaps even troubling--to me.

  3. It occurs to me that "troubling" is maybe one of the main reactions the parables are intended to provoke. I'd definitely not want to be offering a reading that is, well, untroubled. And indeed as I mull your post and our reactions to it, I find that I'm troubled by both your literalist (!) reading and my own. So that's good... :)

    I'm reminded here of Paul Ricoeur's famous notion that "the symbol gives rise to thought." When we're reading and reacting to parables, it's probably important to track the thoughts/feelings to which parables (as narrative symbols) give rise--that's where the meaning lies. That is, they are not just explications of theological concepts; they are themselves the concepts, which is why their meaning often seems veiled, hidden. To paraphrase Glen from "Raising Arizona," I guess that's why they call 'em "way homers"--b/c you only get 'em on the way home.


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