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Open Book: Looking again at the Parable of the Pounds

A rich man gave servants different amounts to invest.

NILS VON KALM puts forward the arguments for a different approach to the Parable of the Pounds found in Luke 19…

Melbourne, Australia

Read Luke 19:11-27

A rich man gave servants different amounts to invest.

An illustration from the Parable of the Pounds, showing the rich man and his servants. PICTURE: Christine Kohler/iStockphoto 

The Parable of the Pounds (Luke 19:11-27), also known as the Parable of the Talents, is known as Jesus’ teaching on using what God has given you to the best of your ability. It, and the corresponding passages in Matthew’s Gospel, has even been used as an example of investing money wisely in order to make a hefty return.

As Australian-based writer Jonathan Cornford explains it: 
There are generally two variants of interpretation of this parable:
1. We should use our ‘talents’ (that is, the gifts and abilities we have been endowed with) to serve God as best we can;
2. We should invest our money so that it is continually making a return. This is prudent ‘stewardship’ of the financial resources God has entrusted us with. Many have even gone so far as to argue that this teaching provides a Christian justification of capitalism.
Often these two interpretations come packaged together, and in both interpretations, the rich nobleman is Jesus, and we are the servants. Seems pretty straightforward doesn’t it? 

“What if we’ve got the interpretation of this parable (and that of the Parable of the Talents) all wrong? What if the hero of the story is not the one who invested his 10 pounds and made 10 more, but the one who wrapped it up in a piece of cloth and made nothing on it?”

This interpretation is such a given that it is taught in seminaries and preached from pulpits as ‘the’ way to interpret what Jesus is saying. As Cornford adds, the interpretation of the text has almost become as much an article of faith as the text itself.

But what if we’ve got the interpretation of this parable all wrong? What if the hero of the story is not the one who invested his 10 pounds and made 10 more, but the one who wrapped it up in a piece of cloth and made nothing on it?

Focusing on Luke’s version, we see some problems with the traditional interpretation. 

We should be wary of the traditional interpretation from what the very start of this parable does not state. Jesus starts most of his parables by saying, “The kingdom of God is like…”, but He doesn’t do that in this parable.

The next problem, that seems to be glaring, is the attitude of the nobleman when his servants are made to account for what they have done with the pounds entrusted to them. He agrees with the servant that he is a harsh man, and scolds him mercilessly for not putting the money in the bank and earning interest on it. 

Now, any good Jewish person would have known that the charging of interest was forbidden in the Torah (Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35-37 and Deuteronomy 23:19-20). Cornford adds that in Jesus’ time there was increasing landlessness among the poor and huge consolidations of land by the wealthy elite, all driven by debt. And then, earlier in Luke, Jesus commands His followers to go further than loaning without interest and to lend without expecting repayment (Luke 6:33-35). 

It just doesn’t make sense for Jesus to then turn around and scold the servant who wrapped his pounds up in cloth for not making interest.

If we look further at the response of the nobleman to the last slave, we see his actions as being totally unlike the Jesus we see in the rest of the Gospels. In saying that to all those who have, more will be given, Jesus is not talking about the Kingdom of God, but how the systems of the world work and how ruthless they are.

We see this at the beginning of the parable as well. We are told that the nobleman was hated by his people and that the people sent a delegation after him saying they didn’t want him to rule over them. Most Christians will see this as an allegory of Jesus being hated by His own, as is stated at the beginning of John’s Gospel (“He came to his own but his own did not receive him”). However, as Cornford states, “Jesus’ listeners would have known that this was exactly how Herod the Great rose to become king of Judaea, by appealing to Rome, against the opposition of his countrymen. Herod was remembered, not just in the gospel accounts, as a notoriously brutal and unpopular king.”

Considering these points, as well as the context in which the parable was given, can help us see the third slave as the hero of the story. He was the one who spoke truth to power and paid the price. This is, of course, exactly what Jesus did. We are even told that Jesus told them this parable as He was heading to Jerusalem, where He had said that that was where He was going to be killed.

The fact that this parable is told in Luke’s Gospel should also give us pause to think about its meaning and interpretation. Luke’s is the Gospel that most explicitly denounces wealth and its accumulation. For Jesus to then tell a parable about the apparent virtues of accumulating wealth (and by charging interest!) goes against everything else that Luke has Jesus teaching.

Jesus constantly warned against greed, which He said was idolatry. I have become convinced that this parable is an example of how we who live in an affluent, capitalist society where the profit motive is king, have been blinded to any interpretation that goes against a mindset of making more money.

While space prohibits me from delving into the detail of the parable as it appears in Matthew’s Gospel, the principles are largely the same. And this parable is also placed right near the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where those who have not given to the poor and hungry are judged most harshly.

Jesus’ use of parables showed the relevance of the kingdom of God to life in the here and now. He used images from the people’s daily life, like mustard seeds, fishing nets and yeast. Rather than interpret His parables through one lens, as always being about what God is like, the parables are diverse in the way they should be interpreted. By doing so, we will gain a deeper appreciation for who Jesus really is.



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